Does your food contain traces of slavery?

Brazil hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons this year, from the fires used to clear the Amazon for cattle and crops to some politicians general attitudes towards the environment. Since Brazil is a major exporter of food products, we’re all implicated. But environmental destruction isn’t the only problem. As the smoke clears, let’s take a closer look.

Exploitation takes many forms

When we think of slavery and racism, the US civil rights movement often comes to mind. However Brazil imported more Africans as slaves, over a longer time-period, than any other country. Where 389,000 Africans were taken to the US as slaves, 4.9 million were brought into Brazil. In a nation built on slavery, its legacy live on.

While modern slavery is different to transatlantic slavery, it’s essential to recognise that the inequality continuing to face people can create economic vulnerabilities that make them liable to labour exploitation, including modern slavery. And this exploitation of people often goes hand in hand with our exploitation of creation. The extraction of natural resources for products, often results in mistreatment of people and planet.

When forests are destroyed manually, modern slavery is often used. While cattle-raising accounts for 62% of Brazilian deforestation, the ILO estimates that activities related to cattle (deforestation, land-clearing, planting pasture, building fences, slaughterhouses etc) represent 62% of slavery cases, too.

People, planet and creatures are linked – as God intended. But bad human choices have corrupted creation with environmental destruction, slavery and the mistreatment of animals happening side by side, feeding and reinforcing each other.

Caught in the food chain

Beef is certainly the worst offender. However, vegetarians and vegans beware – soya comes in second as a cause of deforestation in Brazil. And it’s estimated to be the third main product using slavery. 

To avoid soya, I buy cashew nuts to make milk. But even they could involve slavery and child labour. There’s an image that’s burned into my mind – a child’s hand, charcoal black from shelling cashews, fingertips so badly burned that they had no prints.
Photo – Daniel Santini, Repórter Brasil

And that’s without even starting on coffee, which appeared 21 times on the ‘Dirty List’ of employers found to be using slavery in Brazil – including certified coffee. And then there’s the other products listed, which included onions, cocoa, apples and flour.

Buying food is a minefield. 

Can we really do anything about it?

Often, as consumers at the end of the chain, we can feel powerless against the entrenched systems keeping these forms of production in place. Looking at Brazil can be disheartening, but there’s plenty to get excited about and learn from too. The Dirty List is one reason Brazil’s anti-slavery policy has been lauded as a global example. Its power lies in its tangible economic consequences:

Public banks and some businesses have committed to boycotting listed companies. Being listed can provoke a fall in stock prices – when Zara was just threatened with inclusion, their shares fell by almost 4%. After reports of slavery in their supply chain, Carrefour stopped purchasing meat from the offending producer.

Consumer choices may be futile in isolation, but they can be part of something bigger. We need system change and our collective voices can push that change.

A key voice against unsustainable production in Brazil comes from traditional indigenous communities. One attitude we can learn from them is real gratitude for creation, its creatures and its people, and the sustenance they provide us.

Grateful for change

Gratitude can take us far; from true gratitude flows action. So, let’s be grateful for the processes that feed us – recognising and speaking up about where change is needed.

Something I’ve found helpful is how my husband gives thanks for food before we eat. Having grown up on São Paulo’s periphery, playing football with friends in favelas, and having volunteered and worked full-time at a charity in the centre, he’s long seen poverty up close. 

When he prays, he thanks God for the privilege of choosing what we eat, because not everyone can – not the people struggling to put food on the table, and not those pushed into the hands of exploiters.

So at this end of the supply chain, for those of us that have the privilege to choose what we put on our plates, let’s live out gratitude – let’s choose well. And let’s not keep those choices private, where their effect is limited. Let’s tell companies and governments we care, pushing them to choose well too.

As we remember the abolition of transatlantic slavery, let’s not forget that modern slavery lives on. Let’s make our plates, sites for modern abolitionism.

For more information: Kevin Bales’ book Blood and Earth is a great introduction to ecocide and slavery around the world.

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