One of the questions facing those of us who wish to transform the food and agriculture system is who makes the first move? Many, if not most, people would agree that in an ideal world everyone would have access to healthy and affordable food, farmers and workers who grow our food will get paid enough to support themselves and their families (including having access to healthy food) as well as care for the land in a sustainable way, and that those who process food and other agricultural products can also do so in a way that promotes health and sustainability. Yet the reality is that globally, family farmers struggle to stay on their land, agricultural and other food workers routinely face dangerous working conditions and poverty wages, and over-sized corporate manufacturers, distributors, and retailers increasingly control our food and agriculture system.
If we want to change this, whose responsibility is it to make the first move? Who holds enough power to start the revolution? To change things will be an investment and part of that investment will be financial. It is not uncommon for a consumer to complain retailers are over-charging, for retailers to say their margins are low and they are being squeezed by manufacturers or distributors (those oft-forgotten key players in the food system who act as the go-between between manufacturers and retailers, engaged in buying, storing, and shipping products that eventually find their way to grocery stores, restaurants, universities, and hospitals). Manufacturers may claim if they pay the farmers more they can’t compete and will go out of business, and farmers in turn say they can’t pay farmworkers more since they can barely support themselves. These arguments are often valid, especially if you are the one who is taking the lead to create change and may indeed put yourself at a disadvantage if you voluntarily treat others in the supply chain fairly while competitors do not. To change the system will take an enormous effort involving all sectors.
And yet there are signs of hope at every step of the way. There are consumers who are willing to spend more money if they can be assured that extra money is going to support farmers, workers, and the environment. (The growing fair trade movement in the US and globally is evidence of this.) There are retailers willing to take a bold stand when they see something that is not right. (For example, Whole Foods, in response to a long-standing consumer campaign, last fall announced they would no longer carry any Hershey brands due to concerns about child labor in the supply chain, and Hershey responded by promising to finally clean up their cocoa supply chain.) There are companies willing to redirect profits to better the world rather than to make wealthy executives and shareholders richer. (For example, Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps has not only committed to sourcing ingredients fairly, but donates much of its profits to worthwhile causes.)
When companies do not take the initiative to do what is right, consumer and worker activist groups often step in to force change. For example, the Coalition of Immokolee Workers has been engaged in a long term fair food campaign and has successfully secured commitments from fast food chains, retailers, and food service companies to pay more for tomatoes with increased price passed directly along to farmworkers.
Knowing that true transformation will take all sectors working together, we are interested in learning from examples of initiatives that are working and discussing how we might expand on those models. In this blog series, we will look at examples of initiatives that are leading to real change in the food and agriculture system as well as initiatives that claim to do so but merely protect the status quo. Our hope is to create dialogue around actions that have the power to transform and bring together various sectors in the supply chain.
Posted on July 1, 2013