Eliminating forced labor is a vital starting point for creating a just and sustainable food supply, but most of us don’t know much about the labor conditions involved in producing our food. It’s possible that the people who picked and processed some of the items on our dinner table worked in conditions that involved force, fraud, coercion, or debt bondage.
In a study published July 24 in Nature Food, researchers at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University and the University of Nottingham Rights Lab calculated the risk of forced labor across all aspects of the U.S. food supply, excluding seafood.
They found that the majority of forced labor risks came from animal-based proteins, processed fruits and vegetables, and discretionary foods—products such as sweeteners, coffee, wine, and beer. They also found that 62 percent of the risk of forced labor came from production or processing that occurs on U.S. soil.
“We often think of our risk here in the U.S. as coming from imports, but there’s plenty of risk that comes from our domestic food production as well,” said Jessica Decker Sparks, VG14, assistant professor at the Friedman School and senior author on the paper. “And that’s important because some of the more effective tools we use to try to eliminate or mitigate risk of forced labor in the U.S. are trade bans or trade sanctions. They’re focused on imports.”
News reports have highlighted documented incidents of forced labor in lower-income countries, particularly in the chocolate and coffee industries, but poverty, language barriers, and precarious immigration statuses can create populations that are just as vulnerable to exploitation in the U.S. as those overseas.
Visas for seasonal agricultural laborers, for example, tie workers to a single employer who they are often dependent on for housing and transportation. Workers don’t have a lot of options if an employer withholds pay or verbally, physically, or sexually abuses them.
By highlighting the aspects of our food supply where the risk of forced labor is high, both domestically and abroad, the researchers hope to provide legislators and companies with the information they need to take action to prevent these kinds of abuses.
“We’re talking about a systemic issue,” said Nicole Tichenor Blackstone, N12, NG16, assistant professor at the Friedman School and first and corresponding author on the paper. “This research is for policymakers to inform how we can change regulation, monitoring, and enforcement of forced labor prevention. It’s also for businesses and other supply chain actors who have the power to change conditions to mitigate risk and collaborate with workers to do so.”