In 2015, the United States Department of Health released its dietary guidelines report for 2015-2020. The report found that almost no Americans were meeting their recommended daily intake of vegetables and fruit, two vital components to a healthy diet. Amidst an obesity crisis costing the economy over $215 billion a year in lost productivity and medical bills, along with reports of inequality driving differences in nutrition intake, the United States is in a precarious situation. The dietary report is just one example of the startling status of the American diet.
At the heart of this problem is food. Or rather, the economic decisions Americans make when purchasing, preparing, and consuming food. What Americans choose to eat each day is as much an economic decision as anything else, and they may soon be paying an even higher price for decent meals.
California’s Central Valley, extending from the Sacramento Valley all the way to South San Joaquin, is home to over 250 different crops. The area supplies a quarter of the United States’ food and makes up 8 percent of the nation’s total agricultural output (USGS). Of these 250 different crops, many are highly labour-intensive. Products like grapes, pistachios, and stone fruits all bruise easily, forcing producers to rely on farm labour for harvest and upkeep instead of the mechanized methods common with row crops and cereals.
But farm labour is not easy to come by in California, or in any other state. Shortages have been occurring since the 1940s, to the point where the US government had to create the Bracero program in 1942. The program brought in Mexican immigrants to do the jobs domestic workers wouldn’t do: work like picking berries, pruning trees, and harvesting produce.
The program currently in place—the H-2A visa— is a temporary visa for agricultural workers. It has been criticized for being too lengthy and complex. Farmers are hoping that the US government will simplify the process to bring in immigrants from other countries, especially since farmers in the Central Valley have relied on them heavily(New York Times).
During his Presidency and campaign, Donald Trump has focused heavily on deporting the millions of illegal immigrants from the country and returning jobs to Americans. A key pillar of Trump’s campaign was also building a wall along the US-Mexican border to keep would-be Mexican immigrants out of the US. On February 21, just over a week ago, memos from the President were released, specifying that his administration should look to deport most illegal immigrants instead of just criminals, allowing for more aggressive immigration law enforcement (New York Times). Already Trump is cracking down on immigration and making farmers and workers across the country anxious over the future of their work and businesses.
If Trump were to target and deport all of America’s illegal immigrants, he would lose approximately 70 percent of farmworkers in the United States.
This may sound, to a Trump supporter, like an optimal opportunity for unemployed citizens to get back into the workforce. But in reality, there would be no Americans taking these positions. Working in the fields is a difficult job. The work is tough, with labourers often working 12 hour shifts in the hot sun, and the job has few perks. Americans have held back from working in these positions since the 1940s—certainly thousands of them will not start picking cherries now. Accordingly, a 2010 study found that 68 percent of US-born workers who were referred by unemployment agencies to agricultural employers rejected the jobs offered to them. And of those who took the jobs? Only 5 percent made it to the end of their contract. Most Americans who were unemployed preferred to remain so over taking and continuing a job in agricultural labour.
If Trump were to follow through on his policies—thus worsening the labour shortage—the food industry would lose between $30 billion and $60 billion in output and US GDP could also drop by 6 percent. As one labourer asks, "You think a gringo's gonna be pruning pistachios?" In over 17 years of agricultural work, he has only seen Latinos like himself in the fields.
The irony of the Central Valley, highlighted recently by the New York Times, is that despite concerns over labour shortages that could be accelerated by the deportation of illegal immigrants, the area’s farmers voted overwhelmingly Republican. Most assumed the policies were “just talk,” and now worry about the survival of their businesses and livelihood.
The economic toll
The produce industry already experiences losses between $5 and $8 billion thanks to present labour shortages, with states like Georgia facing huge declines in productivity due to harsher immigration laws that were enacted in 2006. Interestingly, these harsher policies were approved by then-Governor Sonny Perdue, Trump’s recent (and long-awaited) pick for Agriculture Secretary.
The consequences of a larger labour shortage brought on by increased deportation would be intense and widespread. Researchers are predicting a 31 percent drop in the production of vegetables and a 61 percent drop in that of fruit (Modern Farmer). Average farm income would decrease from between 30 and 40 percent, and consumers would see food prices increase by about 6 percent. These prices would increase in Canada as well, since most of Canada’s produce comes from California.
And it isn’t just the produce section that will be seeing price increases. The National Federation of Milk Producers (NFMP) estimates that dairy prices in the US could increase by up to 90 percent due to a similar reliance on foreign labour. Not to mention eliminating immigrant labour would reduce employment by a staggering 208,208 jobs.
The future of food
Many people face a disconnect from the food system that feeds them. As citizens of developed nations head to the cities in search of higher incomes, rural agriculture is left hanging, with an aging workforce and little interest in investment. There are numerous new technologies being developed for the more difficult agricultural tasks, like picking berries, and some are quite promising. Though these developments are a way forward, they are nowhere near close to replacing all human work, and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, putting them out of reach for many farmers. Not to mention many of these technologies, like Driscoll and AgroBot’s strawberry picker, are years away from being released.
As Americans spurn farm jobs, and as Republican politicians disparage illegal immigrants, the prosperity of the North American food system lies in the balance. Losing produce and dairy farms means losing local food security, destroying jobs from the farmers to the delivery truck drivers, and relying heavily on imported product—or simply not consuming it at all. Given Trump’s distaste for trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the North American Free Trade Agreement, he is not exactly setting the US up for a sustainable, successful, or diverse agricultural industry. Trump and his administration have ignored the reality of the food industry. Before the election, Trump explained that he would “fight for American farmers and their families,” while also promising he would deport the very individuals that support them. Clearly, Trump and his administration have turned a blind eye to the health of Americans, and have chosen instead to bite the hands of those that feed the country.