In the past couple installments, we’ve taken a brief look at the horrendous amounts of exploitation that occurs in the industry of industrial corporate agriculture, or “factory farms”. These are the conditions that have inspired many to describe modern-day agribusiness as “21st century technology coupled with 19th century labor practices”.
All this abuse of our fellow humans, our sisters and brothers working in these fields, begs the question—is this the only way to get fruits and vegetables? By causing enormous numbers of human beings to suffer? Before dealing with this question (spoiler alert—no, it’s not the only way), I would like to touch on a few common, erroneous responses to the harsh reality of exploitation.
When confronted with the brutal truth behind where our fruits and vegetables come from, there are some very common responses to this information:
- THE “SCREW THEM” RESPONSE
The callous, indifferent response that says, “Oh well. That’s just the way the world works. Tough luck. Get used to it”. The response that says, “There is no alternative. This is just how economics works. If we have to feed thousands of human sacrifices into the machine of agribusiness in order to keep the machine running, that’s just the way it is. Who cares if these men, women and children picking my tomatoes will never know better conditions, for the rest of their lives?”
- THE “SCREW ME” RESPONSE
This response lies at the opposite extreme of the “Screw Them” posture. It is the reaction of those who, when realizing how much exploitation is a part of our economic system, become filled with guilt and self-loathing. Some folks assume that the answer is to just not buy and sell anything—to withdraw into the ascetic austerity of the modern-day monk and avoid consuming, period. To resort to nothing but dumpster-diving in order to survive. To condemn any form of purchase, sale, employment, work as irrevocably evil and rotten to the core, and to reject the very thought of ever buying anything again.
Personally, I’m not so sure that’s the best way to fight exploitation. After all, thousands of people die naturally every day, thus “dropping out of the system”. And “the system” continues to churn along, reproducing poverty and exploitation. And it always will, until we humans come together and work towards a different way of doing trade.
- THE “SCREW IT” RESPONSE
In the animated film based on the life of the Biblical character Moses, “Prince of Egypt”, a powerful scene is depicted in which Moses realizes what Pharaoh’s empire has done to the Israelite people—the massive genocide that took place. After he learns the truth of the suffering that has fueled his empire’s success, his adoptive mother confronts him. “Now you know the truth, love; now forget and be content. When the gods send you a blessing, you don’t ask why it was sent.”
Many people respond to the reality of the exploitation that is behind what we buy through flat-out denial. Like the ostrich with its head in the sand, they respond by refusing to look that reality in the eye. Or they deny the existence of that suffering—“this can’t possibly be true. There is no way the economic powers-that-be in this world would allow for something like this.” Or they see it firsthand, and choose to forget about it.
“Eat, drink, and be merry.”
- THE “SOVIET PARADISE” RESPONSE
Another common response to the reality of how much suffering exists in our current consumer economy is to romanticize the Soviet-style command economies of the past. To assume that we are left with only two choices—the exploitation that goes along with cutthroat capitalism, or the state-run Communist economies that we saw in the USSR and other members of the Communist bloc.
There’s just one problem with that—the Soviet system isn’t really much better. In fact, in many cases, it proved to be worse. At its worst, it involved even more poverty, hunger, exploitation, and suffering than what we’ve seen with capitalism. At its best, it still proved to be an enormously inefficient, inept, bureaucratic system. Just because we recognize that our current system of trade doesn’t work, doesn’t mean we need to go back to a previous historical model that also didn’t work.
A wise person once said: “When you are left with only two options…choose the third.”
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So back to the initial question—is there a more fair way to buy and sell fruits and vegetables?
Yes, there is. And many of the answers start right here, close to home.
FURTHER READING ON EXPLOITATION IN CORPORATE AGRICULTURE
“In the Strawberry Fields”
“The Human Cost of Food”
Book: “With These Hands: The Hidden World of Migrant Farmworkers Today”
By Daniel Rothenberg
Study on Indigenous Farmworkers