Appetite for equity

By Michelle Chen May 16, 2009

Do we care more about the chemicals on the tomatoes in the produce aisle than the people who pick them? Sarah Newman at Alternet writes that the green veneer of organic food often masks exploitative labor conditions, as major organic growers perpetuate the abuses of their mainstream corporate counterparts. “The social-movement component of organic farming,” she writes, has over the past generation–

“been largely discarded. What’s left, to a large degree, is quaint packaging that’s strategically conceived and mass marketed to lure consumers into thinking big organic agriculture is really a sustainable mom-and-pop deal. The demand for organics continues to skyrocket, even under dismal economic conditions. “Many organic growers have responded by continuing to expand their operations and behaving similarly to their conventional counterparts. Market forces have also encouraged conventional growers to join the profitable organics movement (e.g. Driscoll’s Berries and Tanimura and Antle). Many organic growers are promulgating the status quo in an industry that has kept its costs low by oppressing its workers.”

Organic farming that denigrates labor is another illustration of the gaps in the green movement between ideas of environmentalism and social justice. The forces of marketing create artificial distance between labor struggles and the desire for “purer” production. But some activists are trying to find common ground between greenness and equity under the ever-widening banner of "sustainability." The Organic Consumers Association has advocated around various labor issues, including the Employee Free Choice Act, global fair trade policies, and farmworker organizing. The Pesticide Action Network takes a global, health-based approach to sustainability, targeting the chemical industries that put both consumers and workers at risk and promoting an “Agroecology" framework. Worker groups are also pushing onto the vanguard of the sustainable food movement. The Coalition of Imokalee Workers, which cut its teeth campaigning against abuses in the fast-food production chain, has engaged the organic behemoth Whole Foods and nouveau burrito joint Chipotle in the Campaign for Fair Food, with kudos from Gourmet Magazine and the Slow Food Movement. Such entities might be more receptive to pro-labor principles due to the hypocrisy factor of pushing pesticide-free produce tainted by the sweat of wage slaves. But the dialogue is still missing the voices of many who have yet to be recognized as real stakeholders. The movements for food fairness and sustainability are impeded by disparities in access to progressive modes of consumption—not just in terms of over-priced soy patties, but basic resources, like green grocers in poor neighborhoods of color. To paraphrase Cesar Chavez, a racially and economically stratified food system exploits many in order to sate a few, leaving the people at the bottom to starve, materially and politically. Image: Tomato pickers in Florida (Scott Robertson, Coalition of Imokalee Workers)