Addressing Labor in Scaling Sustainable Agriculture


At the recent New York Times Food For Tomorrow Conference, experts from around the nation gathered to discuss, amongst other things, the use of antibiotics, the centralization of supply chains and personal nutrition. The role of labor, however, was overlooked. Labor is the base of our entire food system. A well-paid, fairly treated labor force marks the foundation of a truly sustainable and complete food system. 

In the game Jenga, when one starts removing the bottom pieces, the foundation of the tower becomes more vulnerable and will inevitably crash. In the food system, however, labor prospers when there is transparency and accountability from every player in the supply chain.

Not long ago, Immokalee, Florida - once known as ground zero of modern day slavery - housed one of the most vulnerable populations of farm labor in the United States. 

In response to growing abuses and human rights violation such as sexual harassment, wage theft, and modern-day slavery, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a group of tomato pickers from Immokalee, began demanding increased wages and better working conditions through their creation - the Fair Food Program (FFP). 

The FFP demands that large purchasers of tomatoes pay a penny-per-pund premium which is delivered to farm workers. The FFP also demands that these purchasers sign an agreement to only buy from farmers who follow a code of conduct. Farmers who break this code are banned from selling to participating purchasers. 

The FFP, which now has the participation of 12 major retailers, has created a 180 degree change in the fields by training workers on their rights and enforcing this code of conduct that eliminates abuses and exploitation. 

One of the 12 participants of the FFP is Wal-Mart and executive vice-president of grocery, Jack Sinclair, also spoke at the New York Times Food For Tomorrow Conference. 

While making decisions to scale, Sinclair, who represents the biggest purchaser of food in the world, considers how the “efficiency in one part of the chain is affecting the efficiency on another part of the chain.”  

Retailers at the top of the food supply chain have the power to challenge their suppliers to create products and provide the supporting information, per their consumers’ demands. 

Equal pressure and demand between the farmworker, farmer, retailer and consumer is at the base of the Fair Food Program.

Other major retailers like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, and fast food chains like Taco Bell, McDonald’s are all part of the FFP.  It’s the pressure on big agriculture that has created this model, which is considered the most progressive labor initiative in agriculture. As Michael Pollan stated at the conference “beating up on big agriculture has a value.”

For sustainability to go mainstream, companies of all scales should largely consider purchasing behavior that is led by the power of the market. The FFP has only succeeded by harnessing consumer demand. And as this demand for fair labor grows, agriculture will become truly sustainable.