Forty-seven slaves work for me.
That was the jarring number provided to me by the website SlaveryFootprint.org, which asks a series of questions about what we own and buy to determine how many slaves have likely contributed to the electronics, clothing, medicines, and other things that are taking up space in our lives.
Among the questions was one about the food we eat. That’s because throughout the world, from shrimp farming in Southeast Asia, to harvesting sugarcane in Brazil, to picking tomatoes in Florida, slave labor is still shockingly common in the global food system. NPR recently highlighted this issue in a story about the U.S. State Department’s 2013 Trafficking in Persons Report, issued in June. The Report identified the use of slaves in the production of cocoa in the Ivory Coast, tea in Bangladesh, and shrimp in Thailand, among other locales.
When we think of human trafficking, our minds often travel to people who are exploited sexually. But human trafficking can take many forms, and among them is forced labor in the food industry. In the U.S., we have long imported the products of slavery and continue to do so through the international food market. Slave labor has become thoroughly entrenched in the production of certain commodity crops grown in Latin America. While certain regions are well known for using slave labor, no one really knows how widespread these conditions have become globally.
What can we, as consumers, do? First and foremost, we can buy locally produced food whenever possible. When we buy from small, local farms, we might pay a little bit more for a bunch of carrots or a pint of berries, but at least we can see the chain of production for ourselves. We can visit the farm, walk through the fields, meet the farmers, and see who’s actually doing the planting and picking.
We can also educate ourselves about the global food production system and do our best to spend our money on ethically sourced foods. The Food Empowerment Project spotlights slavery in the cocoa industry, and says that consumers should, “not buy any chocolate sourced from areas in West Africa where child slavery is the most pervasive.” They also advocate choosing organic whenever possible, shopping with care to minize support of corporations that violate human rights and joining a good Co-op or community-supported agriculture program.
It might feel as though we’re powerless in the face of such atrocities, but ignoring them won’t make them go away. And even though we can’t all unplug from the world and grow our own food, we do have the power to make small changes, become more informed consumers, and spread the word.
Photo: Travel Aficionado