Cheap Food Policy

One of the most complex and least understood influences on the safety and health of agricultural workplaces is the economic structure under which agriculture operates. Agricultural production and its associated policies are designed to give the perception to the consuming public that food is cheap when, in fact, food production, processing, and distribution are heavily subsidized through tax funds. In the United States, a loaf of bread may cost the consumer $2.00 at the supermarket, but it may actually cost another $.50 from the taxes that are directed to the farmer in the form of crop payments or other subsidies. In 2003 total farm income amounted to $59.2 billion, of which $15.9 billion or 26% came from government payments (22).

This subsidized approach to food production directly impacts agricultural safety and health and the education methodologies that can be used to effect change in agricultural workplaces. Farmers, in exchange for the subsidies they receive, give up most of their control over the price of the products they produce and therefore are prevented from passing along the cost of implementing safer agricultural production practices and technology directly to the consumer. When an automobile manufacturer incorporates an airbag into the design of a new car, the cost is added directly to the sticker price. If a farmer adds a ROPS to one of his tractors, he cannot transfer the cost of this safety device to the consumer because the price of his crop or livestock is perceived to be relatively fixed. The cost of the ROPS has to be taken from the anticipated profits, which may not be realized due to circumstances often beyond his control, such as the weather. Likewise, investment in training of agricultural workers has been viewed by many agricultural producers as an expense that cannot be passed on to the consumer. Therefore, investment in safety and health is generally viewed as optional and somewhat risky. If there is little clear evidence that such an investment will generate a return, there is little incentive to make it.

In addition, in return for "cheap" food, legislators have provided farmers with numerous exemptions from the regulations that apply to almost all other industries. In the United States, this includes the general exemption of farms with fewer than 11 employees from current workplace safety and health rules and from the provisions in the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act that allow children under 16 to be employed on farms if they are certified as having received training. Removing these exemptions would result in a substantial increase in the cost of production on most farms and ranches.

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