A Modern Jungle

“In 1962 … agricultural workers in the United States were virtually powerless … growers routinely used vigilante violence and terror to prevent the ‘unionization of farm labor on any basis.’ [Carey] McWilliams uncovered the existence of a concentration camp near Salinas that was built to imprison farmworker union activists. One grower claimed that the camp was constructed ‘to hold strikers, but of course we won’t put white men in it, just Filipinos.’ McWilliams characterized the authority that agribusiness exerted in California as ‘Farm Fascism.’ Growers’ federations, backed by the banking interests that controlled much of California agriculture, exerted enormous control over state legislature and raked in tens of millions of dollars each year in federal subsidies. In contrast, farmworkers received no federal benefits and had no voice in Sacramento or in Washington, D.C.” ~ from The Human Cost of Food, page 357.


There is a black and white photograph on page seventy of The Human Cost of Food: Farmworkers’ Lives, Labor, and Advocacy, that I keep returning to. The book’s only image of farm animals, this single photo, despite the unhelpful brevity of its caption, conveys more information about the human role in animal agriculture than is even hinted at in the entirety of this anthology. It is the picture of two young boys, presumably the children of Mexican farmworkers in North Carolina. They are standing inside a turkey barn, surrounded by hundreds of encaged birds, on a floor whitened by the carnage of feathers. Dejection and discontent are etched with aching clarity on their young faces. It is a photograph that, no doubt unintentionally, encapsulates a suffering transcending any barrier of species. It is a wordless exemplification of the inseparability of oppressions, of why I am reading about farmworker issues to begin with.

Farmworker advocates lament the near extinction of the family farm, condemn the global devastation of contemporary agribusiness practices, and criticize the abuse and exploitation of human labor worldwide. The interests of individual farm animals, however, never make the priority list. Often they are disregarded completely. Some might argue that human rights are incomparably more important. To do so is to overlook the overlap in these struggles. The mistreatment of human workers and enslavement of animals are both rooted in disrespect for sentient life and an industry motivated solely by profit.

I recently re-read The Jungle, Upton Sinclair’s appalling depiction of the lives of workers in the Chicago meatpacking industry. The heart-wrenching storyline follows one immigrant laborer struggling to survive and support a family in the brutally unfair climate of the stockyards. And while the focus is on human misery, the thoroughly described plight of animals and perversity of the animal product industry has certainly turned the stomachs and stirred the consciences of countless readers.

Sinclair’s expose novel was written in 1906, long enough ago to seem safely historical. And while it is tempting to self-placate with the notion that those days of mercilessness are in the past, I know that improvements are only relative. Corporate corruption, racism, sexism, and the litany of other injustices against human and nonhuman animals detailed in Sinclair’s work persist today.

Yet these abuses are no longer exclusive to slaughterhouses, factories, and factory farms. As editors Thompson and Wiggins point out in their anthology’s introduction, “it is no stretch of the imagination to claim that the United States has its own sweatshop system in its fields and food production” (Thompson, 16). Indeed, the agribusiness powers that dictate the horrendous working conditions of a poultry plant ensure that laborers on cucumber farms suffer similar injustices.

In 2000, one unabashedly bigoted grower in North Carolina was quoted bragging that, “The North won the War on paper but we Confederates actually won because we kept our slaves. First we had sharecroppers, then tenant farmers and now we have Mexicans” (Thompson, 250).

While the corporations that stock our supermarkets with out-of-season produce are unlikely to voice such opinions, their business practices reveal a silent concurrence. Today “many of the power-holders in agriculture and commerce – including agribusiness owners, their lobbyists, special interest groups such as the Farm Bureau, and the politicians who respond to them – actively oppose even the most basic improvements to labor practices. Because of knee-jerk reactions to farm labor improvements, even the provision of bathrooms and drinking water in the fields is still a fighting matter (Thompson, 12). The Human Cost of Food is brimming with such examples of agribusiness’ simultaneous dependence upon and abuse of immigrant labor.

It comes as no surprise to me that an industry that callously objectifies the lives of sentient non-humans and the environment would similarly lack respect for the basic rights of the humans in its employ. Yet the extent of human labor abuse in non-animal agriculture is direr than I realized.

What does this mean for the animals enslaved within the inhuman monstrosity that is contemporary agribusiness? If the exploitation of millions of humans is not enough to provoke any genuine restructure of practice and policy, could the suffering of billions of farm animals ever be taken seriously?


2 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    So glad you’ve mentioned Carey McWilliams and Factories in the Field. It came out within two months of The Grapes of Wrath and later influenced Cesar Chavez. (So did McWilliams’s book on the Latino experience, North from Mexico, which came out in 1949.) As it turns out, McWilliams also knew Upton Sinclair and covered his extraordinary gubernatorial campaign in 1934. Your post has piqued my interest in The Human Cost of Food … thanks.

  2. 2

    nosmokes said,

    While I’m getting the vast majority of my food from local family farms, sources that
    I know personally and trust, We definately have a need for a *fair trade* cert for US pro-
    duced goods. I guess it used to be a union label tht performed this duty but I don’t bel-
    lieve it does any longer. And I say that with much regret as a long time union member.
    We in organized labor have not done a good job of education among the people that reaally needed orgainising and allowed ourselves to be corrupted by apathy and greed.
    It’s good to see that changing somewhat, as organized labor is still one of the best tools
    we have in the fight against corporatocracy.

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