Is the global food industry ethical?

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At least three times a day, 365 days a year, people in western society are able to access food at ease through a simple trip to the kitchen, while 25 000 times a day, or 9 125 000 times a year, a person dies of hunger in the developing world, as estimated by the United Nations. A single ray of light, this stark statistic shines deeply into the darkened practices of the global food industry. In this industry, not only is unequal food distribution plaguing hungry nations, but its heavy dependence on agricultural chemicals is harming ecosystems and human health. Moreover, the industry employs slave-like labour in impoverished nations to export crops to wealthier countries; through this crippled system, western society thrives on an abundance of nutrients, needing to care little about the industry’s practices. In a current system with unfair distribution, heavy chemical dependency, and a lack of concern for human rights, the global food industry is blatantly unethical.

Due to an unfair distribution of global food resources, the “world’s appalling burden of famine and malnutrition” (Goldsmith, “Loss of Land and Food to Plantations”) exists as one billion malnourished people, estimated by the World Health Organization. But most appallingly, the WHO also estimates that the global food industry produces enough nutrition for 11.5 billion people, yet there are only 7 billion people on Earth, meaning that one in 7 people are hungry when everyone can be fed. This is due to the growth of cash crops in developing countries, a practice that depletes the developing world of nutrition while providing the developed world with an overabundance of food. A cash crop is a crop grown for export and profit. In Africa, a continent where famine and poverty is prevalent, agriculture is based on cash crops. The nation of Senegal uses 50% of all cultivated lands for groundnuts, exporting them to western processing firms, while on the East African island of Mauritius, 90% of cultivated land is used for sugar cane. As land is dominated by these crops, there is less food grown for domestic consumption, and often, food must be imported. Of most nations in Africa, the growth of cash crops, such as tea, coffee, groundnuts, sugarcane, cotton, and cocoa, dominate the economy as well. However, these nations are “at mercy of fluctuation in the world marked for their cash crops” (Helman, 62). In other words, heavy dependency on a few crops for export will prompt economic collapse and famine if foreign demand lessens. In a paradoxical manner, food from the hands of the developing world is hoarded into the mouth of wealthier nations.

Even though unequal food distribution accounts as the main cause of hunger in the world, a myth in industrial farming believes that producing more crops, using mass amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, will solve the world’s problems; however, using these chemicals is biologically destructive to human health and the environment. In 2007, the Environmental Protection Agency estimated that 877 million pounds of pesticides were used in the United States alone. From that number was 180 million pounds herbicides, twice the amount used six years previous. Although it may be convenient for farms to use pesticides, they pose extreme health problems to farm workers and consumers. One type of chemical, organophosphates, have been linked to cancer, systemic poisoning, attention deficit disorder, and even an “increased number of abnormal neonatal reflexes” (“Iron Status and Neurobehavioral Development of Premature Infants”). Organophosphates have great potential to harm unborn children, causing birth defects that can even be detected through movements in the womb. In addition, pesticides kill beneficial insects, birds, earthworms, and fish when they leach into the water. Moreover, pesticides can destroy nutrient-recycling microbes in the soil, “leaving [the soil] lifeless” (Davies, 30). Although pesticides may kill the target pest they can deplete the ecosystem of vital bacteria and fungi that promote soil health. From microbes to humans, pesticides are dangerous chemicals too wildly used in agriculture.

On the other hand, industrial fertilizers seem to offset the effects of pesticides and allow the growth of organisms, though they still disturb ecological balance between species. For example, common nitrogen based fertilizers applied to farmland often runoff into wetlands due to the rain and cause eutrophication, the excess growth of algae. The algae consume most of the oxygen in the water and “suffocates fish and other aquatic organisms” (Ran, “The Secret Lives of Fungi”), making the entire ecosystem “suffer”, dominating against other organisms and decreasing biodiversity. Besides lakes or ponds, chemical fertilizers also leach into ground water, and with low but frequent exposure of nitrate based fertilizers in drinking water, it can cause bladder or gastrointestinal cancer in people. A staple of industrialized farming, fertilizers may yield abundant crop growth but also harms human and environmental health.

Unlike the agricultural health and environmental issues that can be seen and experienced firsthand in Western society, the widespread practice of exploiting labourers in the food industry can be hidden in the developing world. Extracting raw materials such as sugar, coffee beans, or tea, are labour intensive jobs that are done in poorer nations to cut the cost of labour. However, many developing countries do not have human rights laws or even a strong government to enforce them, which leads to mass exploitation of civilians and farm workers.

In Cambodia, the market is ripe for foreign companies to capitalize on its sugar cane production. The EBA treaty, or the European Unions’ Everything But Guns treaty, allows for duty and quota free trading between Cambodia and Asia, meaning that “sweet-toothed Western consumers could be sponsoring violent evictions … and human rights abuses with every spoonful” (Campbell, “The bitter taste of Cambodian sugar”). In other words, because of Cambodia’s corrupt government, and ignorance of Western companies, sugar imported from Cambodia could have been grown on illegally seized land and deforested areas. According to the Bridges across Cambodia organization, rural Cambodian farmer have experienced arrests, harassments, poisonings of local water, and were unrightfully seized of their land because of the development of a sugar cane plantation. “Driven into destitution and severe food insecurity” without any compensation, the loss of land for farmer meant the loss of both a home and a livelihood for his entire family. Regardless of human rights abuse, Tate and Lyle, a multimillion-dollar sugar processing company, has contracted with Cambodian sugar providers known to have violated human rights. Tate and Lyle provide food additives to international food companies and is the producer of Spleda, a popular sweetener sold throughout North America. Though oceans apart, a packet of sugar in North America and be closely connected to the unethical treatment of farmers in Cambodian.

Venturing deeper into the exploitative acts of the food industry, both slave and child labour has been notoriously used in two of its sweetest business: sugar and chocolate. The sugar industry is has been called “the enterprise that makes the most use of slave labour” by “Centro de Midia Independente”, a Brazilian Magazine. In many South American countries sugar cane is a labour intensive cash crop. In order to maximize profits, companies often violate workers’ rights, forcing them to work in hazardous condition, with long hours, little or no pay, and no access health care. The increasing demand for sugar has surfaced more cases of human rights abuse; in Brazil alone, sixteen cases of abuse were reported in 2009 in sugar cane fields. In the chocolate business, child labor, and often slavery, has increased in Western Africa because of the decreased price of cocoa. The West Africa nation of Cote d’Ivoire accounts for 40% of world’s cocoa production by itself, and combined with the other countries, produces 75% of the crop for the world. But in Cote d’Ivoire, The US Department of State estimates over 109 000 children work in child labour with 10 000 of them being victims of human trafficking. The children face cruel treatment and are “robbed of their freedom”, as stated by The US Department of State, unable to go to school, play, or refuse physical labour. Child labour is so atrocious in West Africa that one labourer said that “when people [ate] chocolate, they [were] eating [his] flesh” (“Slavery in the Chocolate Industry”). Much of the cocoa produced under child labour have been sourced to major chocolate companies such as Hershey’s, Nestle, and Cadbury; hence, when people buy chocolate from those common brands, they are supporting child labour. Unfortunately, neither of major chocolate producers have guaranteed their chocolate to be child labour free or planned to use fair trade. As a result of human rights neglect, child labour and slave labour are still practiced in the food industry.
As a result of consumer ignorance, the food industry has recklessly used child labour, abused human rights, damaged the health biological species, and caused famine in the third world. With only “some hope” (Campbell, “The bitter taste of Cambodian sugar”) that the industry will “pick up the slack” to change its destructive, immoral ways, the responsibility to create a fair food economy falls on the shoulders of the government and the general public. Like any industry, the food business aims to maximize production and increase profits, and has little care of its social or environmental impacts. But with a forever growing human population that yearns for more and more resources, the unethical ways of the global food industry must be ended in order to stop word wide hunger, biological destruction, and human rights violations.





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