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Risk of forced labour embedded in the US fruit and vegetable supply

Abstract

Sustainable food consumption studies have largely focused on promoting human health within ecological limits. Less attention has been paid to social sustainability, in part because of limited data and models. Globally, agriculture has one of the highest incidences of forced labour, with exploitative conditions enabled by low margins, domestic labour scarcity, inadequate legal protections for workers and high labour requirements. Here we assess the forced labour risk embedded in the US retail supply of fruits and vegetables using distinct datasets and a new forced labour risk scoring method. We demonstrate that there is risk of forced labour in a broad set of fruit and vegetable commodities, with a small number of commodities accounting for a substantial fraction of total risk at the retail supply level. These findings signal potential trade-offs and synergies across dimensions of food system sustainability and the need for novel research approaches to develop evidence-based forced labour risk mitigation strategies.

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Fig. 1: Risk of forced labour per serving of fruits consumed in the United States.
Fig. 2: Risk of forced labour per serving of vegetables consumed in the United States.
Fig. 3: Contributions to total forced labour risk in the US retail fruit and vegetable supplies.

Data availability

All results data generated during the study and select input data are available in the Supplementary Information. The supply and origin data that support the findings of this study are available from the FAO (http://www.fao.org/faostat/en/#data) and the US Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service (https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/food-availability-per-capita-data-system/). The price data that support the findings of this study are available from the US Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service (https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/fruit-and-vegetable-prices/). The forced labour and governance data that support the findings of this study are available from the US Department of Labor, Bureau of International Labor Affairs (https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab), US Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor and Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (https://www.state.gov/), Verité (https://www.verite.org/) and the Walk Free Foundation (https://www.globalslaveryindex.org/about/the-index/). All other data are available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request. Source data are provided with this paper.

Code availability

R code supporting this study is available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request.

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Acknowledgements

We gratefully acknowledge E. Rodríguez-Huerta, who assisted with the preparation of the final figures. J.L.D.S. was supported by the Nottingham Research Fellowship, University of Nottingham. T.R. was supported by the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, Tufts University. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Contributions

N.T.B. and J.L.D.S. conceptualized the study. N.T.B., C.B.N. and J.L.D.S. designed the methodology. N.T.B. developed the code. T.R., B.J., J.L.D.S., C.B.N. and N.T.B. collected and analysed the data. N.T.B. and J.L.D.S. wrote the original draft, and all authors contributed to editing and revising the manuscript. N.T.B. and J.L.D.S. supervised and administered the project. All authors reviewed and approved the final manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Nicole Tichenor Blackstone.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

N.T.B., J.L.D.S., T.R. and B.J. declare no competing interests. C.B.N. declares that she began a position as a Research Scientist in Social Responsibility with Amazon when this research was near completion. Her contribution to this research has been as an independent expert consultant in social life cycle assessment and separate from her role at Amazon. C.B.N. is also the Chief Operating Officer of NewEarth B and Executive Director of the Social Hotspots Database project. Data from the Social Hotspots Database were provided free of charge for academic use in this research.

Additional information

Peer review information Nature Food thanks Stefan Gold, Erin O’Connor and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Fig. 1 and Methods.

Reporting Summary

Supplementary Data 1

Supplementary Tables 1–8.

Source data

Source Data Fig. 1

Source data for per-serving risk of fruit.

Source Data Fig. 2

Source data for per-serving risk of vegetables.

Source Data Fig. 3

Source data for proportions in contribution analysis.

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Blackstone, N.T., Norris, C.B., Robbins, T. et al. Risk of forced labour embedded in the US fruit and vegetable supply. Nat Food 2, 692–699 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43016-021-00339-0

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