‘Organic’ Doesn’t Mean ‘Fair to Workers’

Buyers of organic produce actively seek it out because they believe it will be more environmentally sound, sustainable, and nutritious[1. In some cases; some studies indicate that organic production methods can result in higher nutrition value, while others do not.]. Some may also be operating under the impression that labourers on organic farms receive fair treatment, because that seems like it would go along with the organic ethos; it seems odd to think of exploiting workers to produce foods that are ‘ethical,’ after all. Yet, many consumers don’t conduct a lot of research into the sources of their organic food to determine whether workers actually are treated fairly, and the scene on organic farms can be just as bad as it is on conventional ones.

It is important to be aware of what the organic label is and is not. Rooted in the idea that it is important to move away from petroleum-based pesticides, herbicides, and other crop treatments, the label places restrictions on how food can be grown and what kind of conditions can be present on farms. This doesn’t mean that crops are never treated, however; copper sulfate is widely used on organic farms, for instance, and it can cause poisoning if it is applied by workers without inadequate protections.

Furthermore, materials used for mulching on organic farms can contain residue from spraying conventional crops, something some farms may actually take advantage of as a management strategy. By using sprayed material for mulch, they can cut down on infestations while still legally meeting the organic standard. Mulch can also include bone meal and refuse from slaughterhouses; so much for organic vegetables being vegetarian. Soy in particular, as a heavy feeder crop, is almost always grown with help from animal products.

And, of course, organic farms are not necessarily small. ‘Organic’ may draw a picture of a quiet, sleepy farm with nice folksy people handling the tilling by hand. Industrial organic, however, is the name of the game; organic farms are just as large as their conventional counterparts, they use the same heavy equipment and aggressive techniques, and they also rely heavily on a pool of maltreated labourers, many of whom work for poor wages, in harsh conditions, without even basic protections like masks to wear while spraying.

Most organic farms in California do not pay a living wage or offer any kind of benefits, just like their conventional counterparts. Workers complain of the same problems seen on conventional farms, including wage theft, forced labour, long working hours, unsafe conditions, and favouritism from supervisors. The bottom line is that people want and expect cheap food, and treating workers fairly makes food more expensive. Many organic workers can’t even afford to buy the crops they grow and harvest, and have difficulty meeting the needs of their families.

This doesn’t sound very much like food justice. In fact, it sounds like the opposite of food justice, which is notable coming from farms that are directly profiting from the way they position themselves: as ethical companies producing foods consumers can feel good about eating. Many people are not educated about the facts behind the organic label, and are unaware of what they are really buying when they purchase foods in the belief that they are ethical. Foods carrying this certification aren’t genetically modified, and aren’t treated with petroleum-based products (for the most part, with a growing list of exceptions), but that’s it. There’s no requirement to, for example, protect the soil, let alone treat workers fairly and honestly.

And, of course, organic certification has become commodified. It’s expensive to get and maintain, which means many small farms cannot afford it, even though they use practices more in keeping with the original tenets of the organic movement. In fact, they’re often working in a beyond organic fashion, because they consider more than the chemicals they do and don’t use and the genetics of their crops; they think about the community, their workers, the soil, the environment. Uneducated consumers just look for the ‘organic’ label, though, which means they bypass products from these farms under the mistaken impression that their offerings aren’t as ethical or environmentally sound.

Farmers resist calls for better labour practices in part because they argue they are too expensive, and also because of the belief in agricultural exceptionalism, which has been (and is) used to justify abuses in the industry:

In this respect, organic farmers join most other growers and agricultural industry boosters who use the discourse of agricultural exceptionalism, which is the idea that the agricultural sector is culturally different and deserves to be exempt from the labor standards of other industries. Agricultural exceptionalism, which favors farmers at the expense of farmworkers, has historically guided national and state policy. The ideology also pervades the organic and sustainable agriculture movements, which tend to conceptualize social justice as justice for farmers, not farmworkers.

Farm workers deserve food justice too; not just access to fresh, healthy, safe food, but also the right to work in safe, healthy, clean conditions. Organic or not, farm workers shouldn’t have to rely on horse troughs for water, be unable to afford the crops they produce, or live in filthy conditions provided by employers who may well charge for the ‘privilege’ of being housed on the farm. And consumers need to start being more aggressive when it comes to demanding better conditions for workers, because organic food produced by exploited workers is not at all ethical.

The Food Justice Certified label is taking this issue on, creating a method for evaluating farms to certify them as worker-friendly. It’s a good start, especially if consumers start looking for it and asking for it, sending a signal to farms that worker abuses will not be tolerated. Here’s hoping it isn’t diluted the way the organic label was.