Agriculture and Human Values

, Volume 23, Issue 4, pp 439-449

First online:

Social sustainability, farm labor, and organic agriculture: Findings from an exploratory analysis

  • Aimee ShreckAffiliated withCalifornia Faculty Association
  • , Christy GetzAffiliated withDepartment of ESPM, University of California Email author 
  • , Gail FeenstraAffiliated withSustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, University of California

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Much of the attention by social scientists to the rapidly growing organic agriculture sector focuses on the benefits it provides to consumers (in the form of pesticide-free foods) and to farmers (in the form of price premiums). By contrast, there has been little discussion or research about the implications of the boom in organic agriculture for farmworkers on organic farms. In this paper, we ask the question: From the perspective of organic farmers, does “certified organic” agriculture encompass a commitment to “sustainability” that prioritizes social goals? Specifically, we aim to broaden our understanding of the relationship between social sustainability and organic agriculture by drawing attention to issues affecting farmworkers, whose labor and contribution tends to elude most discussions of organic agriculture. We present findings from a survey of organic farmers in California about the possible incorporation of social standards into organic certification criteria. Our findings suggest that, at best, lukewarm support for social certification within organic agriculture exists among certified organic farmers in California. They also question expectations that organic agriculture necessarily fosters social or even economic sustainability for most of the farmers and farmworkers involved. However, we also find exceptions to the patterns evidenced in our survey. In-depth interviews with select organic farmers demonstrate that there are individuals whose practices are atypical and demonstrate that, under some circumstances, an organic production system can be at once environmentally, economically, and socially sustainable.


California Certification Farmworkers Labor Organic agriculture Social justice Social sustainability Sustainable agriculture