Within the first 10 days of his administration, President Donald Trump worked swiftly to enact many of his campaign promises, including one of the most bizarre and infamous: building “the wall.” Trump’s border wall is a terrible, no good, very bad idea for many reasons, but here’s another one: It could break the food system.
Large sections of the US-Mexico border — about 700 miles in all — are, in fact, already fenced and patrolled by law enforcement. Around 11 million people in the United States are undocumented or unauthorized immigrants, including many of Central and South American origin. These individuals work, pay taxes, spend money on goods and services and contribute over a trillion dollars to the US economy.
While many Americans associate agricultural, restaurant and housekeeping work with “undocumented workers,” in fact, unauthorized immigrants work in a range of industries — and that’s in addition to attending school and caring for family members.
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However, it’s certainly true that the United States heavily depends upon undocumented immigrants for farm labor. Somewhere between 50 and 70 percent of farmworkers are undocumented, and critically, legal residents and citizens don’t want their jobs.
Your food relies on inexpensive undocumented labor to reach your plate. Without workers, farmers will have no choice but to watch their crops rot in the fields, creating shortages that will hit the grocery store. But not all foods are created equal.
Fruit prices will likely start to rise first, followed by vegetables, because both are very labor intensive. Next will be animal products, beginning with dairy and moving to meat and eggs. Staples like grains and beans, which can be harvested mechanically, will eventually follow. On average, food prices could rise by around six percent.
Imported foods aren’t as subject to these circumstances, but their prices may go up as well — especially as dwindling US supply puts pressure on imports to make up the difference.
These effects will hit low-income Americans especially hard. Many already struggle to get enough fresh fruit and vegetables in their diets, and these foods could turn into pricey luxuries.
That’s going to be compounded by another problem: likely cuts to government programs that help people buy food. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Plan (SNAP) is a common target for conservative cuts. Right as food becomes more expensive, people will have a more difficult time affording it.
These breaks in the food system could also be terrible for farmers. If producers can’t support themselves, they may end up selling out to large agricultural conglomerates who don’t have the same respect for the soil – and the animals — involved in food production.
Building the wall could cost upwards of $50 billion, with additional annual costs for maintenance and staffing. And that will also impact the food system. With the government dedicating considerable funds to construction, it will be looking for other areas to cut spending.
For example, Trump also signed an executive order setting out the terms of a hiring freeze that will affect the civil servants who conduct food safety inspections, assist farmers with a variety of needs, administer agricultural grant programs and conduct agricultural research to improve the sustainability and efficiency of the food system.
This administration’s demonstrated hostility to science presents even more challenges for the food system. The US population needs a steady supply of safe food, but it also needs production practices rooted in science in order to remain sustainable.
We must understand how to farm more holistically to protect resources for future generations, for example, which includes developing reliable low-water farming techniques in drought-prone agricultural regions like California. Science has also helped us develop farming techniques that protect valuable habitat and open spaces.
A better understanding of how crops grow has helped us develop more targeted techniques for fertilizing those crops, including investing in alternatives to harsh agricultural chemicals that harm people, animals and the environment. Science has contributed immeasurably to the quality, safety and sustainability of everything we eat. We must retain those gains.