Where Did Your Food Come From? And your Cat's: A Look at Killing on the Seas

I am spending time in Italy, the quintessential land of the bargain. I never had the stomach for it, and yet I began to feel that people who were selling things at local markets must be okay with the bargained down prices because they didn't look too unhappy as they were wrapping the merchandise, accepting the money and saying they wouldn't be able to feed their families. It seemed more like a game than a tragedy, but I was never sure.

When I saw the movie "McFarland, USA" late spring, I paid attention to the migrant workers picking vegetables with the greatest of speed and determination, the greater the quantity the better the money. I'm pretty late in the game, slow to think about the human beings involved as opposed to where the best prices are. But even here there is a contradiction. For people like me who shop at Whole Foods and their cousins (local fine produce stores) there is often some feeling of self-congratulation. After all we are paying more, but we are buying quality, we are buying "organic" and never mind those people who can't afford to shop there. Even more regarding never minding, we/I have rarely thought about the payment and treatment of he or she who bring the produce to the market.

Somehow the human factor hasn't really hit home. And yes, while many have gotten that it is cool to slow down and lower the costs of living and live in more minimalistic and streamlined settings, I haven't yet really gotten, or myself made, the deeper connections between living and sharing -- between every day purchasing and consideration. Even where it comes to products that are Chinese, at the beginning I was wary, wanting to buy U.S. made products. But there was no greater organization that I saw and as I moved to buying from other countries in Asia, I no doubt was part of the custom of buying less expensive things and ultimately not looking at where they came from. Even when I had looked, by the way, at the country of origin, even here I too was not overly focused on the condition of workers.

I hate this disconnect, which somehow is made more gruesome by this week's New York Times piece, "Sea Slaves: The Human Misery That Feeds Pets and Livestock", on July 27, 2015. According to Ian Urbina, many are lured to become "sea slaves" on floating vehicles in dangerous conditions while many also have never even been on the sea or learned to swim. Aside from grotesque abuses and dehumanization, with human trafficking abounding, with 18-20 hour shifts and amphetamines used to increase the tempo of labor while antibiotics are missing amidst rampant infection, this seems to be part of something going on for some time. Urbina writes, "The United States is the biggest customer of Thai fish, and pet food is among the fastest growing exports from Thailand, more than doubling since 2009 and last year totaling more than $190 million. The average pet cat in the United States eats 30 pounds of fish per year, about double that of a typical American. "

It's something disturbing, I'd think to most pet owners and people interested in the most basic of human rights. And perhaps this press will be shocking enough for this trade and set of practices to be interrupted. For me, and this is not to minimize the abuses and the pain described and endured by the people, but perhaps it's time for us to shift our consciousness away from bargains and away from production at any cost, and consider the human cost of our purchases. After seeing the film I mentioned above, I sprang for the cucumbers more expensive because they were fair trade, meaning that the workers involved were paid and treated with dignity.

It is just too easy for us to miss the human faces on the labels of the things we buy, and I wonder if there is a way to change this. The Thai government, according to the article, has suggested using prisoners to do this labor, conceivably leaving refugees to perish in other ways. A propos of the migrants described, here in Europe one sees and hears so many faces of the same issues, that one begins to wonder: what is the richer part of the world doing to help conditions in the poorer parts; what are they doing to help the people in their homes where too often American policy has neglected the issue of refugees when not in the midst of a sudden outburst of democratic "good will" as when it comes to the Ukraine, as an example.

I hated reading the New York Times article, and at the same time, I realize that I put my head in the sand too much of the time. I won't claim to be a concerned citizen on every single thing ever, but I see it as not only a right but also an obligation to become a more responsible consumer at the very least. What's more perhaps we can concern ourselves with the people trapped right now in harsh labor, in sex and other human trafficking under the cloak of various other activities as well.

It is so easy to disassociate the process from the products, and the way things are made from their price and availability. Most of us may have a hunch that we might have to stop buying those brands we have come to depend on. There are powerful lobbies that no doubt would interfere with putting the photos of those who labor for brutalizing masters so they can give us what we have gotten in many cases accustomed to, on the labels and the products we are thinking of buying. What would we feel if we saw the face of a child or teenage slave on the cover of a can of tuna for cats? That would be powerful advertising, such is my fantasy.

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