Thursday, September 22, 2005

Roundup, ready

"Roundup, ready" is an occasional feature of Bitter Greens Journal. Named in honor of Monsanto's famed line of seeds genetically engineered to withstand its herbicide Roundup, this feature will give a brief overview of recent news, trends, and topics in the food-politics world. Each of them is a candidate for expansion in the days and weeks to come.

Update: Public outcry forces a respite for organic standards
The Organic Consumers Association announced today that the Senate backed off, for now, from tweaking organic standards to please large industrial processors. The group states:
Over the past 72 hours, Organic Consumers Association network members have deluged the U.S. Senate with 35,000 emails and 10,000 telephone calls. Thank you for your support. This nearly unprecedented grassroots upsurge has temporarily rattled Congress and the industry, delaying the initial Sneak Attack in the Senate on organic standards, resulting in a compromise amendment September 21 calling for “further study of the issue."

The OCA warns, however, that "another, possibly even more serious, Sneak Attack" is brewing in the House/Senate Conference Committee." Check out its latest missive on the issue here.

Organically groan: working conditions on California's organic farms
While it's important to preserve the organic label's integrity in the supermarket shelf, it's even more important to interrogate what it means in the field. Bitter Greens Journal recently became aware of an interesting study published in the Winter-Spring 2005 edition of the University of California-Davis' Sustainable Agriculture Newsletter.

Authored by Aimee Shreck, Christy Getz, and Gail Feenstra, the study examines the attitudes of California organic growers toward farm labor. The results make melancholy reading.

The authors point out that:
A common misperception among farmers and consumers is that organic certification already addresses working conditions for farmworkers, and that because organic agriculture rules forbid many toxic pesticides, it is often assumed that organic is “better” for farmworkers than conventional agriculture.

U.S. organic accreditation standards have no work-place conditions stipulations, the authors write. And given the defensive posture that the organic movement finds itself taking viz. industry, it's hard to imagine that changing any time soon (see above).

But the study doesn't paint a picture of mega-farms shamelessly exploiting workers. The authors sent their survey to 500 organic farmers; 188 returned them. Here's how the authors describe their respondents:
Like most organic farmers in California, the majority of the farmers responding to our survey operate at a small-scale in terms of area farmed and annual sales. Almost three-quarters (73.8 %) of respondents farm 50 acres or less, and 64 % of the farms reported less than $50,000 in annual sales...Two-thirds of the farmers responding hire workers in addition to their families at least part of the year.

I can tell you from experience that farming at that scale throws off little spare income for worker benefits; I'm surprised that such a high percentage can afford to hire help. That they can illustrates the relative abundance of cheap immigrant labor in California (although, as I reported reported recently, the cheap pool of labor to which California vegetable growers have grown addicted may be drying up.)

Not surprisingly, there's little support among this hard-scrabble lot for adding a workers' rights amendment to organic standards, the authors report. Here's a key sentence:
Most employers in the study do not (and perceive that they cannot afford to) provide things like living wages and health insurance. Indeed, many small-scale farmers like those who participated in this study do not provide insurance for themselves.

Nor, evidently, is their strong support for the right of collective bargaining, a right agricultural workers won in California some 30 years ago. Fully 40 percent of respondents told the authors they "strongly disagree" that ag workers should have the right to unionize. Amazing.

The report really ends up being as much about the sad state of organic farming as it is about labor conditions in the field. As corporations such as Kraft and Dean Foods rush into organic food to exploit its 20 percent compounded annual growth rate in the retail market, farmers--even in the California, land of Berkeley and Alice Waters, the promised land of organic ag--are languishing.

"Our findings question expectations that organic agriculture systems necessarily foster social, or even economic sustainability for most farmers and farmworkers involved," the authors declare. "Indeed, many farmers themselves forgo the kinds of employment benefits available to workers in most other sectors."

Their conclusion seems spot-on:
We suggest that to create production conditions that are favorable to a broader conception of social justice, change is needed in the entire food system, not just at the point of production. Indeed, to move beyond the silence about labor within the sustainable agriculture and organic communities, we must situate these issues in the context of the entire food chain (production, processing, distribution and consumption).

Wal-Mart invades Guatemala, Chili's does the Middle East
In the West, overall food sales have stagnated, growing at about the same anemic rate as the population. That has made multinational food corporations scramble to keep profits growing at a rate that please their investors.

One strategy has been to move into organic foods, sales of which, as stated above, are growing at a 20 percent annual clip. The results of that trend have been well-documented by the Organic Consumers Association.

The other major strategy has been to expand to the global south, where traditional food customs largely hold out. The dominance of small, informal marketing networks in places like Guatemala are seen as an "opportunity" by corporate strategists seeking high returns on invested capital. This post, from way back in March, analyzes that phenomenon.

Thus Wal-Mart, which relies increasingly on grocery sales, has conquered Mexico, establishing itself in less than 10 years as the nation's largest employer and number-one grocer. And now, like Cortez himself, it's gazing south to Guatemala.

Meanwhile, Brinker Inc. owner of several dreadful restaurant chains including Chili's, has announced it's moving into "Latin America, the Middle East and eventually China and India." The company hopes eventually to have 40 percent of its total stores in those places.

I wish both corporations a hostile and disastrous reception in their adopted new homes.


Blogger Paul Hue said...

I predict that as WalMart and Chili's suceed in Guatamala and Mexico, so will the overall economies there, including average incomes and other measures of prosperity. Walmat and Chili's represent solid mediocrity, which means a huge step up for most of the people of Guatamala and Mexico. The captains of those unappealing companies have judged Guatamala and Mexico as having finally achieved enough social stability and economic growth to warrent investments. This is no small achievement, in my view.

9/23/2005 10:32:00 AM  
Blogger Paul Hue said...

After five years of vainly waiting for a decent locally owned, one-of-a-kind restaurant-bar to open in my Detroit suburban area, I finally have a place to get a Guiness, have a spinach salad, and interact with strangers in a social mood: a Chicago Uno's chain opened yesterday. I consider this a step up from Applebees, Chilis, and 15 similar establishments.

My area has dozens of locally owned, one-of-a-kind restaurants and restaurant-bars, but they all SUCK. Just as most chains suck, so do most small businesses. Maybe now that Unos is around, a local person might create something cool... though of course now costs have risen. If so, the locals (myself included) had their chance. And all anybody created was garbage.

I discussed this very topic last night at Uno's, with a buddy, as we drank Guiness and ate a pizza that was better than anything offered by any nearby locally own places that I would have prefered to have supported, if the owners catered to people who care about their colons.

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