Comedian Stephen Colbert made news when he testified last Friday before a Congressional subcommittee in support of migrant farm workers rights. Some representatives took issue with his choice to appear in character as the blustering conservative commentator he plays on his Comedy Central show The Colbert Report, but it was also noted that his appearance gave the hearing much more exposure than it would have had otherwise.
On his show, Colbert assumes a persona patterned after commentators such as Bill O’Reilly in order to skewer the illogical and excessive rhetoric that often takes the place of balanced inquiry and analysis on news shows. Although much of his testimony was meant as satire, he did finish on a sincere note. When asked why he had taken up this cause he stated bluntly, “Because migrant workers suffer and have no rights.”
He mentions the United Farm Worker’s “Take our Jobs” campaign, which he participated in for a day, working alongside migrant workers in Iowa packing beans and corn. UFW initiated the “Take Our Jobs” campaign in response to accusations that undocumented migrant field workers are exacerbating the unemployment rate in America. They distributed applications and invited any legal, unemployed American citizen to replace them in the fields. Arturo Rodriguez, the president of UFW, reported to Congress that while he convinced 8,000 people to apply, only 7 actually completed the process and accepted the job. After describing the difficult working conditions he witnessed, Colbert declared, with a note of sarcasm, “this brief experience gave me some small understanding why so few Americans are clamoring to begin an exciting career as seasonal migrant field worker.”
Colbert went on to note that 84,000 acres of production and 22,000 farm jobs have moved to Mexico, leaving a million acres of US farmland barren due to lack of available labor. It’s clear that even with the unemployment rate approaching 10%, most people aren’t eager to start picking their own produce.
This trend is disturbing, but not unexpected to anyone who’s been paying attention to the degradation of agriculture in America. In 1900, over 50% of Americans were involved in agriculture. In 2000, that number was less than 1%, and the average age of a farmer was approaching 60. This decline is caused partly by the outsourcing of food production to other countries, and partly by the increased use of technology in the field, which allows one farmer to produce more food with less labor.
Producing more food with less labor might seem like a good thing. However, as a result of increased mechanization, modern industrial farm work isn’t just hard; it’s dangerous. A study by Texas A&M University found that the rate of fatalities in agriculture is 22.7 per 100,000, greater than construction and transportation, and second only to mining. The study also noted that these figures only take into account workers 16 and older, leaving out over 650,000 minors who work in agriculture. Also, since an estimated 50% of farm workers are undocumented immigrants, it’s likely that many deaths go unreported.
The rate of injury in agriculture is also commonly believed to be higher than most other sectors, however various factors make it difficult to collect accurate data. One study noted that “This problem of incomplete reporting is further complicated by the reluctance of many hired farm workers, especially those not authorized to work in the U.S., to report injuries to anyone in authority.” (https://donvillarejo.github.io/publications.html) The study noted that many undocumented workers calculate the risk of lost income against the potential health hazard of not reporting an injury and continuing to work untreated.
The high rate of injury and fatality is due primarily to untrained and overworked laborers working with heavy machinery they are ill equipped to operate. According to the National Ag Safety Database, the three leading causes of death on farms are machinery, motor vehicles and electrocution. In addition, farm workers are regularly subjected to heavy doses of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which have dangerous and potentially fatal side effects
It’s undoubtedly important to protect the rights of migrant farm workers. Their work feeds this country, and they deserve at least fair treatment and a living wage. However, it’s not enough to protect the rights of workers in an industry that is fundamentally flawed. We need to look deeper. The places where we grow our food shouldn’t be epicenters of disease and death. Farms shouldn’t be places we avoid for fear of getting poisoned, run over or electrocuted. Farms should be places we gather to nurture the best in our communities and ourselves.
We need to understand that just because we can grow food bigger, faster and cheaper than ever before, it doesn’t mean we should. By treating food like any other commodity, we ignore the relationship between food and health, food and family, food and community.
This transition back to community and home-based food production may take place whether we like it or not. Industrial agriculture depends on a steady supply of fossil fuel, which, at the rate we’re currently burning it, won’t last forever. Richard Heinberg, in an address to the E. F. Schumacher society, estimated that when fossil fuel reserves decline, it will take 50 million farmers to supply the food needs of this country. So if we want to eat, we need to make farming a more attractive career, and we need to teach farmers how to grow food without chemical fertilizers, pesticides and massive combines.
Industrial food isn’t good for the people who grow it or the people who eat it, and in the long run we won’t be able to sustain it. Buying organic food is one way to encourage an alternative, sustainable industry. When we buy organic we’re not just supporting our health and the health of our family. We’re supporting the health of the soil, the health of the ecosystem and the health of the farmers.