By the time food gets to our plates, it’s likely passed through many hands. It’s so far removed from where it started that it’s hard to even picture its origin. At this point, we tend to worry most about how it will taste and whether it was safely prepared. We’re not as concerned with how it got there.
But the foods on this list aren’t a danger to us — they are a danger to the people who make it possible for us to eat them. Most of these food industries have been pushed to the limit to meet unsustainable demands at low costs, meaning that the people who farm and produce these foods suffer work under harsh conditions for measly (if any) pay.
While these foods aren’t necessarily expensive, they are some of the most costly foods on the planet. People are paying with their lives to produce them.
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Many people associate a cup of tea with winding down and relaxing at the end of the day, but for the people who grow and harvest our tea, it’s anything but relaxing. Though forced labor and inhumane labor conditions have been recognized on tea plantations in Kenya, Rwanda, Bangladesh, and several other countries, the devastating treatment of people working on India’s plantations — euphemistically called tea gardens — are among the worst.
In the Indian state of Assam (from which the tea takes its name), more than 1 million workers live with their families on tea plantations. Despite the fact that plantation owners are required to provide and upkeep adequate housing and sanitary toilets, the workers mostly live in crumbling homes with minimal electricity, limited access to clean water, and no working toilets. As a result, they’re forced to defecate in the tea bushes.
Open defecation poses massive health risks and can lead to the spread of diseases. But the tea plantation workers are particularly vulnerable to these diseases. Because their wages are so low, many workers (and their children) are malnourished; their bodies don’t have the strength to build immunity to these diseases. The unsafe exposure to pesticides at these plantations reportedly causes a loss of appetite, numbness in hands, and breathing difficulties.
Roughly 500,000 women live and work on these plantations and face even higher health risks. The level of malnutrition among plantation workers is so severe that women suffer from anaemia — they have fewer red blood cells, and therefore less oxygen in their bloodstream — greatly increasing the risk of maternal mortality.
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The low wages don’t allow workers to support their families, which contributes to increased child-trafficking. Families who can’t afford to keep all their children sell them to traffickers who then sell them as slaves. Because plantation owners set high daily harvest quotas, children who are not trafficked may be forced to work alongside their parents in the fields to help meet these expectations.
Thailand has become one of the West’s biggest suppliers of shrimp. How? It’s managed to farm shrimp in large numbers, peel them for sale, and keep their costs down by relying on slave and child labor. The forced laborers in Thailand’s shrimp sheds mostly come from its neighboring countries — Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar. They were lured to Thailand with promises of good jobs, but crossed into the country without visas.
Once in the country, the brokers who helped them cross the borders sell them to seafood companies as slaves where they are told to work off their debt — a nearly impossible feat. As illegal immigrants, they have no rights or protection. Their bosses threaten to report them to authorities or to use physical violence.
Because this treatment is such an obvious violation of human rights — a woman who was eight months pregnant suffered a miscarriage on the work floor and was made to keep on peeling shrimp for four days as continued to hemorrhage — one might think that calling the police or authorities would be the better option. However, the rampant corruption that plagues Thailand means the law enforcement is unlikely to offer protection if business owners offer bribes.
To make matters worse, the problem is not strictly limited to shrimp. In 2015, 2,000 men were rescued were from the trawling boats where they were being held as slaves at sea. Forced to fish and in the middle of the sea with nowhere to run, these men reported being whipped with the tails of the stingrays they were made to catch.
The men did not receive pay. “When we asked [the bosses] for our money, they’d say they didn't have it ... but then they’d go to nightclubs, brothels and bars, drinking expensive alcohol,” one man said and they were often deprived of food and water. Of 400 rescued men surveyed by AP, 12 percent said they had seen a person die on the boats.
Dark chocolate has a dark history. Our sweet treats have been produced by children for nearly two decades. More than 2 million children in Ghana and the Ivory Coast are believed to be enslaved by the chocolate farming industry.
A Hershey’s or Snickers bar in the US costs, at most, a couple of dollars — which is more than many cocoa farmers make per day. But forced child labor is free. In order for the Ivory Coast to produce more than a third of the world’s cocoa without raising the price of a bar of chocolate it relies on child labor. Since the cocoa industry creates a market for child labor, it encourages child-trafficking.
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Many children are sold into slavery by their own parents, who cannot afford to support them. The children are often given meager portions of food and tattered clothing, but rarely have a chance to go to school or even to taste the final product of their hard labor: chocolate. The workers are usually between the ages of 11 and 16, though it is not uncommon for them to be younger. They handle pesticides and wield machetes, which they use to clear the fields to harvest the cocoa, and their legs are scarred from mishaps with the machete.
While several big confectionary companies have committed to reforming their cocoa sourcing practices, progress has been slow.
Abalone is a sea snail considered a delicacy in France, Chile, East Asia, and much of Southeast Asia. The mollusk is particularly prized in China where it is often eaten on special occasions and banquets — for its unique flavor and because it resembles a gold ingot when dried and preserved. As China’s wealth and middle class grown, the country’s taste for what was once considered a rare treat has become insatiable.
In South Africa where more than a third of the population lives below the poverty line and abalone grows, China’s demand has fueled a dangerous industry. The shellfish were naturally abundant in South African waters, but an abalone can take 30 to 40 years to reach a size of 10 or 12 inches. The increase of the commercial fishing of South Africa’s native abalone population threatened the species’ survival, so in 2008 South Africa banned abalone fishing.
An abalone on the South African black market can go for up to $65, which is a fraction of the $1000 per kilogram dried South African abalones sell for in China, but still a significant figure given that half the population lives on less than $76 a month. The sale of a few abalone could support a small family for a month and that has lead to the poaching of an estimated 7 million abalones per year (worth $440 million. That’s assuming the poachers insist on being paid with actual money (many poachers selling wild abalone on South Africa’s black market sell their bounty to the transnational crime syndicates that get them hooked on drugs and then opt to pay the poachers with quaaludes and products that can be turned into crystal meth).
But the potential environmental destruction and elimination of a species is not the most dangerous part of abalone poaching — it’s the fishing process itself.
Abalones live in cold waters, like those off the coast of Japan, New Zealand, and South Africa, where they cling tightly to rocks to avoid being carried away by choppy waters. Those looking for wild abalone have to dive several meters below the surface. They risk the current slamming them against rocks or getting trapped in kelp. It’s a dangerous pursuit even under the best of conditions.
There’s nothing more disappointing at dinner time than a flavorless tomato, except maybe knowing that someone suffered to put the sorry fruit on your plate. One third of tomatoes in the US are produced in Florida, and in the winter that goes up to around 90 percent, and many of them are farmed by modern day slaves.
For decades, people from Guatemala and Mexico have been promised jobs in the US that will pay them enough to support their families or sick parents back home. It’s only after they’ve been trafficked across the border that they realize they’ve been sold on false promises. They are taken to tomatoes farms in Florida where they are told they have to work off the debt they owe their transporters.
They work under the sun 10-12 hours a day, everyday, and then go back to mobile homes that they may be sharing with 20 people. For which they are charged more than $200 in rent every month (that’s on top of the debt they owe their traffickers). If they are paid at all, they earn less than two cents per pound of tomatoes. Some workers tell stories of being beaten and chained. Even worse, some were locked in the back of produce trucks to bypass a commute to the fields in the morning, where they’re exposed to chemicals and pesticides without protection.
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (Immokalee, Florida, is where many of these tomato farms are) has been working to combat the human trafficking that enables this kind of slavery to happen, but there are still people trapped by this system, forced to grow and harvest tomatoes we’ll probably leave on our plates.
Beef and dairy
Beef is one of the least efficient foods, but there’s still a huge demand for it. For every pound of beef produced, 16 pounds of vegetation had to be consumed. Cattle need 28 times the amount of land that pigs and chickens require to grow and thrive. In the US and UK, large swaths of land are being used to feed cows, so that just a few cows can feed people. Cows simply take a lot more than they give.
Though cows’ literal footprints are pretty big, their collective carbon footprint is colossal — and that’s dangerous for the planet and all its inhabitants. “The biggest intervention people could make towards reducing their carbon footprints would not be to abandon cars, but to eat significantly less red meat,” an expert told The Guardian.
In addition to contributing to the destruction of our environment, cattle farming is no different from other industries. Employers exploit their workers, particularly migrant workers, in order to meet demands at a low-cost. In New Mexico, dairy farm workers receive low wages, no overtime, and no holiday or sick pay, on top of the challenging and dirty conditions they bear daily.
In many cultures, meals are social times. People bond over meals, sharing their food and their stories, and that makes it easy to forget the people who made those meals possible, but aren’t at the table. But there is a very real human, and environmental cost, to some of the foods we commonly eat.
But we as individuals and as Global Citizens have the power to change this by being conscientious consumers. What we choose to eat directly impacts what producers choose to make and how much. So it’s important that we ask questions about where our food came from and how it got here.