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From April 25, 2005

Organic Farm Labor Practices Evaluated In University Study
(Beyond Pesticides, April 25, 2005)
Other than major workplace safety improvements resulting from the elimination of hazardous pesticides, farm labor practices are no better on California organic farms than on conventional, pesticide-intensive farms, according to a University of California study. This finding is based on survey responses from 188 California organic growers. While organic standards have established improved workplace and environmental benefits, current organic certification does not contain a “social certification” that evaluates overall workplace practices to ensure that they are fair, safe, healthy, and equitable for farmworkers.

Because organic agriculture rules prohibit many toxic pesticides, and organic producers are perceived as social activists, consumers may assume that farmworkers get more benefits from organic production than conventional, pesticide-intensive agriculture. However, organic certification does not specify working conditions for farm labor.

"Agriculture in general doesn't provide employment benefits found in most other sectors such as medical insurance and retirement plans," said Gail Feenstra, food systems analyst with the UC Davis-based statewide Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SAREP) and co-author of the study.

In an article in Sustainable Agriculture (Winter-Spring 2005, vol.7, no.1), the study authors wrote the following:

“While “organic” and “sustainable” are not interchangeable terms, organic is frequently associated with the broader concept of sustainable agriculture, which integrates environmental health, economic profitability, and social and economic equity. Moreover, in the last few years, the organic movement has seriously debated if and how to incorporate social criteria into organic standards and certification requirements. The most ambitious effort is taking place at the international level. In 2003, the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) adopted a new chapter on social justice for its Basic Standards (essentially, “standards for standards” that IFOAM-accredited certifiers must comply with). For years, organizations like California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) and more recently the California Sustainable Agriculture Working Group have been debating the idea of social standards, but the idea has never been popular enough for social standards to be seriously considered. Today there appears to be stronger interest in making a clear link between social justice and organic agriculture at this international level. In light of these developments, we conducted a study to better understand the developments related to social certification and organic agriculture in California.”

"We found that even though organic products often bring higher prices, in most cases, it doesn't make enough for small- and mid-sized farmers to be 'socially sustainable,'" Ms. Feenstra said. "Organic growers themselves may not have health insurance, and often can't pay for worker insurance."

Ms. Feenstra; Christy Getz, assistant Cooperative Extension specialist at UC Berkeley; and Aimee Shreck, SAREP postdoctoral researcher, analyzed surveys from almost 200 California organic farmers to find out what conditions laborers face and what the farmers thought their "social responsibility" to workers should be.

The study results were surprising, Dr. Shreck said.

Even though fair, safe, healthy and equitable working conditions for hired labor are considered central to agricultural labor certification programs, less than half the surveyed growers wanted them to be required, she said.

"It is important to recognize that growers may agree with these ideas, but they disagree that organic certification is the way to address them," Dr. Shreck said. "Some told us that even though they personally believe organic agriculture should provide fair and healthy working conditions for farmworkers, they find that it just isn't economically possible for them at this time given the realities of the market."

The majority of those responding were small- and mid-sized growers who farm 50 acres or less and report less than $50,000 in annual sales. Two-thirds of the responding farmers hire workers in addition to their own families.

"We asked about specific areas that could be adopted by organic certifiers, such as a requirement to provide health insurance or pay living wages," she said. Most respondents felt that such measures would be too hard on them financially.

"Amazingly, about 40 percent of the respondents 'strongly disagree' with one of the proposed requirements, to 'respect farmworkers' right to bargain collectively,' even though it is already required by California law [under the Agriculture Labor Relations Act of 1975]," said Ms. Getz.

Findings from this study provide insight into what organic agriculture might mean for farmworkers, she said.

"We did find important exceptions to these results -- farmers whose practices are atypical, yet show that under some circumstances an organic production system can be environmentally, economically, and socially sustainable," Ms. Getz said. "We're looking more closely at these examples."

The authors concluded that to create production conditions that are favorable to a broader view of "socially sustainable," change is needed in the entire food system.

"Labor issues within the sustainable agriculture and organic communities must be examined in the context of the entire food chain -- production, processing, distribution and consumption," Ms. Getz said. "That's when ag will be truly sustainable -- ecologically sound, economically viable, and socially responsible."

The article in Sustainable Agriculture concludes,

“This study suggests that, at best, halfhearted support exists for social certification within organic agriculture in California. Our findings question expectations that organic agriculture systems necessarily foster social, or even economic sustainability for most farmers and farmworkers involved. Indeed, many farmers themselves forgo the kinds of employment benefits available to workers in most other sectors. A representative of the California Certified Organic Farmers Foundation summed up the situation as follows: “You go organic and get there and you’re still in a system set up for failure. It’s failing the farms, and it’s failing the farmworkers, and it’s failing the farm communities.”

“Our findings are very much in line with this viewpoint, also espoused in the literature (see Allen et al.). We suggest that to create production conditions that are favorable to a broader conception of social justice, change is needed in the entire food system, not just at the point of production. Indeed, to move beyond the silence about labor within the sustainable agriculture and organic communities, we must situate these issues in the context of the entire food chain (production, processing, distribution and consumption). Only then can we hope to envision and create agriculture that is characterized by a truly comprehensive definition of sustainability: ecologically sound, economically viable, and socially responsible.”

Media contact: Lyra Halprin, (530) 752-8664, lhalprin@ucdavis.edu

Study contacts:
Gail Feenstra, UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SAREP) food systems analyst, (530) 752-8408, gwfeenstra@ucdavis.edu
Christy Getz, UC Berkeley assistant Cooperative Extension specialist, (510) 642-8681, cgetz@nature.berkeley.edu
Aimee Shreck, SAREP postdoctoral researcher (530) 220-2870, ashreck@mac.com

TAKE ACTION. As a consumer concerned about social justice and sustainable practices, contact the companies that produce the food you buy and ask them about their labor practices. If the company is a food processor, ask them to share with you the labor practices of the growers that they buy from.