Striving for Social Sustainability in Agriculture
Organic farming endeavors to improve the health of the consumer and the environment, but what about the farm worker?

By David Kupfer


Posted August 3, 2004: The organic agriculture movement, now morphed due to its incredible growth into a multibillion-dollar industry, is increasingly looking at ways to further the intention, spirit, and goals of its original ideals. Technical sophistication, diversification, and ecological practices for crop production techniques are now well established and innovative marketing and distribution methods incorporated into business practices. Lagging behind are methods of improving the lot of the farm worker, the frequently unnoticed element of the farm economy equation where human justice is concerned. Gradually, though, social accountability issues in agriculture are being advanced.

Julie Guthman, a U.C. Santa Cruz Community Studies professor and author of the recently published University of California Press book Agrarian Dreams: the Paradox of Organic Farming in California cites two important trends. “People within the movement realize that [social justice issues] were left out of the construction of organic, not only in codification, but in the movement itself, and that they need to be addressed explicitly and deliberately. And there is the growth of movements around fair trade and codes of conduct, though highly flawed, as well as bestseller sales of books like Fast Food Nation demonstrating increased public awareness of the social costs of sustainable agriculture.”

Wouldn't it be nice, ponders Paul Muller, partner at Full Belly Farm ( in Guinda, Calif., “if in the future we judged organic farmers by how well they are taking care of all parts of the agriculture system, making sure farm labor is as healthy and cared for as any other aspect of the farm?”

Full Belly Farm pays its 40 farm workers well above the minimum wage and has made efforts to assist their workers' families by having year-round employment, based on year ‘round production and cash flow. Their longer-term workers receive health care benefits, and Full Belly Farm partners have financially assisted worker families to purchase homes in the community.

"I think a percentage of each crop harvested should go back into improving farm working conditions,” says Muller. But this concept is not easy to implement. In the present agricultural economy, labor is an input where farmers can cut corners when they are frequently caught in the cycle of overproduction and lower prices for farm crops. “The general public needs to realize and value the benefits that farm workers provide our society and see that they are taken care of.”

"Most farmers are wary of new, complex, or onerous standards, but standards advocating for the health and well being for farm workers would continue to differentiate organic agriculture as a healthier system from top to bottom.”

Bettering the condition of our farm workers shouldn't fall solely on the farmer, says Muller, a 25-year veteran of organic farming. “Everyone in the food chain needs to adopt a sense of fairness and responsibility for the well being of farm laborers. It needs to be a partnership through the whole agriculture system, with wholesalers and consumers paying fair prices that then assure that farm workers are adequately compensated in an equitable way. The equation of greater social responsibility needs to be integrated though the whole food system.”

Jim Cochran, farmer and owner of Swanton Berry Farms (, believes that when you treat workers fairly and respectfully, they will be happier and come back. “It costs a lot of money, but it pays off in the way people look at things in terms of the quality of the product and the services that go into them. I hire professional agricultural workers. They should have recognized rights. I think it is all about personalizing the work force.” Swanton Berry Farm is a union, UFW workplace.

With the concept of sustainability, people mostly think about the environment or economy or economic sustainability. More attention is now being given to the idea of social sustainability, which until recently has been sorely neglected. The International Federation of the Organic Agriculture Movements ( is a democratic federation with all fundamental decisions taken at its general assemblies, where its World Board is also elected. IFOAM is advancing a code of conduct for organic trade, a learning tool for integrating social justice issues into organic trading practices—in Europe in particular—and intends to implement a new chapter in their standards.

It is truly an international effort, as the groups creating the international set of social standards for all members are the Fair Trade Labeling Organization International (FLO, Germany), the International Federation For Alternative Trade (IFAT, UK), U-Landsimporten (Denmark), TWIN trading (UK) Equal Exchange (USA), Instituto Biodinamico (Brazil), Rapunzel and Lebensbaum (both Germany), and Sekem (Egypt).

IFOAM recognizes that social justice and social rights are integral parts of organic agriculture and processing. They are researching aspects of labor welfare and rights, making recommendations, and hoping soon to implement new standards via developing guiding documents. IFOAM certifiers would then start to enforce these new rules.

While such concerns are being heard internationally, some resistance has come from the U.S. agriculture community to integrate social justice and farm labor rights into the agriculture industry, organic and otherwise. The need to bring social justice issues into sustainable agriculture domestically is greater than ever before. For example, in California, there is state-mandated pesticide training for farm workers, but there is little or no enforcement. Farm workers may be worried about chemical impacts and hear about such things, but the effect of poisons is frequently invisible and not immediately felt.

American farm workers need a fair livable wage and health benefits. Jim Cochran, owner of Swanton Berry Farm, says, “It was three years after all my workers got health care that I got it! I am the last person to get paid. That is the way it works.”

Cochran continues: “It is important to institutionalize good labor practices. When I first started, I didn’t think about that, it was done informally. After I’d been doing that for a while, I came to realize, it’s good to have a [good social welfare] system and workers who recognize their professionalism is appreciated, that they are professional workers. Professionals have things that go along with being professional and that includes certain protections and forums for speaking and interactions with guarantees.

"The farmer is always painted as the hero. I get so tired of that, the great suffering farmer. Farming is tough, but in truth, the laborers have a tougher time of it. There are a lot of other people who have a tougher time of it than farmers."
“One of the things that I have found, beyond the dollars, is that what we do is an important part of society. We are not people who do not count at all; in fact, we are professional farm workers and the company has spent all this time and money making these systems…”

“The farmer is always painted as the hero. I get so tired of that, the great suffering farmer. Farming is tough, but in truth, the laborers have a tougher time of it. There are a lot of other people who have a tougher time of it than farmers.”

Human rights and worker advocate activists feel that bringing social justice issues to the center of the sustainable agriculture agenda is way past due. California agriculture earns $30 billion in annual sales, a figure three times larger than the combined box office of the motion picture industry in the United States. To develop more sustainability, there needs to be a better understanding of the health and welfare status of farm workers. Until the mid-1990s, no such research existed; there was no baseline data on farm worker health.

Sandra Nichols is a research analyst with the California Institute for Rural Studies ( in Davis where, since 1999, she has studied farm worker health and wellbeing.

“From one California study and several comparable national studies, we’ve found health conditions among farm workers pretty seriously troubling. Although a young population (the median age is 34), one you’d expect to be in prime health and strength, we’ve found a high risk for a lot of chronic disease, heart attack, stroke, asthma, diabetes, high blood pressure, [high] cholesterol. At the same time, farm workers make infrequent medical visits; they are not generally covered by health insurance. The health system is not functioning effectively for this population to get adequate health care. There are serious dental problems—50 percent have never been to a dentist, only 15 percent visited one in past 12 months. There is long-term pain, eye problems, headaches related to pesticide issues. Seventy percent have no health care. Some services are available through employers, but many said they could not pay for them.”

The 700,000 farm workers in California are a critical work force that is politically vulnerable, and frequently victimized. Many additional burdens are placed upon women back home where families are frequently in disintegration due to transnational labor movement. International labor policy has an impact on many local communities.

Farm work can be very dangerous and demanding, creating work injuries related to pesticide use and pressures to work faster, leading to exhaustion and also a lot of mistreatment by foremen. Housing conditions are frequently deplorable, overcrowded, and substandard. Transportation is a serious issue as far as accessing medical care. With no driver’s license, it can be difficult for farm workers to get to health care. There has been a rise in asthma and lung ailments. Mental and emotional conditions, stress, loneliness and depression, and financial pressures can lead to alcohol and drug abuse as a way to deal with this depression and use of methamphetamines to enhance performance during the peak of harvest in order to keep up. Add to this risky sexual behavior, domestic violence, lack of awareness of health services available, language, and cultural barriers and, even if they get to a health clinic, you have the equation for very serious social injustice.

Farm worker wages in the U.S. peaked in the late 1970s, and like the state of farm worker housing, have been in decline ever since. Current services are inadequate. This is truly bi-national issue, since workers spend time in two countries. There are major cultural, political, economic, structural problems that need to be dealt with.

Dr. Aimee Shreck is doing research at the University of California in Davis on social justice and sustainable agriculture, farm labor, organics, and social certification. She points out that there are many international agriculture social justice initiatives compared to weak or nonexistent efforts in the United States. There are exceptions, she says. “In the U.S., there is the Food Alliance in Oregon ( which has environmental and social standards components linked into sustainable agriculture.” Another potent trend in the buy local campaign is the Washington States Fair Trade Apple campaign (, a joint UFW/Food Alliance effort bringing together growers and farm workers on the same side and using that as a marketing tool to mobilize consumers to support Washington apples and farm workers, who are all being hurt by imports.

"We’ve found health conditions among farm workers pretty seriously troubling. Although a young population, one you’d expect to be in prime health and strength, we’ve found a high risk for a lot of chronic disease, heart attack, stroke, asthma, diabetes, high blood pressure, [high] cholesterol."
More and more, social sustainability is happening through certification programs, labeling, and the Social Accountability in Sustainable Agriculture project, SASA ( Launched in 2002, this is an international effort with four partners developing a social and environmental verification and labeling system (involving third party certification). It brings together certification groups working to develop guidelines and tools for social accountability, aiming to improve the social auditing processes in sustainable agriculture and increase cooperation between the various certification system initiatives.

Social Accountability International ( has historically been involved with reforming manufacturing and apparel sweatshops. They have recently started work on agriculture, mostly on a large scale. Dole was the first to be certified by SAI. SAI chose twelve pilot sites around the world from southwest Africa to Central America and the United States with the idea that by partnering together to conduct joint audits, they would learn important methodologies from each other. It’s in the grower’s self-interest to have organic certification and fair trade certification done at same time. Several of the initial concerns raised by certification groups were related to discrimination, freedom of association, working hours (international labor conventions say that workers’ hours would be 48 hours a week maximum, 8 hours a day, 6 days a week), and existence of undocumented workers. This last point is quite controversial, for much of the agricultural labor in the United States is done by undocumented workers. SASA will be finishing up it’s research in about a year.

Stacie Clary, executive director of CALSAWG, the California Sustainable Agriculture Working Group ( observed that a trend is gradually forming. “We are recognizing that small-scale family farmers are suffering economically, and there is some common ground between family farms and workers—both are being hurt. For example, local apple growers in Washington are not able to compete with imported apples, so a project is developing bringing together small farmers with retailers and farm workers so that when consumers go into stores and see that label, they’ll know it’s local, organic, and that certain labor standards have been met. In CALSAWG, we are trying to bring all the stakeholders together to produce a [social standards] document with its principles in place and use that to start a pilot project for farmers to see if using those principles—advertising them at a farmer’s market or through a CSA—helps them increase their sales and to see if consumers find that useful.”

As for evolution in the area of the fair trade movement, in a short period of time there has been incredible progress. Today pineapples, mangos, bananas, and grapes along with coffee, tea, and chocolate bearing Fair Trade Certified stickers are available in scores of supermarkets nationwide, part of a broader movement to make shoppers transfer their values into the food they are buying.

The bananas are from Ecuador, Peru, and the Dominican Republic. Certified Costa Rican pineapples, Peruvian mangoes, and South African grapes are all grown and picked by farm workers now earning a living wage. More than 15 percent of the bananas in the international trade come from certified farms.

At TransFair USA (www.transfairusa. org), the Oakland, Calif.-based nonprofit that certifies Fair Trade products, marketing director Haven Bourque calls it “a watershed moment for fair trade.”

The fair trade idea, paying farm workers in poor countries who grow some of our favorite imported foods a fairer, higher-than-usual wage and other benefits, started out in Europe with coffee and chocolate. Workers also must earn at least minimum wage, though that can be quite low, $2 a day or less, in some poor countries. Fair Trade Certified also means workers have the right to organize, that men and women received equal wages, and that no child labor was used.

The fair trade concept is only five years old in the United States. In Europe, where it took hold much earlier, shoppers buy Fair Trade sugar, honey, tea, and orange juice. Along with other new buzzwords such as ‘certified sustainable’ and ‘responsibly traded,’ Fair Trade Certified food products have been brought to grocery aisles by some of the nation’s biggest food marketers, and not just in the enlightened, crunchy granola, hippie natural food stores, though this is where the genesis of the movement took root.

Coffee farmers, for example, currently get $1.26 a pound for Fair Trade Certified coffee ($1.41 for organic); the commodity price for conventional bean is about 65 cents. ‘Fair Trade Certified’ indicates that the producer has met the requirements of the Fair Trade Labeling Organizations International, which requires farm inspections to guarantee that, among other things, farmers receive a higher-than-commodity price for their products.

Since 1988, Global Exchange ( has been at the forefront of the Fair Trade movement. Its grassroots campaign to promote Fair Trade coffee and cocoa products began in 1999 and has successfully mobilized community activists, religious groups, students, labor unions, and politicians to force corporations like Starbucks to be more socially responsible.

These trends reflect the strength and influence of the anti-globalization/workers rights movements and also the growing concern over the WTO, GATT, NAFTA, and the effects of globalization on third-world workers. The growth of the grassroots movement, combined with the success of the Fair Trade movement in Europe (where the market for Fair Trade Certified products is three times larger in dollar sales than it is in the United States) has persuaded mainstream companies to sign on.

These trends seem to indicate that an increasing number of consumers want to spend more money for socially responsible products. The marketing and advertising wizards have come up with a name for all of these people, ‘LOHAS’ consumers, which stands for ‘lifestyles of health and sustainability,’ a term coined to describe the popularity of products tied to interests such as yoga, organic food, and products that embody social consciousness. Last year the Natural Marketing Institute, a health-products consulting firm based in Harleysville, Pa., found that a third of U.S. consumers qualified as LOHAS, meaning they were significantly motivated in their purchases by concern for their health and the environment. That number was up from 30 percent the previous year.

"Everyone in the food chain needs to adopt a sense of fairness and responsibility for the well being of farm laborers. It needs to be a partnership through the whole agriculture system, with wholesalers and consumers paying fair prices that then assure that farm workers are adequately compensated in an equitable way."
In just the past year, sales of Fair Trade Certified products are up nearly 50 percent, largely because these products are moving into places like Dunkin’ Donuts. In just five years, Fair Trade Certified coffee has captured mort than 5 percent of specialty coffee sales.

The quick growth of socially and environmentally oriented labels and certifiers has the consumer advocacy group Consumers Union tracking 110+ designations, from bird-friendly to honoring indigenous populations. (Check out

In California, voters have mandated living wages for workers in the cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco. Many farm workers earn less than the minimum wage. In this country, there seems to be a prevailing attitude that it is our due to have the cheapest food possible in the marketplace. The people picking and planting crops are not looked on as citizens. In fact, they frequently are not even citizens!

How can we exalt the role and position of farm workers in our society? This is a fundamental challenge for the movement for greater social justice at home. It seems the answer lies in part in respecting and acknowledging the people who actually do the work. Farm workers tend not to be particularly respected by our society in general, yet many bring indigenous information and most have a work ethic that supersedes that of the general population.

The good news is that the Fair Trade movement on the international production and domestic consumption levels has spread, and succeeded, so quickly. Social codes of conduct for organic farming are in development and use in Europe and elsewhere. There is a growing movement for social justice for farm workers around the world. The bad news is that, domestically, the state of our farm workers is deplorable. Farm workers remain some of the lowest paid laborers in the United States. However, the trend for greater employer accountability for workers’ welfare and social justice is growing.

“I believe organic will have greater resonance among the consumers if social responsibility standards are considered, adopted, and communicated to the public,” offers Paul Muller of Full Belly Farm. “That will in turn result in a greater bottom line for farmers, who can see that return go back to their workers.”

David Kupfer is a Northern California based writer and environmental consultant, educator, and activist whose work has appeared in Hope, Yes, Progressive, AdBusters, Whole Earth, Earth Island Journal, and CCOF News. He has lived and worked on four organic farms, and grows watercress for Chez Pannise at Olala Farm on the San Juan Ridge near the Yuba river. A graduate of UC Davis College of Agriculture, he has worked on the annual Eco-Farm conference for many years.