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The Organic Movement’s Hidden Labor Costs

Migrant workers carefully choose and cutoff squash, destined for a supermarket, from Kirby Farms, a third-generation family farm, who have for more than a century, worked their land in Mechanicsville, VA, just outside Richmond, in a year-around operation, that covers 500 acres, and generates produce and grains, on Friday, Sept 20, 2013. Today’s harvest is sweet potatoes and squash. 200 acres of the farm are devoted to eggplant, spinach, beets, tomato, Jalapeno peppers, melons and a variety of greens. Soybeans and small grain are grown on the remaining 300 acres. The fertile Virginia soil and their management practices, allows Kirby Farms to double and triple crop fields with rotational crop selection. Wholesalers along the Mid-Atlantic from North Carolina to Maryland supply their produce to major supermarkets. Restaurateurs in the local area prepare and serve their harvest to patrons in the Richmond metropolitan area. U.S. Department of Agriculture Photo by Lance Cheung.

Organic foods have exploded in popularity since the 1990s. 45 percent of Americans actively seek to include organic foods in their diets, and these products are available in three out of four conventional grocery stores. The fact that organic foods can cost up to twice as much as their conventionally grown counterparts hasn’t seemed to quell its ascent to popularity. However, there is a hidden cost that consumers do not see — the poor working conditions of the laborers on organic farms. Organic and local foods are often assumed to be inherently superior to conventional produce grown with pesticides, or meat raised on a diet of grain instead of grass. Yet, while this may be true nutritionally or environmentally, it is not true ethically; organic farm workers face similar or worse conditions than their counterparts on conventional farming operations. Shoppers who pride themselves on being “locavores,” “foodies,” or conscious consumers should consider the conditions of workers, along with animals and the environment, when buying food.

The horrifying conditions on many industrial conventional farms are well documented. Recent popular documentaries, such as Food Inc, contrast idyllic images of pastoral farms with the harsh realities of the conventional food system — beef cows crammed into feedlots, eggs farmed from chickens so overweight they can’t stand up. The Food Inc. directors also delve into an area that many food activists often overlook — the inhumane conditions of the farm workers who oversee these animals and crops. On conventional farms, laborers deal with health complications from inhaling the pesticides sprayed on crops to kill weeds. Meatpacking is considered one of the most hazardous industries in the United States according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Food Inc. argues that meatpacking workers are treated like “human machines.” Their supervisors have little regard for the dangers of operating fast-moving machinery, slicing beef and hog carcasses with sharp tools, and heavy lifting — all of which result in hundreds of serious hand, wrist, and back injuries annually.

Furthermore, laborers’ poor conditions extend beyond their workplace. The majority of undocumented or temporary agriculture workers brought to the United States under the H-2A guest worker program live in housing provided by their employers. On one New York dairy operation, up to thirteen workers are forced to sleep in shifts because their two-bedroom mobile home only boasts seven beds — including a makeshift bed constructed out of pieces of plywood stretched across a bathtub. Labor organizations such as Justice for Farmworkers have attempted to employ collective bargaining practices to lobby for improved working and living conditions. However, many workers, especially those who are undocumented, are unwilling to risk their current benefits and salaries, however minimal they may be.

Organic is often portrayed as an alternative to these documentary-demonized conventional farming practices. However, what is missing in organic ad campaigns and even in the USDA’s definition of certified organic, is concern about labor practices. In her book, Labor and the Locavore: The Making of a Comprehensive Food Ethic, Adelphi University political science professor Margaret Gray writes that unconventional foods are sold as products that are superior without explanation. Ads and product packaging depicting cows grazing in a pasture, or a tractor rolling through a cornfield, play upon American agrarian romanticism, an idea of the farmer as the ideal citizen in a Jeffersonian democracy.

However, laborers on organic farms often face similar or comparable hazards to their conventionally employed counterparts. Ross Cheit, political science professor at Brown University, cites that the decision by organic farmers to forego pesticides means that laborers do not have to inhale toxic fumes, but they do “spend much more time weeding, which can be back-breaking work.” Furthermore, the living conditions on organic farms are often identical to those on non-organic operations.

Unfortunately, the rising awareness of the pitfalls of our food system and the growing popularity of organic and local foods has not led to increased awareness of working conditions. According to Cheit, “labor practices have largely been overlooked in the popular discourse about food.” Margaret Gray explains this disconnect with a simple observation: consumers “don’t eat the workers.” Conscious eaters care that their beef comes from grass-fed cows or their strawberries were grown without the use of herbicides — ingesting this food can positively impact both the health of their bodies and the natural environment they live in. Whether or not the farmworker who picked those strawberries had access to a comfortable bed or a reasonable wage does not impact the consumer as directly or visibly.

The problem of labor practices on farms, organic or not, is sustained by high consumer demand for cheap, easily accessible produce. The popularity of organic foods has risen in all markets, especially in direct farm to consumer sales. These include farmers markets, roadside stands, or Community Sponsored Agriculture (CSA) programs in which consumers sponsor a local farm in exchange for a regular basket of seasonal produce or meat. The organic and local foods movements are closely intertwined as consumers try to foster a connection to where their food comes from, but not who grows it.

Large food sellers are currently competing to capitalize on organic’s rise in popularity. The percentage of individuals who actively seek organic foods rises as income rises. Yet even for those with annual incomes under $30,000, almost twice as many seek organic rather than avoid it. Therefore, most consumers, even those with little disposable income, are able to justify organic’s price markup by means of its connotations of health and sustainability.

Given this broad-based popularity, many retailers are fighting over the organic food market. When Costco’s organic food sales eclipsed Whole Food’s for the first time in 2015, Whole Foods lowered its prices and launched a “Values Matter” marketing campaign to explain “where its products come from and the values behind them.” The supermarket’s reforms included adherence to sustainable seafood standards, and a system of animal welfare standards for meat and “Responsibly Grown” ratings for produce.

Before the rise of Farm to Table restaurants and Costco’s organic offerings, the majority of consumers did not prioritize that their milk came from “happy cows,” nor did they considero how many carbon miles were used to transport an orange from Florida to Michigan. But after nutritional and environmental considerations became more widespread, people began to change their priorities. Consumers who care about the environment and animal welfare should also place farmworkers on their activist agendas. In particular, they must educate themselves about the labor practices involved in producing their food. The health of those who pick the apples, bag the lettuce, and milk the cows is just as integral to fostering a sustainable and ethical food system.



About the Author

Quinn Bornstein '18 is a US Section staff writer and a polisci concentrator on the American track. She runs for Brown's cross country and track teams and stays in touch with her Vermont roots with a compulsory weekly trip to Ben & Jerry's.