What's So Unfair About How We Do Trade, Part 4: "Is Exploitation the Only Way?"

A look at some of the fallacies and mistaken responses many of us fall into when confronted with the reality of how much exploitation goes into the food we eat.

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 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?”



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.



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.”



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.”


* * * *


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.





“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


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Batman December 14, 2012 at 03:57 PM
If we would close the border it would end the exploitation of illegal aliens. American companies would have to hire American workers, and pay American wages and benefits.
Craig Maxwell December 14, 2012 at 06:34 PM
Hey, what's a hundred million people in seventy-five years? As Robespierre said, to make an omelette, you have to break a few eggs. Just give it a little more time. A worker's paradise is just around the corner.
Kevin George December 14, 2012 at 06:56 PM
"What is the harm with trying??" It's too late to go back to bed and pull the covers over my head..........Is it too early to start the weekend? I need a drink after that one.
No Bad Government December 14, 2012 at 08:22 PM
I have a solution. Just like the US has minimum age laws both Federally and by State, why don't the countries where the goods are produced govern their own countries and create minimum wage laws for the workers in those countries so they all have a living wage? Assumption 1 - The governments are corrupt and will somehow take the wages from the people in taxes (hmm sounds like....) Assumption 2 - If the wages go up, the Fair Trade Organizations won't make as much money and therefore be out of business Assumption 3 - The government even if mandating minimum wage laws don't have the ability to enforce them Assumption 4 - We have no proof Fair Trade even improves the lot of the farmers now, do we????? Folks, this is a problem with the individual countries to fix and even if the FT organizations pursuit is noble. no reason to bring our cities and states into it in any official capacity. By the way, isn't this is what the UN is for as terrible an organization as it is that we pump millions into each year.? As for communism, really Jason? Why don't you take a few months off and go live in Russia or China and observe how the regular folk live. No thanks, I will take democracy as corrupt as it has also become.
Things I Learned December 14, 2012 at 08:48 PM
Cue Honest La Mesan in 3...2...1....


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