A food activist just won a MacArthur “genius” award. Why that’s a big deal

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Five questions for Greg Asbed, a co-founder of the Coalition for Immokalee Workers, on the new standards changing labor abuses in the supply chain.

In 2008, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation awarded one of its prestigious fellowships—the so-called “genius” grant—to urban farmer Will Allen. The award, more commonly given to artists, public intellectuals, and scientific researchers, was big news, and a rare honor in the food world. It also turned out to be prophetic. In the years that followed, issues surrounding regional food systems, food access, and food insecurity—the challenges Allen addressed at his Milwaukee farm and educational center, Growing Power—went mainstream.

This week, when the MacArthur Foundation awarded its 24 fellows for 2017, the list included the first non-academic working on food system issues since Allen. It may be a sign of which food-related topic will go mainstream over the next ten years: labor standards in the supply chain.

In 2016, The New Food Economy named the launch of the Fair Food Program to its timeline of the 21st century’s major food milestones. View the complete timeline here.

In 1993, Greg Asbed co-founded the Coalition for Immokalee Workers (CIW), a workers’ rights organization that helped end systemic abuses—including human slavery—in Florida’s tomato fields. Over the years, he helped develop CIW’s standards into a broader framework called the Fair Food Program (FFP), signed on to by some of the biggest retailers and fast food chains in the world. 

More recently, Asbed worked to codify those standards into the Worker-Driven Responsibility Network (WSR), a model that helps weed out human rights violations across the supply chain. It works on what he calls the “two pillars” of worker participation and market-based enforcement. The program collaborates with workers to draft industry-specific standards, mandates a 24-hour complaint mechanism for employees, requires rigorous audits, and has corporate buyers sign binding legal agreements that require them to purchase only from suppliers who are in compliance with human rights.

As the MacArthur Foundation put it in its citation: “WSR is a bottom-up approach that ensures human rights are respected in the workplace; workers play a central role in establishing work condition standards and codes of conduct and have transparent channels for monitoring and enforcing those standards.”

Asbed and I spoke about the program’s approach, its success, and why he thinks food labor issues are finally ready to go mainstream.

In the past two decades, America has begun to change its relationship to food, a massive cultural shift mostly focused on ingredients, health and nutrition, and—to some degree—farming practices. For now, labor considerations still seem not to be as front-of-mind for most people as things like local sourcing and avoiding trans fats. Do you think that’s about to change?

I do think that aspect of what we could call a truly sustainable agricultural system is lagging a bit behind, that it’s been lapped by food safety, or the use of pesticides, or organic versus conventional, or other sustainability concerns. Those things led the parade because people tend to act based on self-interest. But I also think [labor] is catching up.

The fact is that no one really wants to be part of gross exploitation of other human beings. And they will think differently about their purchasing decisions if they are informed about the conditions that the workers who picked their food are facing in the field.

I’ll give you an example. A lot of times when I talk to people, I ask audiences to do a thought experiment. I’ll say: Imagine you’re driving down a country road on a beautiful summer day, and there’s a farm field on either side. You come across this perfect, idyllic farm stand selling fruits and vegetables by the side of the road. You love that kind of stuff—I love that kind of stuff. So you pull in, you get out in that gravel parking lot, and you see this array of the most colorful, freshest fruits and vegetables you can imagine. You fill your bag, and you go to the cash register. And when you get there—you know, that cashier’s friendly, smiling, ringing up your stuff. But suddenly, before you get a chance to pay for it, you hear a scream from the field that’s behind the stand.

When you look over the cashier’s shoulder, you see a woman being sexually assaulted in the field. And then you realize, as you start to look around, that there’s another worker on his knees getting beaten by his supervisor. Now, how would that make you react as the cashier rings you up and says, “That’s $18.75?” Are you just going to go ahead and pay that money? Or would you stop, demand to know what’s going on, and try to help the people getting beaten and assaulted?

When I ask audiences this question, invariably 100 percent of the people in the room raise their hand to say: ‘Yes, I would not buy that food, I don’t want to buy that food, and I’d do what I could to fix it.’ But the fact is, those things happen on American farms—especially on the larger conventional farms—every day in this country, and that’s been the reality for generations. Sexual harassment and sexual assault are daily occurrences in the fields. Violence against workers is by no means unheard of. Wage theft and a whole range of abuses happen. And because it happens outside of our vision—because we’re not standing their looking over the cashier’s shoulder—and therefore it happens outside of our mind. But that’s changing.

Because this is the 21st century, because there is this democratization of information, we’re able to communicate the fact that those conditions all occur all too often—that 80 percent of women in the fields report experiencing sexual harassment and sexual assault on the job. But the ability to communicate is not going away. And as the years progress, consumers will be more and more informed. If that thought experiment is any indication, it’s going to be a major factor in how people decide to buy their food in the future.

What’s stopped labor from being a more mainstream food issue than it is?

It’s really just a question of awareness. But the awareness around labor conditions is growing. When we started the Campaign for Fair Food, we analyzed that the poverty of farmworkers in Immokalee, Florida, wasn’t driven so much by local actors—the growers and crew leaders. It was driven, more than anything else, by the multibillion dollar retail food companies that could leverage their volume purchasing power to demand ever lower prices at the farm gate. It was this that drove down wages for farm workers, and conditions for farm workers.

Once we made that analysis, we had to go out and explain that to people. We went to campus after campus and church after church to build that awareness. And as a result, we were able to build a campaign that had 14 of the biggest retail food corporations—the biggest buyers of tomatoes in the world—[committing] to only purchase tomatoes through growers who work in compliance with a human-rights based code of conduct.

With those corporate agreements, we’ve been able to dramatically change people’s lives. We’ve put a stop to sexual harassment and sexual assault, for example, in the fields where the fair food program works. And there’s a formula. It requires, first, educating consumers. Then, mobilizing those consumers to pressure corporations, in order to win the binding legal agreement from companies—ones that demand that their suppliers meet human rights standards. Finally, it requires monitoring those standards with worker participation to actually eliminate long-standing human rights abuses in the field. It works, and we can replicate it. But it takes a lot of effort because it’s not the first story at the top of news, and you you have to fight to make it so.

Greg Asbed, 2017 MacArthur Fellow, with Coalition of Immokalee Workers co-founder Lucas BenitezThe John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Greg Asbed, 2017 MacArthur Fellow, with Coalition of Immokalee Workers co-founders Lucas Benitez and Laura Germino

It sounds like you’re saying conscientious consumerism—vote with your fork—is not enough to drive meaningful change on this front. It requires buy-in from major food retailers themselves. What are the challenges of getting companies on board?

We now have a proven program that protects human rights in corporate supply chains better than anything else that’s come before. That’s just not me saying it. Anyone who works in the field will say that: from the White House, which gave us the Presidential Medal for unique success in fighting forced labor, to the United Nations, which has recognized us for unique success in fighting human rights violations. So now that it’s not just an idea but a reality that’s been proven, you’d think companies like Wendy’s would simply say: ‘Let’s do this. Let’s be part of this.’ But they don’t.

If you took any one of those humans in that corporation and put them out in that position in the theoretical farmstand I mentioned, they would not buy the food. I guarantee you that. But even though corporations are just humans working together, something happens when they come together in that form: The collective tolerance for abuse shoots through the roof.

What we have to do, unfortunately, is overcome that collective willingness to turn a blind eye. We have to do that not only by the power of just not buying their food, but by actively getting out there and saying: ‘Your brand doesn’t get behind human rights, and we’re going to make sure that the world knows it.’ That is what has worked.

We would prefer—infinitely prefer—to be involved in building our program, expanding its protections, and doing the work of monitoring and enforcing rights rather than being in the streets and protesting. All that time for us feels like lost time. Sunk time. But unfortunately it’s still necessary, and we’re going to still do it because we’ve seen the results—which are tremendous.

“It was sort of like that old saying about Vegas: What happened in the supply chain stayed in the supply chain.”

Are there examples you can think of where the industry made the kind of broad-scale changes you’re hoping for?

Here’s a category where there are very, very few issues and compliance is almost wall-to-wall: food safety. Food safety in agriculture has been a problem for a long time, but it got to a point where there were just too many food safety issues—E. coli outbreaks, for instance, where families were losing children. The costs became too high for the retailer to be involved with those sorts of problems in the supply chain. So what happened? Standards were established, and they were retailer-driven. Retailers were able to tell their suppliers: ‘If you don’t get food-safety certified, if you don’t comply with these standards, we’re not going to buy from you, because it’s just too much of a risk for our brand.’ And food safety standards were implemented across the board.  

In the industry, they call it “the power of the purchasing order”—the power of the P.O., is the shorthand that buyers use. The major buyers know that their purchasing orders carry a lot of weight, and when they really want things to change—whether it’s what type of tomatoes or implementing food safety or, now, implementing human rights standards—they use the power of the P.O. to demand and direct that change.

“Corporate Social Responsibility—the model that has existed for 30 years—has failed.”
You’ve received this major honor, but the work is far from finished. What are the challenges ahead?

The challenge is awareness. It’s building awareness about the conditions that exist. It’s completely unacceptable that, for instance, 80 percent of women report being subjected to sexual harassment or sexual assault in the fields. And yet, I guarantee you,that 99.9 percent of consumers still don’t know that. Our job is to make sure that people learn that fact, and that they’re then able to learn that fact in a way that helps translate their awareness into concrete change on the ground.

Corporate Social Responsibility—CSR, the model that has existed for 30 years—has failed. If it were a science experiment, they would have shut it down a long time ago. It has not had any kind of real result for humans; the main result it’s had has been to be a firewall for public relations crises when problems erupt in corporate supply chains. But the power of the CSR model to keep corporations from feeling the heat is eroding as well. They feel it when a factory collapses in Bangladesh, or there’s a slavery operation discovered in seafood, or more recently, the discovery that North Korean workers in China are being treated in horrific conditions producing goods that show up under major brands here in the United States.

The old model has failed to protect workers rights. It’s failed even to protect the public relations interests of corporations. But this model works, and the results have been beyond our wildest expectations. That means it’s time to do away with the snake-oil charlatan approach that CSR has proven to be, and replace it with something that actually works.

In the 20th century, it was sort of like that old saying about Vegas: what happened in the supply chain stayed in the supply chain. Nobody connected it to the brands where the food ended up being sold. But that’s not the case anymore. Now, there’s a direct connection between major consumer brands and things like slavery and violence against women. The most important asset corporations have is their brand, and if protecting that asset requires them to use their buying power to demand compliance with human rights in their supply chain, then that’s what they’ll do.

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Joe Fassler is The Counter's deputy editor. His reporting has been included in The Best American Food Writing and twice nominated for a James Beard Media Award. A 2019 - 2020 Ted Scripps Fellow in Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder, he's the author of two books: a novel, The Sky Was Ours (forthcoming from Penguin Books), and Light the Dark: Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process.