By James Edward Malin
Perhaps the most rousing session of those presented by the Special Library Association’s Food, Agriculture, and Environmental Resource Management Division (FAER) was Fewer Workers, Less Food: Immigration Policy Changes and Their Effects on Food Supply on Tuesday, June 12, moderated by FAER’s president and Michigan State University’s Food Science, Nutrition, Packaging Librarian, Anita Ezzo.
Featuring Howard Carrier, Social Sciences Liaison Librarian of James Madison University, and the World Agricultural Economic and Environmental Services’ Principal, Patrick O’Brien, the session detailed systemic issues in developed food systems that marginalize workers. As the session’s description states, “the U.S. government wants to limit entry of immigrants, many of whom come to work on farms in the United States. U.S. farmers depend upon these workers to produce food to feed Americans. Similarly, the United Kingdom depends on workers from Eastern Europe, but migration will be limited when Brexit takes effect.”
In particular, both O’Brien and Carrier discussed implicit cultural mores and explicit economic and political policies of national boundaries in the English speaking world. Both speakers described an agro-economic reliance on, but social enmity toward, foreign labor. In the US and UK alike, this animosity has contributed to recent political changes. Whilst O’Brien elucidated the realities of a long-standing conflict of legal and illegal migrant Mexican labor, (which currently holds the American spotlight after the recent border policy enforcement,) Carrier discussed the future probabilities of a similar outcome for Eastern European laborers in a post-Brexit UK.
As commercial entities, members of the agricultural community must maximize their profitability to compete with foreign imports. In the United States, the agricultural sector contributes about $180 billion (1%) of the gross domestic product, and for the United Kingdom, farming is about $18 billion USD (0.6-0.7% GDP). Today both nations rely on foreign labor to keep products affordable, and companies profitable. Willing and able legal and illegal Mexican farm workers cost farmers less than American citizens. In the UK, non-UK European Union laborers help minimize costs by supplying seasonal labor demand.
However, the cultural perspective on both of these working populations has been stark dissension toward the alien “other”. Both countries contain populations that perceive these foreigners as stealing jobs, pilfering money, and creating dangerous and strange communities. To date, this point of view led to, as O’Brien describes, an extremely arduous process (for workers and farmers alike) to keep Mexican employment above board. A similar viewpoint contributed to EU separatist movements in the UK. However the danger of these perspectives in the farm sector is not just in rising costs for agricultural businesses, but indeed a shortage in the US’ and UK’s food supply! Although farming, agriculture, and food products are part of the economic markets, their outputs are necessary for individuals’ comfort and health. Without foreign migrant labor, how will food make it from the field to on our plates?
For some, the inclusion of this session at a library conference may have seemed strange. What does the social and political realm of the US and UK’s agricultural economy have to do with libraries? Well, libraries and librarians can do a lot to help change our food systems for the better!
The International Federation of Library Associations (of which SLA cross-pollinates much with) recently launched an International Advocacy Program that shows how libraries can impact and help each of the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals that the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development calls for. For goal number two, for example, “End Hunger, Achieve Food Security and Improved Nutrition, and Promote Sustainable Agriculture,” libraries can help by supporting “agricultural research and data on how to make crops more productive and sustainable” and “public access for farmers to online resources like local market prices, weather reports, and new equipment.” Another relatable example is goal number ten, to “reduce inequality within and among countries,” which libraries can support as “neutral and welcoming spaces that make learning accessible to all, including marginalized groups like migrants, refugees, minorities, indigenous peoples, and persons with disabilities” and providing “equitable access to information that supports social, political, and economic inclusion.”
I urge all librarians (not just those specialized in food, agriculture, environmental resource management) to continue to help learn, advocate for, and support greater cultural changes that greatly impacts our food system.