Massive changes in global food production of commodity crops, such as cacao, over the past few centuries has created a disconnect between humans and our source of food, that not only limits and pushes poor food choices, but also allows greater control over people by the ruling classes; and further prohibits knowledge of food source production and supply chain practices that cross human rights barriers. This shift has not only changed the role of food in our lives but also our lack of comprehension over source and production of food that entails dangers to us and others on a massive scale. The prohibition of information and lack of transparency to corporate processes strips consumers of their rights to know what their money is funding and what they are personally consuming. Although studies show an increasing amount of consumers are becoming more aware of food sourcing and related issues-and in particular, aware of the child trafficking and slavery issues in the cacao trade- lack of specific and credible information, along with food choice alternatives continue to be a problem. Thus, large corporations that produce and sell commodity crops continue to break domestic and international laws and deny allegations of abuses, with little repercussion.
The rise of wealth in Britain during the 18th century brought us fashionable food for the first time in history. Where food had been singularly for health reasons (physical, mental, spiritual) it had now become a symbol of wealth in society. Sugar trade expert, Sidney Mintz, says that food became a luxury that spread across the continents “as a contagion” and that the elites began massive consumption of luxury goods such as chocolate, coffee, and tea, and soon the commoners began to mimic them(181). Not only did the laboring class begin to consume the same food commodities as the royals and other elite class, but they also began to take their food in the same manner of preparation and style. For instance, Mintz says, “what laboring Englishmen did by way of imitation in this regard was to drink tea with sugar and milk…as did others more privileged than they (182). Also, the tea they drank was of lesser quality, sometimes twice-used, and other times it had been simply hot water poured over bread and honey for the flavor. The point was to add some luxury to the day and to feel a part of the upper class. This suited the upper classmen as well, as the consumption of sugar in tea and other foods and beverages served to grow the sugar trade exponentially in a very short time. In fact, “no single commodity on the world market has had so much politicizing” as sugar, advises Mintz (185). Likewise, the promotion of the idea to follow the upper class in consumption of particular commodities proved to serve well in directing the trade economies to a shift from agriculturally-based economies to that of mass production.
The change of the laboring class eating habits and schedules came by way of broad economic forces and the laborers had played into the hands of the ruling class and gave benefit to industry. Mintz offers, the change was a result of this new “commercial spirit…that heightened the consumption of goods like sucrose [and] was the direct consequence of deep alterations in the lives of working people, which made new forms of foods and eating conceivable and “natural”, like new schedules of work, new sorts of labor, and new conditions of daily life” (181). The reasons largely, Mintz conveys, is that the managers realized the increased potential of the workers should they be sufficiently drugged and stimulated.
Further, the lords encouraged a change in meal schedules to accommodate factory work, which became laboring society’s new norm. Workers began to eat away from home during the day which then gave rise to the packaged food industry. They were also encouraged to eat more frequently and snack on highly sweetened foods and beverages, further benefiting industry. Family meal times were reduced to dinner only and made later to accommodate working schedules, and thus it was that “industry retrained people and palates” and a new food system for the people was born. The consumption of sugar skyrocketed over the next century. It became the food drug of choice as it gave people a respite from reality, killed hunger pangs, provided increased energy and it combined easily with other foods as a sweetener. By the 1900’s it was added to every meal in Britain and beyond. By 1970, as sugar was added as a sweetener to many other foods like chocolate and bread, 9% of all available food calories consumed throughout the world were from sugar and Europeans were consuming roughly 120 pounds each per year. Simultaneously, fat consumption increased to 265 pounds per person, per year (199).
Today, we have progressed (or regressed) to de-socialized eating. The rise of industry made increasing demands on household life as it made opportunities for women to work outside of the home, to work mainly in administrative positions during the early 1900s, but also in labor intensive positions especially during war eras. Hence, we saw the rise of propaganda like “Rosie the Riveter” praising women for holding the country together while men were away at war (Skidmore). Since then, women have remained a significant part of the American workforce and as the U.S. Department of Labor reports, 70% of all mothers with children under the age of 18 are either working outside of the home, or seeking work.
This working woman culture has created sustained demand for pre-packaged and fast foods and in doing so contributed to our nations decline in overall health and well-being, in particular that of children (CBS). However, in recent years there has been a backlash with a push for mothers of young children to stay at home and create a more “natural” and “homegrown” type of upbringing. The media has labeled this the “Mommy Wars”, and it is proving to be quite a firestorm between feminists and naturalists (Washington Post). Below, is a popular video made by a New Jersey woman and artist, Robin Reed, making fun of the current Mommy Wars.
As it stands, more than 1/3 of household money is spent on fast food and the average person eats out nine times per month, says Mintz (199) and the diets of American adults consists of 11.3% of daily calories from sugar on average, says The Center for Disease Control (CDC). Not only has this supported increased sugar consumption which leads to acute and chronic health issues such as diabetes, heart disease, and more (CBS) but also contributes to our disconnection from the food(s) and the source(s).
The cacao industry is a significant example of a rampantly popular commodity food that demonstrates the dichotomy of the food production paradigm. Chocolate historians and experts, Michael and Sophie Coe, disclose in their book “The True History of Chocolate” that millions of African children have been-and are currently-trafficked from Mali and other neighboring countries to work in the cacao fields. Canadian radio and television journalist, Carol Off, writes in her book, “Bitter Chocolate”, that child-slavery remains rampant in areas like the Ivory Coast and that the farmers were actually paying organized crime groups to smuggle the children into the country and delivery them to cacao farms (121). These children, ripped from their families, are made to work under extreme and brutal conditions including physical abuse, torture, rape, medical neglect, chemical exposure, and are forced to work until exhausted or dead (264).
Slavery is not limited to the cacao trade, or Africa, but instead spans across many industries and countries and is a globally recognized problem, as acknowledged by groups like the Anti-Slavery Society which claims that in the woolen carpet industry, for example, in Pakistan, Nepal, India, and Morocco, there have been between 200,000 and 300,000 children abducted from their families and forced into slavery. This group and others, along with legislative leaders of America and other countries are working toward solutions to end this rampant abuse, such as with the Harken-Engel Protocol introduced in 2000, and the Food Safety Bill S-510 (HR2751) introduced by Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, in 2011. But to date, no specific legal actions have been taken against corporations and they have remained largely in denial of abuse allegations with no overriding authority taking the forefront on investigations.
As the governments of slave trading countries, manufacturing corporations, and other related groups seem to be semi or wholly complicit in these agendas, this leads us to believe that the revenue stream may be too great to be inhibited by anything other than fierce economic force (Martin). Statistics bear out that consumers would make choices based upon information received about food source: According to a survey conducted by the Food Dialogues in 2000, most Americans know little about food sourcing, and 72% of Americans surveyed know nothing about farming or ranching. The study also showed however that more than 69% of Americans think about food sourcing issues and more than 70% say that they make food choices based on source knowledge (FDStudy).
However, the reasons for the knowledge gap over food sourcing and supply chain issues are multiple and complex. Included are the physical distances from the origin of source, lack of communication to source areas including internet, social, and other media, says Maya Schwayder of the International Business Times. There are 2.6Billion people online in the world, but this means only 1 of 3 people have access and many entire countries remain unconnected (FD).
Fortunately, groups like Farm to Fork, Fair Trade, and other groups along with corporations such as Google with its Project Loon-where solar powered transmitters literally float on balloons in the sky-and Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook with the launch of Internet.org, are making inroads with new technology to bring the internet into even the most remote of places. Also, recent legislation by the Obama administration under Net Neutrality has reassigned the internet to a status as a public utility, ensuring equal access and protective regulations. Alas, many variables remain uncertain however; as technology is not quite at its peak for these projects and some countries remain opposed to allowing their citizens freedom to engage with other citizens around the world.
Countries such as China, for instance, exhibit strict controls over the internet and manage access to information that not only prohibit free speech, but global trade groups say it also harms business globally (WSJ), and limit knowledge of human rights abuses, says Human Rights Watch (HRW). On the entire continent of Africa, only 9.8% of the population has used the internet in recent years according to 2014 statistics, within Africa, Egypt has the largest population of users at 15%, followed next by Algeria at 2.2% and Angola 1.4% (AfricaStat). The remaining African countries all fall below the 1% mark for internet access and usage. This data lends to the explanation for why atrocities can be committed in commodity crop production and the end-users remain largely unaware.
Despite the fact that most consumers want to have more transparency in the food production cycle, the food choices remain limited by a few large corporate giants and government that writes policy over industry. As consumers remain entrenched in the workforce created for us by industry, and consequently, lives that demand quick food delivery and consumption; the push toward better quality food and less-harmful practices will undoubtedly continue to rise and cause consumers to backlash against it by spending their money on alternatives like local products or homegrown. It will be interesting to see if the corporations respond by funding more consumer-restrictive food policy-such as shutting down small farmers with harmful legislation and environmental policing laws- or if they will ultimately give in to the pressure and invest in more eco-human-friendly practices to meet consumer demands.
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Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food.” Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 25. Mar. 2015. Class Lecture.
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Reed, Robin. MommyWarsFilm. Twitter. “Mommy Wars, Battle for the Playground.” 04 April 2012. Web. Video. 10 May 2015.
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Skidmore University. Rosie the Riveter. Blog. JPEG file.
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*****POST COPIED WITH PERMISSION, FROM MY OWN WORK ON HARVARD UNIVERSITY BLOG: WWW.CHOCOLATECLASS.WORDPRESS.COM RUN BY DR. CARLA MARTIN, PROFESSOR AFRICAN AMERICAN STUDIES PROGRAM AND CHOCOLATE HISTORIAN EXPERT*******