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April 2006
Defining Organic
By Kymberlie Adams Matthews


One assumption compassionate consumers hold is that workers on organic farms are treated better. And who can blame them? There is a multi-billion dollar industry that hypes the organic label as a standard of living that goes beyond mere food. If you have ever strolled the aisles of Whole Foods—the nation’s leading retailer of organic food—you cannot help but notice the fancy store displays and pamphlets. Brightly colored and upbeat, these advertisements send a clear message that their organic products help protect the environment and farm workers.

Unfortunately, this is not necessarily the case. The fact is, labor standards are not part of the USDA organic certification process. The need for social equality is often overlooked in organic agriculture with worker conditions being as bad or worse than on conventional farms.

We savor our fair trade chocolates and sip our organic wines while forgetting about the men, women and children who harvest and grow our food—our organic food. These farm workers, many of whom seasonally migrate to the U.S. to pick the cucumbers for our salads, the berries for our pies and the grains for our breads, are often treated poorly.

Organic field workers may be free from breathing in toxic pesticides but they still suffer from hazardous working conditions. According to Mark Grossman of United Farm Workers, conditions for workers on small organic farms are as bad or sometimes worse than on the conventional farms. They are not treated any better in terms of salary, hours, benefits or unions. Grossman says an increasing number of small farms employ as many as 20 workers, paying them $6-$7 an hour to hand weed for 10-hour days, six days a week. Organic field workers suffer from chronic back pain and are among the most oppressed and exploited of workers.

Organic’s Lowest Standard
Not many could guess that in every acre of soil lie 50 to 300 million weed seeds or that 2.5 million sprout up on each acre of cropland every year. Competing for water, nutrients, space and sunlight, unattended weeds can often win, completely wiping out harvests.

Today’s industrial farmers spend about $50 per acre on herbicides, while organic farmers have to spend up to $1,000 an acre to keep weeds under control. Organic crops must be weeded far more often than crops treated with chemicals. And while products such as weed flamers, special mulch, infrared weeders, and acid-based herbicides and tools like long hoes—allowing workers to stand upright—are available, they are either viewed as too costly or a threat to delicate crops. Therefore, organic farmers regularly require workers to hand weed. Anyone who has ever tended a garden knows that hand weeding is incredibly labor-intensive, backbreaking work. Organic farm workers are forced to hunch over in the sun for hours without tools, yanking up weeds.

Imagine pulling weeds in a field all day long, six days a week. The resulting back pain for hand weeders is distressingly widespread. Clinics handle thousands of cases of back pain among farm workers each year, making it the number one diagnosis during harvest time. Conditions range from muscle strains to permanent damage such as torn ligaments and ruptured disks.

Labor activists in California, producer of about 63 percent of the country’s total organic produce, tried for over a decade to convince the state legislature to ban hand weeding. Some of the most vociferous opponents were organic farmers. In the fall of 2004, the California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board adopted a regulation banning hand weeding of crops by conventional farm workers if there is no reasonable alternative, but organic growers, however, are completely exempt.
Organically Mass Produced

Whatever happened to the pioneer organic movement that strived to grow healthy foods and advocate for the voices of organic consumers, farmers and processors? When organic meant local, healthy and true to the natural balance of regions? They still exist, but their numbers are dwindling.

Today’s tomato might grow organically but it is most likely mass-produced. As with nearly everything, ever-increasing consumer demand leads to big business takeover. Organic farming is one of the fastest-growing agricultural sectors. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, between 1985 and 1991 the average size of a California certified organic farm more than tripled. In 2000, for the first time, more organic food was sold in conventional supermarkets than in farmers markets or food cooperatives. Today you can find an array of organic goods in all supermarkets, including Wal-Mart.

Large companies are also buying up organic labels and lowering the prices they pay to small farmers—or turning to large mono-crop industrial organic farms. Cascadian Farm and Muir Glen are now owned by General Mills, Knudsen is owned by Smucker’s, and Kashi belongs to Kellogg’s.

Today’s organic farmers claim they are doing their best in a highly competitive market—a market also filling fast with cheap products from overseas producers who are ruled by very few labor policies and loose organic guidelines. Meaning that a growing portion of our organic food isn’t American at all. Companies are cutting costs by importing not only exotic fruits and vegetables, but also traditionally American-grown crops, like soy beans and apples. Cascadian Farm now buys much of its fruits and vegetables from overseas and Trader Joe’s is going to China and South America for its produce.

The Bottom Line
Grassroots organizations such as the Organic Consumer Association and local organic farmer organizations try to preserve the organic way of life. Today’s laws offer little protection for farm workers—those working conventional or organic fields. USDA inspections remain infrequent on conventional farms, and scarcer still on farms that do not use pesticides or chemicals. And while many small organic farmers are concerned about their workers, most will remain unlikely to advocate for the issue when retailers can simply dump them for China.

It really comes down to the consumer. We need to push organizations that certify organic farms to go beyond the federal guidelines and adopt labor standards that assure customers their food is produced in an ethical way. We also need to know as often as possible where our food comes from. Who is picking our strawberries? How are they treated? And what is the definition of organic?

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