Farmworkers Rights

Celebrating Fair Trade Month AND Non-GMO Month!

This October, we celebrate both Fair Trade Month and Non-GMO Month — highlighting two labels you may have seen on food packaging and want to know a bit more about. We believe that transparency in food production and labeling is essential. Shoppers have a right to know if the products they purchase exploit people and planet. Shoppers also have the right to clear on-package labeling, allowing them to find products that align more closely with their values. 

What is “Non-GMO Project Verified”?

GMOs (or genetically modified organisms) are living organisms whose genetic material has been artificially manipulated in a laboratory through genetic engineering, creating combinations of plant, animal, bacteria, and/or virus genes that do not occur in nature or through traditional breeding methods. Farmers were sold on the promise that GMOs would allow them to increase crop yields and reduce the use of pesticides and herbicides. Unfortunately, neither of these promises has proven true. Pesticide and herbicide use are at record highs and continue to climb.  In fact, 150 million additional pounds of herbicides are sprayed in the US each year in order to control the superweeds and superbugs that have developed resistance to the previous year’s chemical cocktails. Farmers have been forced to scale up to industrial levels of mono-crop production in order to remain profitable, squeezing out small diversified family farms. This has led to the collapse of many rural communities, while also diminishing biodiversity, destroying the health of our soil microbiome, causing significant loss of prescious topsoil, sending pollinator health into serious decline, and destroying water quality. These factors all have a significant impact on human health and the health of our planet. 

GMOs are present in over 70% of processed foods, and without a requirement for clear on-package labeling, thanks to the DARK Act, most consumers are unaware and unable to make an informed choice. Thanks to the third-party certification provided by the Non-GMO Project, we now have a way to determine with confidence which products are free from genetically modified organisms. A Non-GMO Project verification means that a product is compliant with the Non-GMO Project Standard, which includes stringent provisions for ingredient testing, traceability, and segregation.

 

What is “Fairtrade Certified”?

When we buy products from local farmers and producers, it’s relatively easy to ensure that they are produced in a way that supports the health of our environment and the wellbeing of people who labor to produce the food. When we’re purchasing products from afar, particularly those that simply don’t grow in our climate, like coffee, chocolate, and bananas, it can be more challenging to feel confident that these products reflect your values. These industries are typically dominated by profound social, environmental, and economic exploitation. These farmers and workers often live on less than $2 per day and lack access to essentials such as clean water, adequate shelter, and nutritious food. They must often endure unsafe working conditions and forced child labor.

When you see the Fairtrade Mark on a product, you know that farmers were paid at least the cost of production as well as an added Fairtrade Premium to invest in their businesses and communities. You know that child labor was banned and that measures were in place to protect the local environment and water supply. This label also ensures that workers’ rights were upheld and they have the choice to organize and advocate for themselves and their communities. You may notice that there are several different Fairtrade labels. If you’d like to learn more about the various Fairtrade certifications, click here. 

Joisy Tuanama Lumba, a member of the Huingoyacu community of ACOPAGRO Co-op, who grow the Fairtrade cacao in Equal Exchange chocolate chips

Why do we need such labels on food at all?

“Natural” food and “fair” food are big business these days and “greenwashing” has become a serious problem. By making unverified or uncertified claims about how their food is grown or processed (“self-made marketing claims”), some unscrupulous companies capitalize on shoppers’ willingness to pay a bit more for high-quality food that supports both people and planet. In response, there is a sea of different labels popping up with claims that sound really good, but have little backing them up.

So how does an informed shopper know what’s backed up and what’s empty words? Choosing well-recognized, independent, third-party seals on products is the best place to start. Seals like Non-GMO Project Verified and Fairtrade Certified are rigorous standards with meaningful rules that must be followed in order to receive the seal. This may actually require laboratory testing and supply chain transparency that allows for “identity preservation.” That typically requires the strict segregation of ingredients that are compliant with the standards from ingredients that are not.

Both the Non-GMO Project and Fairtrade America are nonprofits driven by their missions to change how food is made in order to better serve people and planet. The Non-GMO Project has been verifying products since 2010 and Fairtrade has been operating internationally since 1989. Both nonprofits publish their Standards on their websites to give shoppers transparency, first and foremost. It also helps to check which brands are using these labels: Brands both large and small voluntarily showcase this compliance by including either the Fairtrade or Non-GMO Project seal on their packaging (and in some cases, both seals). This provides further assurance to shoppers that it’s not a new fad but a sustainability tool used by brands to have a positive impact on people and planet.

Vineyard workers from the La Riojana co-operative in , Argentina

How do Fairtrade and the Non-GMO Project overlap?

The rigorous Fairtrade Standards ban the use of GMO seeds. This is partly because farmers may get stuck in an exploitative cycle when they rely on big agribusinesses for genetically modified seeds, rather than buying seeds from a variety of sources. Furthermore, Fairtrade and others in the field are not yet sure of the impact GMOs may have on the environment, which farmers rely on for their livelihoods.

What you can do?

Shop the labels! All month long, our Co-op will be highlighting products that are Fairtrade Certified and Non-GMO Project Verified. See the Weekly Sales display and the Member Deals display to find many of these items featured at a great price. Also, be sure to check out page 2 of the Addison Independent to find coupons to help take those discounts even deeper.  Support brands working towards a more sustainable future, and try something new!

A few of our favorite local Non-GMO Verified products

Want to learn more?

Get the scoop on Fairtrade. Sign up to receive Fairtrade America’s newsletter and follow them on social media — @FairtradeMarkUS

Follow the Butterfly with the Non-GMO Project. Check out their recipes and like them on social media — @NonGMOProject.

 

Exploring Farmworkers and Food Justice in Vermont

“There is this violent irony in our food system, in that the people who provide food security for all of us are the most likely to be food insecure themselves”. This was the heart of the message shared by University of Vermont Scholar Teresa Mares at a recent gathering at the Middlebury Unitarian Universalist Society. Mares was sharing insights gleaned during research for her book Life on the Other Border:  Farmworkers and Food Justice in Vermont, which aimed to shed light on the intersections of structural vulnerability and food insecurity experienced by migrant farmworkers in the northeastern borderlands of the United States. 

By the Numbers

Half of all workers on U.S. dairy farms are migrants and most are from Mexico. Losing them would double the total retail price of milk and cost our nation’s economy more than $32 billion. Across the U.S., Latinx farmworker food security occurs at 3-4 times the national average and  Mares recognized that there was a lack of data on food security among farmworkers in Vermont. Through her research, Mares was able to identify that there are approximately 1,000-1,200 Latinx migrant workers sustaining the Dairy Industry in Vermont. Most of these individuals are from Southern Mexico, but some also come from Central America. These workers are mostly men, but steady numbers of migrant women are also employed on Vermont’s dairy farms. They are concentrated most heavily in Franklin and Addison County.

Roughly 90% of these workers are undocumented, due in large part to the fact that dairy workers are ineligible to work seasonally on farms on an H2A Visa, as is common in Vermont’s apple industry. A whopping 68% of Vermont’s milk comes from dairies employing migrant laborers, representing annual sales of $320 million, translating to 43% of New England’s milk supply. These individuals pay taxes, yet they’re unlikely to have the opportunity to utilize any of the resources that their tax dollars support. They are not eligible for food assistance resources like 3-Squares VT or WIC unless they have a U.S. born child and even then, they must be able to endure the risk of exposure associated with the completion of a government form. 

After surveying 100 migrant farmworkers (75 men and 25 women) in Vermont, Mares discovered that 18% of the state’s migrant farmworkers experience food insecurity, meaning they lack reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. She also recognized that these numbers fail to paint a completely accurate picture of the data, as the standard USDA survey that is used to asses food security operates on the assumption that if one has money then one must have access healthy food. This assumption fails to account for the various other barriers that the average migrant farmworker experiences when trying to access healthy food. The reality for most migrant farmworkers is that access presents a greater challenge than financial instability. The survey also makes assumptions about what constitutes a household. Migrant farmworkers are often living in cramped quarters with many of their peers and are thus not representative of a typical household. Given this multitude of factors supported by information gathered during a series of in-depth interviews with farmworkers, Mares determined that 50% or more of farmworker households likely struggle with access to food. 

Challenges to Access

When working 70 or more hours per week without a day off, as is the reality for most migrant dairy workers, it can be rather difficult to find time to shop for groceries. Add to that the rural isolation, lack of transportation, and a crippling fear of deportation experienced by a migrant farmworker living in a predominantly white community located well within the 100-mile jurisdiction of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and it’s easy to understand why most members of this community (96%) rely on a third-party to access food. Mares also shared that there’s limited access to culturally-appropriate food in Vermont and a general lack of awareness of the kinds of food available in many stores. If you’ve never been able to enter a Vermont grocery store, you can only take your best guess as to what might be available when preparing your grocery list for a third-party shopper. Additionally, when you’re living in a household with 5 or more adults and you’re only able to shop every 15 days, there becomes a need for a significant amount of refrigerated storage space that is often lacking in the substandard housing where these individuals live. Mares expressed her strong belief that any strategies aimed at alleviating food insecurity among this group must be willing to travel to the farms and meet the farmworkers where they are. 

Resiliency

While it’s clear that Vermont’s Dairy Industry is heavily reliant on migrant farmworkers from a financial perspective, Mares challenged those in attendance to avoid measuring the worth of this hard-working group of individuals in economic terms. Their true value to our community runs much deeper. Mares’ book sheds light on the many ways that these individuals display resiliency and creativity in the face of a very challenging and isolated existence. They’re a culturally-rich group of people who often possess agricultural knowledge that far exceeds the actual farmwork that they’re employed to do and our failure to engage with them as members of our community results in a lost opportunity for valuable and meaningful cultural exchange.

Thanks to their brave willingness to organize and advocate for better working conditions, combined with the efforts of organizations such as the Huertas Project, the Addison Allies Network, Migrant Justice, and the Open Door Clinic, creative solutions are emerging to help support and foster increased resiliency among our migrant farmworker communities. We’re grateful to Teresa Mares for her willingness to shed light on this important issue and we’re grateful to the local organizations that are finding solutions to the challenges Mares outlined in her work. We look forward to exploring ways to support this effort. 

Co-op Board Member Louise Vojtisek, General Manager Glenn Lower, Author Teresa Mares, Education Coordinator Emily Landenberger, and Board Member Lynn Dunton.

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