I saw parts of an interesting British documentary/reality series this past week on Channel 8. The BBC series was called Blood, Sweat, and Takeaways, and followed 6 young Brit food consumers (one a picky eater, one a fast food junkie, one a rich gourmet foods enthusiast, etc, etc) as they were taken to Southeast Asia to:
“live and work alongside the millions of people in south east Asia’s food production industries. They must catch, harvest and process food products that we eat every day, seeing behind the scenes of the tuna, prawns, rice and chicken industries for the very first time.”
It was fascinating to see how our ultra-cheap chicken and seafood are caught and processed, and it was equally devastating to see how the people who caught and processed this food lived, how little they were paid, how hard they worked, and how much they sacrificed in order to even procure these “lucky” jobs. Even the underworld of the sex trade, so rampant in Asia, has many direct connections to the food processing industry.
The series was also incredibly annoying due to these exceptionally obnoxious British 19-22 year-olds constant complaining, whining, and getting grossed out at every other job they were demanded to do.
What I found poignant is that despite their whinging, each were changed, as we saw in the concluding “follow up” portion of the film. Some were simply more respectful in their eating habits, more open to trying new things, and were adamant about buying fair-trade products. One girl even went back to try and help some of the women separated from their families, and was writing to newspapers and magazines with pitches on the subject.
The real eye-opener, and the question this documentary raised, is what this says about locally grown food products. It seems common sense to buy from your local farmer, sign up for the local organic veg box, visit the farmers’ market, etc. How can supporting and getting involved in your local agriculture be wrong? In the US and Britain there have been what seem to be nationalist campaigns to buy British meat, or buy American beef (or cheese, or corn, or whatever).
One young man in the series was a young farmer, his family farm going generations back. A very nice guy, he was one of the few that made the show tolerable. He and he alone never complained, worked harder than the rest, and was often the only one working when others refused (e.g. gutting fish on top of one of the smelliest sewer-rivers imaginable and picking, packing, and lugging hundreds of kilos of rice).
Before the experience, he had been a staunch “Buy British” supporter. Being a farmer, this makes perfect sense. No complaints here. But upon his return, he had changed his mind and was educating his friends on the matter. Why? The food industry in Asia supports millions of people. Maybe more. There would be no big Western food companies, whether they be MacDonald’s or Lean Cuisine, without ultra cheap foodstuffs. Even fancy restaurants are affected. Not every eatery can afford locally caught fresh fish and shellfish. I know from experience at having to defrost and clean hundreds of prawns and scallops and mussels every day at a very high-end restaurant in Tel Aviv – one that specialized in seafood.
Now more than ever before we live in a global economy. Our smallest of choices can and do affect economics in other countries. Do the workers suffer? Yes. Do we want to pay less for our food? Most of the world doesn’t. But even for the idealist, does stopping to buy these “sweat shop” foods help anyone?
I don’t know the answers yet, but I will be seriously looking into this. I think that the best I can personally do right now is to look for “Fair Trade” products. This ensures good treatment and good pay for the workers. I like my local organic veg box, for the time being. And I have ALWAYS wanted to know who harvested the supermarket fruit and veg, where it all came from, what the names of the (potential) migrant workers were, pesticides used, genetic modifications made, how long it all even took to get here, etc, etc. Maybe it’s time to finally find out.
We owe it to ourselves (if not the world) to know where the nourishment we put into our bodies comes from, and who was involved in bringing it to us.