I graduated from High School in 1979 from Waterford Union High School in Waterford, Wisconsin, a small rural community between Chicago and Milwaukee. Many of the kids I went to school with were from farming families.
|Volunteer T-Shirt from Farm Aid 25|
Between the year I graduated from high school and 1985, the first year of the noted concert, Farm Aid, many in the U.S. lost or sold their farms. Their families moved to cities, or they sold all the land but their houses.
Why did this happen? The family farm was no longer profitable. Some of the kids my age went to school for agricultural science where they learned the techniques associated with improving agricultural yields. They ended up working not for their family, but for large agricultural organizations that were slowly taking over agriculture in the U.S. There is no doubt that the industrial approach to agriculture improved efficiency, but at what cost?
In 1987, shortly after Farm Aid, the UN published a report called, Our Common Future. Also referred to as the Brundtland Report, it was the first time that an international organization focused on long-term sustainability of the planet. In it, the report defined sustainable development as development that meets the needs of the present while considering future generations. The report also defined sustainability within the context of the three e’s: environment, economic development, and equity.
The report also highlighted concerns over the early stages of globalization. What was happening to resources, workers, flows of capital, etc. within the context of globalization was troubling. Food issues and hunger were highlighted.
|Pigs in a factory farm.|
No one could have anticipated the significant changes to food production since 1979, Farm Aid, or the publication of the Brundtland Report. We have factory-raised animals in this country that live their lives in tiny cages and that have a life that can only be imagined within the pages of Poe or Shelley. We have massive land holdings and co-ops managed by small numbers of international organizations that control the kinds of fertilizer, herbicide, etc that are applied to the land. The husbands of the land are not the farmers with long-term familial interests on the land, but corporations interested in short term profits and stockholders.
We also have a society that is highly divorced from the production of food. Worldwide, we are seeing urbanization trends and an abandonment of rural landscapes to an every-increasing corporatized food production system. The noted geographer John Fraser Hart wrote about this land use transformation in the American south in 2010.
The separation of us from our food supply system creates an environment where we are not in touch with our sources of food. Overall we do not care how our food is produced. We do not know how the animals were treated during life, how they were killed, how the food was handled. We do not care how the land was treated to grow crops and we do not care about additives or how crops are processed or who processes them.
Instead, we want easily available cheap food. We have the Food Network and food magazines that celebrate the variety of cheap food available to us. At the same time, we have The Biggest Loser and we have seen an increase in obesity, an epidemic of diabetes, and a proliferation of other food related problems, including the recall of tons of meat and outbreaks of diseases associated with poor handling of cantaloupe.
Last night at Hofstra University’s Day of Dialogue, I was introduced to another issue of concern regarding food production related to childhood farm labor. Currently, because of the changing face of agriculture, most children working in agriculture are not part of a family farm operation. Instead, they are often part of a globalized labor force that includes seasonal documented or undocumented workers. There are very few safety regulations for children engaged in agricultural labor.
|Agricultural landscape in America.|
Currently, the Department of Labor is seeking to change the labor laws to prevent children under 16 years of age from working in highly dangerous areas of agricultural operations such as handling pesticides and working in manure pits. The agricultural lobby is fighting this law by saying that it hurts the family farm by preventing farm kids from working on the farm. The truth is that there are exceptions that allow children of farm owners to conduct this work and the objections are a red herring to allow farms to continue to hire underage workers (often children of migratory documented or undocumented workers) in very dangerous farm enterprises.
The current child labor law is 40 years old and highly out of date in the modern industrialized farm system.