Who remembers the No to the WTO Combo?
Food Issues Book Club - Stuffed and Starved, Chapter 2

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and/or my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

Stuffed and Starved, Chapter 2: A Rural Autopsy


Rural lands, so often romanticized by urban mythologies, are home to enormous strife and suffering.  During times of bad farming conditions it is all too common for desperate farmers to take their own lives, frequently by ingesting the highly toxic pesticides used on their farms.  The pain of watching their families struggle and their ancestors' labor of love fall to ruin is to much to bear, it is thought.  These deaths occur not only in poor developing countries but also in wealthy, developed nations such as Australia and the US.

After the death of a farmer, his family and community must figure out how to continue - a burden which is borne most often by women.  In some instances in India, farmland is handed to a farmer's brother after death, his wife and children treated as little more than property in the transaction.  Through India's efforts to rebrand itself, "the rural poor in India have become works of creative fiction," their plight brushed under the rug by way of statistical manipulation.

As in the US, poverty in India is driven by high levels of debt.  "Debt has its origins in the entrepreneurial impulse.  Urged towards cash crops by the government (and, as we shall see, the large seed companies), farmers adopt plants that they can buy and sell in the market."  Farmers' movements provide community and hope for farmers living in poverty, and as such may be saving some from suicide.  But of course they are not a complete answer.

In South Korea, trade agreements have made local farmers' lives difficult: after lifting restrictions on Australian beef imports, the government "knew that the price for cattle would fall... and so encouraged Korean farmers to make ends meet by upping the size of their herds."  Farmers took out loans to do so.  Ultimately small farmers were unable to keep up with the loans, and lost their land as a result.  At least one farmer's dramatic suicide, that of Lee Kyung Hae in front of a World Trade Organization meeting, has been attributed to this policy change.

Farmers' movements have also been met with deadly violence, particularly in the Global South.  "[W]hen farming groups and workers try to assert their rights collectively, they face the wrath of local police, hired guns and, at best, judicial apathy."  Far from being unreasonably demanding, these farmers are seeking a price that covers the cost of production for their crops, freedom from being literally worked to death in the fields, and the elimination of plantation-style slavery.

Poverty among farmers is a global crisis, and governments find it all too easy to point a finger at trade organizations like the WTO - conveniently forgetting that it was they, and not the farmers, who engaged those groups to start with.


As vegans we are too often lulled into a pleasant idea that, if our food is made of plants, no one suffered in its making.  Unfortunately this is rarely true.  Agricultural workers are some of the most abused people on the planet.  This has occasionally left me feeling like there is no food available that someone hasn't been tortured for.  Luckily I don't think that's entirely true - at least not yet.

I believe that the Fair Trade and Rainforest Alliance certifications really do mean something.  Food Empowerment Project can let you know how not to buy exploitation along with your chocolate.  And while "local" doesn't guarantee that workers are treated well, it's far more likely that they're treated like human beings by the small scale farmers that show up at farmer's markets and places like Hollygrove and Sankofa.

I don't know that there is a perfect answer, but we must do the best we can.  Whenever possible we should also support the farmers who are pushing back, such as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers' protest against Publix stores (for our Gulf Coast neighbors to the East), and the ongoing boycott of Driscoll's berries.  Do the best you can with the means you have, and tell food corporations how you feel about their practices whenever possible.  For instance, please join me in telling Whole Foods stores that they should stop buying Driscoll's berries until workers receive the pay raise they deserve!

And finally, please keep educating yourself: the movie Food Chains is a great place to start.  It's available on Nexflix instant, or for about ten bucks on iTunes (yeah, don't get me started on Apple's worker issues...  oppression is everywhere...).

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