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Organic food is booming, but it's grinding field laborers into the dirt

The well-being of organic farmworkers is falling to the wayside as we rapidly increase our consumption of these premium products

Nicholas Karavolias

Plant Biology and Agricultural Science

UC Berkeley

Gleaming organic products have come to occupy an increasingly large portion of grocery store shelves. Many may think that compared to traditional agriculture, organic foods are healthier, containing more nutrients and fewer pesticide residues. Today, more health-conscious consumers seek the nationally recognized “USDA Organic” seal more than ever before. But what is often overlooked is the health of many of the laborers who produce organic foods.

Hidden beneath the sheen of vibrant produce is a darker reality. Contrary to popular belief, organic farms are allowed to use pesticides. (The only caveat is that the chemicals have to be naturally derived, unlike the synthetic pesticides used in conventional production). Organic food often still uses organically-certified pesticides, which may impact both the health of the food and the health of the people growing it.

Organic produce is in high demand these days, particularly among health- and environmentally-conscious consumers

 Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash 

The problems extend well beyond potential pesticide exposure. Synthetic pesticides and genetically modified crops are effective—by choosing not to use them, organic agriculture requires more manually-intensive labor—sometimes as much as 35 percent more. Herbicides used in organic farming are often less effective at eradicating weeds, requiring more physical weeding. Because organic farms don't use as much fertilizer, cover crops are needed to enhance soil nitrogen levels—which in turn increases the amount of labor time invested in each field. 

These are just a few examples of the many ways labor multiplies in organic systems: A comparison of physical work hours required per acre of tomatoes, for instance, found that organic systems required 34 percent more labor than conventional systems. (Pumpkins required 13 percent more, and sweet corn, seven.) Increased labor requirements in organic systems—the need to do more by hand, rather than relying on chemicals—creates the possibility for farmworkers to be exploited.

But there is a major deficit in research on work conditions on organic farms. Although they don't separate out statistics for organic farms, existing studies do highlight the common exploitation of farmworkers—insufficient compensation, poor housing conditions, and exposure to numerous workplace hazards. Harsh working conditions can lead to high rates of injuries, debilitating mental health issues, and overall low quality of life. Ironically, farm workers exhibit high rates of food insecurity: Studies have found up to 80 percent of farmworker households experience food insecurity. Adding to the problem is the fact that the majority of agricultural laborers are undocumented. Lacking legal status can reduce bargaining power for working conditions and wages, and keeps laborers from using federal assistance programs like food stamps or Medicaid. 

More attention should be paid to organic farmworkers, many of whom experience physical and mental ailments as a result of their work

 Photo by Elaine Casap on Unsplash 

As organic production takes up more retail shelf space, specific attention ought to be paid to the people working to produce it. Without studies examining organic farm working conditions, it's hard to say what kinds of protections are needed. A recent study found that organic farmers in California were “at best, lukewarm” about adopting social certifications in their practice. And only 24.5 percent of the growers interviewed agreed that organic certification should include criteria on working conditions. This is not to say that these employers are necessarily apathetic to the conditions of their employees; they may be limited in their ability to effectively respond, as producers often face intense time and budget constraints. 

Given the general need for better farmworker protections, further research into the specific experience of organic agricultural laborers is essential. One step in the right direction could be the prioritization of farmworker rights in certification systems, both new and existing. It wouldn't be the first time a change like this made a big difference—it's how the organic movement itself started. Beginning in the 1940s, consumers called for healthier, environmentally-conscious food—spawning organic certification. In 2017, certified organic food sales totaled $49.4 billion dollars. 

There are already some certification programs geared toward farmworker protections: Fair Trade, one of the most significant movements to incorporate farm worker justice, conferred its first certification to a farm in the USA just two years ago. Similarly, the Fair Food Program certification, spearheaded by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, advocates for living wages and better working conditions for farmworkers. 

Consumers may not know it, but they do have the power to improve the conditions of the people who grow their food. Armed with awareness, the modern shopper can play a major role in helping to ensure organic food starts to actually mean "healthy" for everyone.  

Comment Peer Commentary

We ask other scientists from our Consortium to respond to articles with commentary from their expert perspective.

Lauren Sara McKee

Microbiology, Biochemistry, and Agricultural Science

KTH Royal Institute of Technology

 This is a really interesting take on sustainability in organic farming, and a great read! There is a general lack of awareness about what “organic” really means - farmers are even allowed to use nasty things  like heavy metal toxins, as long as they’re of “natural origin”, and I think that very few consumers realize this. Exposure of farmworkers to  these organically certified pesticides is a clear danger - but I have to admit I’d never really considered the huge additional manual labour  required on an organic farm, so this article was eye-opening. Social  equity seems to be getting lost here, which is really sad and goes against the tenets of true sustainability.

The article states that many farmers are lukewarm about adopting social certifications in their practice, presumably because they fear the  expense. It would be really interesting to see the results of a large-scale consumer survey - how much are people willing to pay for produce that is organically AND ethically farmed? 

Nicholas Karavolias responds:

That would be very interesting. Generally, the support for this type of research is incredibly limited. The most powerful lobbies behind oil are food! 

JoEllen McBride

Astrophysics

I would also be interested to see a short list of what consumers can do to advocate for the ethical treatment of workers, besides looking at what they buy. Can they talk to their state and federal representatives if they live in a farming community? Are there local chapters of those organizations mentioned at the end of the article that people can  support?

Also, the fact that farm workers lack food security is enraging…

Nicholas Karavolias responds:

In terms of local activism, that really depends where you live and to what extent you are willing to get involved. There are already farmers practicing environmental and social sustainability practices. I think finding a way of amplifying those individuals via your own activism would be the most productive thing you could do. 

Jaime Chambers

Anthropology

Washington State University

I really enjoyed this piece, Nicholas! Thank you for writing about aspects of sustainability that too easily get left out of the big umbrella of that word. Without social justice as part of the package, “sustainability” really doesn’t live up to its meaning – it cannot last if it doesn’t bring everyone along.

The popular images of organic farming seem to erase the labor it demands. This is true for food production in general, I think, but "organic" especially conjures images of “letting nature do its work.” Your mention of organic farming requiring more manual labor especially interested me because of this – it is discordant with wishful public imagery, bound up in the hope of making more ethical choices.

I think you’re spot-on that growers’ reluctance to incorporate working conditions as part of the Organic Certification process may not necessarily be about apathy, but rather a glimpse into systemic constraints. It was interesting to stumble on this study on Organic Certification in Mexico and the DR (which posits that certification as it stands now exacerbates socio-economic inequalities in both places). Perhaps a major question is: with systemic pressure to stay afloat, what kind of farms are able to buck the status quo and treat workers better – and what can the average consumer do to support them?

Luyi Cheng

Molecular Biology and Structural Biology

Northwestern University

I’m really glad I came across this article! I found it while digging more into the USDA Organic label for putting together a presentation on food labels in the US. Your article provided a really insightful perspective on the forgotten field laborers that have to put in extremely intensive labor to produce organic crops. I ended up mentioning this issue as an overlooked down side that comes with the ‘Organic’ food label. Reading through this also helped me realize that it’s an additional important conversation to have about food labels – food labels are meant to keep us informed about what we’re consuming, but how can we consider them transparent if most are left unaware of the consequences on farmworkers?

“Given the general need for better farmworker protections, further research into the specific experience of organic agricultural laborers is essential. One step in the right direction could be the prioritization of farmworker rights in certification systems, both new and existing.”

To me, this ended up being such a significant take away point. I’ll definitely keep it in mind. Thank you for this great article!

Marnie Willman

Virology

University of Manitoba Bannatyne and National Microbiology Laboratory

This was an excellent read! I am always surprised by how many people believe 100% one way or the other - that organic foods are great or terrible. There is a happy medium that would serve people better in that organic foods can be better, but are not necessarily so. Like natural medicines and many other “healthy” options, they need to be put under the same analyses as their competitors. Without surveillance of the workers’ health, productivity, and true health benefits of both growing and consumption, who is to say which is better, organic or non-organic? Very excellent points, and a good analysis of an issue that needs more attention than ever, in a time when organic foods have taken the world by storm. 

Iflah Shahid

Chemical Biology, Chemical Engineering, Neuroscience, Psychology, and Chemistry

University of Waterloo

This was an excellent and eye-opening article. Having a background in chemistry, I’ve often found myself feeling frustrated at the lack of awareness surrounding organic farming and the use of chemicals in agricultural practices. That said, I’ve never really stopped to consider the effect of organic farming on farmers, particularly in terms of the labour costs as well as the farmers’ food security. The fact that farmers working on these farms lack food security is disheartening, and shows that there is still much work to be done to make agricultural practices truly sustainable; environmentally, economically, and socially. It would be interesting to know if there are differences in organic farmer health based on where they are located, and whether policies exist in other countries to promote better health and sustainability on organic farms.