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Study assesses risk that fruits, vegetables sold in U.S. are products of forced labour

Friday, 03 September 2021

A new study published today (23 August) in Nature Food involving academics at The University of Nottingham calls attention to the need for better systems to track forced labour in food supply chains.

The study reports on the development of a new scoring system that identifies the risk of forced labour for fruits and vegetables sold in the United States. It finds a high risk of forced labour, but also scattered and incomplete data sources that limit action.

The study was led by Dr Nicole Tichenor Blackstone in the Agriculture, Food and Environment program at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science & Policy at Tufts, and Dr Jessica Decker Sparks, Associate Director at the University of Nottingham Rights Lab, leading its Ecosystems and Environment Programme.

“Sustainability research on the food supply typically focuses on promoting human health and protecting the environment,” said first and corresponding author Dr Blackstone. “But social sustainability provides a different perspective on our food sources, including issues of labour rights and equity. Globally, agriculture has one of the highest incidences of forced labour.”

Responsible procurement

The study developed a new forced labour risk scoring method that draws upon original data compiled by the authors as well as a range of governmental and non-profit data. The research team then coded each food and country-of-origin combination as either very high risk, high risk, medium risk, or low risk for forced labour having occurred at some point in the growing and harvesting of each item. Previously, there have been short lists of commodities suspected of being produced with forced labour, or case studies of foods produced in one country, such as Mexico.

“What we’ve done, for the first time, is to look at all of the major fruits and vegetables consumed in the U.S., as well as all of the countries these foods come from, including the U.S., and assess the possibility that somewhere in the production process forced labour could have been involved,” said Dr Blackstone.

The scoring method is not meant to be a consumer tool but could help industry and policy makers interested in the development of systems and protocols for the responsible procurement of foods.

The final data set included 93 fruits and vegetables in 307 food-country combinations. The results of the qualitative coding show that most food-country combinations were coded as high risk (85%) for forced labour at some point. Seven percent were coded as very-high risk, 4.5% were coded as medium risk, and 3.5% were coded as low risk.

“This is an extraordinary percentage at high risk, but it reflects that there are very limited or coarse data,” said senior author Dr Sparks. “There are major structural issues with how agricultural labour is set up that make workers vulnerable. To us, this reflects systemic issues in food supply chains that have not been addressed."

Our findings point to the need for policymakers, farmers, and food companies to engage with farm workers to address the systemic issues.
Dr Jessica Decker Sparks, Associate Director at the University of Nottingham Rights Lab

Rights and dignity

Some of the variables that factored into the scoring were:

  • documented history of forced labour for a given food in a given country;
  • a country’s record on monitoring forced labour – a good record lowered the score and vice versa; and,
  • whether a given food is harvested by hand or by machine.

Agricultural work often takes place in remote and isolated environments with demanding labour requirements. There are typically inadequate legal protections, with piece-rate pay systems tied to productivity, and reliance on migrant labour.

As defined by the International Labour Organization, “forced labour can be understood as work that is performed involuntarily and under the menace of any penalty. It refers to situations in which persons are coerced to work through the use of violence or intimidation, or by more subtle means such as manipulated debt, retention of identity papers or threats of denunciation to immigration authorities.”

“Forced labour in agriculture is a threat to the sustainability of food systems. However, the scarcity of data noted limits holistic analysis and action. Future research should prioritize data and model development to enable analyses of forced labour and other labour-related social risks (e.g., wages, child labour) across the life cycles of a wide range of foods. These efforts can help ensure that the rights and dignity of “the hands that feed us” are centred in the transformation of food systems,” concluded the authors in the study.

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For more information contact Dr Jessica Decker Sparks at jessica.sparks@nottingham.ac.uk 

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