Photo illustration by Breanna Denney/Nevada Sagebrush

Photo illustration by Breanna Denney/Nevada Sagebrush

By Jordan Russell

What have you eaten today?

If the answer is something along the lines of “that new Jack In The Box burger that has butter on top,” there are 10 different diets that would each have 10 different reasons why your choice was less than praiseworthy. Perhaps the most vocal group that would oppose such a dietary choice are proponents of vegetarianism and veganism.

While this group claims various benefits of eschewing animal products, ranging from personal health to a smaller carbon footprint, the most common argument is that going veg will make you an ethical eater.

PETA is known for its graphic depictions of the factory farm industry, promising that one person going vegetarian will save 100 animals per year from such a gruesome fate. The tactic is meant to appeal to our humanity while also helping us realize hamburgers and pizza come at the cost of animal lives. Not supporting these industries should, according to the argument, let us fill our plates with fresh produce and feast with a clean conscience.

There is one problem with this claim: there is no such thing as being an ethical eater.

Rejecting foods that are produced at the expense of animals raised and slaughtered in horrendous conditions is an important first step in spurning an unethical industry. However, exploitation and abuse also occur in the industries that produce fruits and vegetables.

The Central Valley of California – which begins approximately two hours southwest of Reno – is an agricultural powerhouse. According to a publication by the U.S. Geological Survey, this region produces “about 25 percent of the nation’s table food” and “11 percent of the total U.S. agricultural value.”

While farming communities in this region proudly proclaim to “feed the nation,” they largely ignore the exploitation and abuse of the farmworkers without whom their crops would wither and die. Groups such as Human Rights Watch have documented a myriad of injustices against this population, from earning less than minimum wage to working in fear of assault and harassment.

In 2012, HRW published a report titled “Cultivating Fear” that spotlighted female farmworkers’ vulnerability to sexual assault at the hands of workplace authority figures. HRW interviewed 52 farmworkers both male and female, nearly all of whom had experienced sexual assault. The report also cites a 2010 study by the National Center for Farmworker Health in which 150 female farmworkers in the Central Valley were interviewed, 80 percent of whom had experienced some form of sexual assault. Even worse, the rates at which these women report their assaults are less than the national average, as their frequently unauthorized legal status makes them afraid that involvement with law enforcement will lead to deportation.

Just two years before “Cultivating Fear” was published, HRW released another report titled “Fields of Peril.” According to the report, “hundreds of thousands of children under age 18 are working in agriculture in the United States.” These children, interviewed throughout agricultural fields in North Carolina, Texas, Florida and Michigan, must give up a steady education and spend their youth toiling alongside their parents. Because of a loophole in the U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act, they are not subject to the same standard of protection as youth working in other industries.

The appalling process of produce getting from the field to our plates is happening every day across America. As we work part-time jobs and stress about exams, just five hours away individuals several years our junior are working 12-hour days doing hard labor and worrying that they still aren’t making enough to help their family keep a roof over their heads.

Season after season, the 1.4 million people estimated by HRW to work in agriculture must carry on their work, going without financial stability or legal protection and enduring abuses at the hands of bosses who, if disobeyed, could take away even the shred of livelihood they struggle to maintain.

Though it seems our food is tainted with injustice wherever we look, all is not lost. We can still work toward becoming ethical eaters.

Moving to a farm and growing everything you consume is impractical, just as buying only locally-sourced organic food can stress a college budget. However, we can educate ourselves about where food comes from and use that information to make informed decisions. We can support legislation that will provide a path to citizenship, helping to ensure that current farmworkers do not have to fear legal repercussions when reporting abuse. We can pressure our government to reform existing legislation that allows the semi-regulated employment of children as young as 10.

These solutions are not easy and they will not produce overnight changes, but if we truly want to walk out of a grocery store or restaurant with a clean conscience we must work to be part of the solution rather than ignore the problem.

Jordan Russell studies political science. She can be reached at jrussell@sagebrush.unr.edu and on Twitter @TheSagebrush.