Keeping Social Justice in Organic Agriculture

Elizabeth Henderson, CSA farmer and author, speaks of the efforts around the world towards a model of agriculture in which sustainability and justice are inextricably linked.

by Elizabeth Henderson, CSA farmer 

Living wages for farmers, dignified working conditions, respect for indigenous knowledge, protection of the local economy: these are essential to the common understanding of organic agriculture. In the United States, many of the consumers who have contributed to the recent boom in organic agriculture expect the organic label to mean social justice and fairness as well as ecological production practices. They are startled to realize that U.S. organic standards leave out any mention of these points. However, a task force of 40 organic farmers and researchers convened by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM)
included social justice as one of the key points in the 2005 revision of its Principles of Organic Agriculture, and around the world, there are many exciting efforts underway to guarantee that fair and ethical trade is part of the meaning of organic.

The Soil Association, the respected British organic agriculture organization, has a long-term project to implement Ethical Organic standards in England. When these standards are fully in effect, every ingredient of every product that bears the organic label will have been created under fair working conditions and fairly traded up and down the entire food chain.

  • In Thailand, Green Net has organized over 1,000 farming families into local groups producing rice, silk, coconut, and fruit. Green Net provides technical support for the groups’ conversion to organic methods and markets produce as both certified organic and fair-trade. To join Green Net, farmers must agree to attend monthly meetings, convert their fields to organic, grow at least three vegetables for their own subsistence, and produce some value-added product such as fabrics, dried fruit, or honey.
  • Recognizing that a great majority of the people doing organic farming around the world cannot afford organic certification fees, IFOAM has teamed up with Movimiento Agroecologico de Latina America e el Caribe to create guidelines and work towards the recognition of Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS). The goals of PGS are to empower farmers, provide education for farmers and non-farmers, improve local marketing networks, and set the conditions for fair trade while providing a credible organic guarantee.
  • An outstanding example of PGS is Rede Eco-Vida, a network of farms, small-scale processors, food coops, farmers’ markets, and organic agronomists in Brazil. In Porto Alegre, a city of one and a half million, Eco-Vida sponsors two farmers’ markets where over 400 farms sell their products. Instead of an inspection, a group of other farmers, consumers, and an agricultural professional visits each farm to have a conversation about all the interrelated issues the farmer faces. Even farms as small as two acres can afford to belong to this network. Other PGS projects are underway in New Zealand, Uganda, India, Japan, and other countries of Central, South and even North America, where a movement for domestic fair trade is beginning.

These efforts around the world are getting to the heart of organic agriculture — they are reaching beyond standards to a model of agriculture in which sustainability and justice are inextricably linked.

Resources on social justice and organic agriculture:


This article was originally published in the Fall 2006 issue of Community Food Security News.

Elizabeth Henderson is the author of “Sharing the Harvest: A Guide to Community Supported Agriculture” (Chelsea Green, 1999).