Picture from Treehugger.comAt a recent talk at Harvard Kennedy School, John Mackey, Co-CEO of Whole Foods stated that the demand for locally sourced food is exploding. Authors like Michael Pollan and sites like Sustainable Table and Local Harvest, among many others promote the practice of buying organic food from local sources as a way to create a more sustainable food system than the one dominated by fast food restaurants and supermarkets. The environmental benefits to buying local organic food are clear: Buying local reduces the use of fossil fuels needed to bring the food to your plate. According to Food Routes, food travels on average 1,300 miles from farm to table; Buying organic reduces reliance on harmful chemical pesticides and other synthetic agricultural inputs.
Economically, buying local either by demanding it in your local stores, joining a CSA or shopping at local farmers markets often helps sustain smaller farms in your area, which have largely disappeared as a result of the rise of industrial agriculture. This also contributes to many health benefits by avoiding industrial animal production and consuming more fruits and vegetables. So what is the connection to trafficking?
My concern is that a sustainable food system should be about even more than the environmental, health and local economic factors that currently dominate the drive for locally sourced food. All of those factors deserve honest attention, and I personally believe the benefits of buying more local organic foods are sizable.
However, the current rationale behind buying local is not enough. Agricultural cases are a growing percentage of trafficking cases nationwide, and the State Department has listed agriculture as one of the primary industries in which trafficking occurs in the U.S. While many of these often cases involve large or industrial farms, it still affects local food sourcing.
Let's take the Aloun Farms case: Aloun Farms provides produce for local groceries, farmers markets and is intricately connected to the local community through events and food drives. According to an article in the Examiner, "Eliminating their products could potentially mean that local consumers will have no choice but purchase produce that is shipped here..." Yet the farm's owners, Alec and Mike Sou plead guilty to trafficking charges earlier this year and are now facing additional charges connected to the case.
Despite the illustration provided by this case, there is no conflict between the buy local movement and the anti-trafficking movement. In fact, hopefully, the buy local movement can serve as a check on labor practices in agricultural industry and the two movements can complement each other. If people are more aware of the source of their food, hopefully more attention will also be paid to the labor that helps bring that local food to their table because the risk of trafficking is local as well.
It was actually John Mackey's talk that inspired this post: if the demand for locally sourced food is exploding as he says it is, then I am sure more grocery chains and supermarkets will pick up on the trend. While this has many potential benefits, we also run the risk of becoming content with supermarkets telling us that the food is sourced locally and ending our concerns there. The increasing demand for locally sourced food should not be satisfied by the mere knowledge that the food is from a local farm: What are the labor practices of that farm? What are the environmental practices of that farm?
I am not accusing people fighting for a more sustainable food system of ignoring the labor concerns of agricultural workers. On the contrary, there is a lot of potential for the movement for more sustainable food systems to act as a preventive agent against slavery. As demand for local food grows, hopefully the stronger connection between consumers and farms will help lead to fewer victims in the agricultural sector.