This weekend marks the opening of Food. Inc, a film about the food industry in North America. Early reviews describe it as shocking and life-changing, revealing aspects of food production that most people are blissfully unaware of.
We are encouraged to know where our food comes from, and mostly that means local food. Know your farmer; know what’s in season; eat organic, sustainably produced food. And be willing to pay for it.
But as much as we can all sing local until the cows come home, much of the western world still relies on majority world countries to supply our foodstuffs. And we want it cheap.
The BBC 3 series Blood, Sweat and Takeaways, which ran over the past four weeks, followed 6 young British people (who were all accustomed to eating cheap junk food) as they travelled across southeast Asia, working in factories and rice fields to find out the human cost of their cheap food.
The 6 Brits try their hands working at a tuna factory in Indonesia cleaning and gutting fish; a prawn farm (where they spend their days rebuilding a mud levee to keep the prawns from being washed away in a storm); and a prawn factory where some of them are fired for not working fast enough. During the first two episodes they stay in the homes of factory workers, and are appalled by the living conditions and outdoor toilets. They can never keep up with the local workers and are often embarrassed when a job they’ve been assigned has to be assisted or redone by locals.
In episode 3 they move on to rural Thailand to work in a rice paddy and must survive on the same wages a Thai rice worker would receive. Because they cannot work fast enough, their wages are docked and they fall behind on their rent, going hungry at one point because they have no money. From there they work in a rice factory bagging and sorting the grain. In the final episode they follow the migrant farm workers to Bangkok looking for seasonal work. They end up in a slum, cleaning fish, and then in a chicken processing plant.
Through all of this, most of the Brits are whiny and spoiled, often refusing to do the work. Only one of the 3 men, who is a farmer back in the UK, digs in and takes on any dirty job he is given, from the backbreaking work of planting rice, to gutting fish and then hosing down the hut and sleeping in the same space. Another of the men spent the Bangkok portion of the series in hospital – days of standing in dirty muddy water on the prawn farm had caused a skin infection (something these farm workers get regularly). He was told that if he did not recieve antibiotics immediately, he would risk needing to have both legs amputated.
Ironically, the swank hospital room he stayed in (undoubtedly on BBC’s dime – reality show participants generally sign waivers, but potential amputation garners lush accommodations) was twice the size of one of the dorm rooms where the Bangkok factory workers live.
The series was a follow-up to a similar series aired last year called Blood, Sweat and T-Shirts, meant to show Westerners where their cheap clothing comes from. While in the West we spend a lot of time talking about animal rights and supporting local farmers, we often forget about the human cost related to cheap food. In Bangkok the group visits the infamous red light district and discovers that most of the female sex workers come from the rural rice growing region, and that they’re only working in the sex trade because their families cannot make enough money to survive by growing the cheap rice that is exported to the West.
It’s a side of the food industry that we seldom consider.
The West’s demand for cheap food has created these situations and terrible conditions – these people live like this, working like robots for long hours with very little pay, so that we may have cheap tuna, prawns, rice and chicken. And before you say that these are things you never eat, think again. Even if you eat well, you probably eat Thai rice. The chicken processed in that Bangkok factory makes its way into processed food meals all over the Western world (and probably isn’t even labelled as such, since the final product is usually assembled elsewhere, thus it doesn’t bear a country of origin label from Thailand, but the UK or the US where the finished product is made).
The reaction to this is usually a horrified decision to “eat local”. Not wanting to be a part of industries that include factory farming or low-wage labour is a reasonable choice. But a boycott of these products by the Western world would mean devastation for the rice farmers, tuna fishermen, and factory workers who need these jobs to survive. Even in bad economic times, few of us in the West are at risk of starvation. Few of us are kept apart from our families because of the need to work just to stay alive. But a decrease in the demand for cheap tuna means workers in Indonesia will go hungry. A boycott on Thai rice in Canada might mean even more young women are forced into prostitution to support their families back on the farm.
It’s the side of “eat local” that we never think about.
In the follow-up on the series, the most profound feedback came from the young farmer. He had been a trooper through the show, unafraid of getting dirty or stinky. But he had come into the project with a strong “support local” attitude. He believed in supporting British farmers, buying British products, but the realization that this attitude would hurt people across the world seems to have thrown him for a loop.
The young man with the infection made the decision to buy fair trade products as much as possible. The series shows him chasing down people in his local supermarket, chastising them for not buying fair trade bananas. Another show participant has started writing letters to various media to attract more attention to the issues.
It’s not an easy route to navigate – to determine how we feel about this issue and then make an effort towards change. Buying fair trade products (or demanding they be available – can’t buy ‘em if you can’t get ‘em) is the best place to start. Supporting micro-lenders like Kiva can also help those underpaid workers become entrepreneurs.
Boycotting cheap imported food in favour of only eating locally isn’t necessarily the answer. Food is made by people, wherever it may come from. We need to put names and faces and families to the food we eat, whether it’s an Ontario farmer or a Thai rice worker, or an Indonesian fisherman. We need to encourage fair trade products – and be willing to spend more for them to ensure workers get a fair wage and the environment (and the animals) are treated humanely.
But most importantly, we need to get out of our little bubbles and think about – and make an effort to learn – where all of our food comes from, and be concerned about all of it, even the stuff from the other side of the world.