The Dark Side of Asparagus

It’s a funny thing, isn’t it, living in the age of search engines. Today, I was able to pop online and find myself an instantaneous expert on – of all things – asparagus. By contrast, if you’d quizzed me this morning on this rather niche topic, I could have told you two things about it:

1) It’s a green vegetable; 2) I prefer broccoli.

Even nowadays, many people share my obliviousness to the origins of food. And why shouldn’t they? Buying food in a country like the UK tends to involve giant urban warehouses, immaculate shelves, and talking laser machines that would wow the crew of the Starship Enterprise. For all I need to know, the neatly-packed asparagus could have originated right there on the shelf.

In all of this automation and convenience, it’s easy to miss the people that bridge the gap between seeds and supermarkets. A recent documentary and article have brought this home, highlighting the plight of farm workers in Eastern Europe – the very people who brought that asparagus to the shelf – many of whom are vulnerable to human trafficking:

“Enticed by offers of reasonable living, upon arrival in the Czech Republic, they receive only threats and violence, and get no payment for their work. The company ultimately managing the farms they work on is based in the Netherlands.”

One victim, Corina, describes her experience:

“As soon as we arrived [in Romania] our IDs were taken away from us. … I thought to myself, ‘We have nowhere to go, no chance of escape because they have taken our IDs.’ We asked for them back, but they were never returned. … They forced us to work – work and no rest. … Some tried to run away, but they were caught, cut and beaten.”

There’s a part of me that would love to think that everything I consume were as neat and innocent in origin as it appears on the shelf. The sad reality is that many things on our shelves – from phones to clothes to pineapples – come at the cost Corina describes. What can the consumer do then? Throw our hands up in exasperation?

As consumers, we have the power to say ‘No’ to companies that refuse to look after their suppliers. The more we do so, the more we set a precedent for others to follow, whether co-workers or corporations.

This week a letter landed in our little London office. It was from Nestlé – the global chocolate manufacturer. After years of our persistent campaigning against trafficking in the chocolate industry, Nestlé wanted us to know they’re paying attention. Following in the wake of other manufacturers, from 2013 another of their top chocolate bars in the UK will be produced entirely using ethically-sourced cocoa.

It was an encouraging reminder that consumer conscience packs a mighty punch.

We’re pushing to see another big brand clean up it’s act: Kraft’s holiday favourite, Toblerone. If you want to say ‘No’ to trafficking in the chocolate industry, join us in our campaign for Traffik-Free Toblerone.

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