A response to ‘Toma-No’

Sean Sellers | Op-Ed Submission

“Done to death by a slanderous tongue was the Hero that here lies,” wrote Shakespeare in “Much Ado About Nothing”. The reference is apt in light of Richard Markel’s article (“I say tomato, you say toma-No,” Nov. 20).

The human rights crisis in Florida’s fields is urgent and appalling. Conditions range from poverty wages to extremes of forced labor. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a Florida-based farmworker organization, has assisted the Department of Justice in the prosecution of six farm labor slavery cases involving more than 1,000 workers since 1997—cases where workers have been chained, beaten, pistol-whipped, raped, and forced to pick tomatoes and other crops against their will for little or no pay.

The CIW’s Campaign for Fair Food represents the best systemic hope for eliminating modern-day slavery in Florida’s tomato fields by raising the harvesting wage floor and institutionalizing a voice for farm workers. The campaign has won unprecedented support for fundamental farm labor reforms from retail food industry leaders such as Bon Appétit with the goal of enlisting the market power of those companies to demand more humane labor standards from their Florida tomato suppliers, and deserves credit for taking such a clear stand against exploitation in its tomato supply chain.

Neatly sidestepping the moral issues associated with eating food potentially harvested by slaves, Markel responds with two faulty claims. First, he contends that the Campaign for Fair Food will dramatically increase food prices for consumers. A simple thought experiment debunks this hypothesis since a typical hamburger is served with less than a 10th of a pound of tomato. Accordingly, fairer wages for tomato pickers achieved through the campaign cost retailers such as Bon Appétit a negligible 10th of a penny per burger. Harvesters receive such a paltry share of the final retail price of a tomato that one could literally double their wages without affecting the price of a menu item by a single cent.

Second, Markel advances a patently false concern for the job security of tomato pickers themselves. Despite his implication to the contrary, farm workers are not foolish or childlike; they are capable of developing intelligent strategies to improve their livelihoods. Fortunately, we do not have to sit back and simply guess about the effects of the campaign in this realm. Over the past nine years—a period of time that has yielded agreements between the CIW and seven multibillion-dollar, multinational food retailers—not a single tomato picker has lost his or her job as a result of the CIW’s efforts.

Markel tries to pass off fantastic speculation about cause-and-effect relationships as the reasoned analysis of a business student. Perhaps he could have made up for his apparent lack of research with some basic truth telling: He simply does not want to have his menu options limited by basic issues of slavery and freedom.

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