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.
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.
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.
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...).