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


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.

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Agricultural Labor Relations Act


California Certified Organic Farmers


International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements


United States Department of Agriculture


Women, Infants, and Children Program


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We are grateful for funding support for this research from the University of California Institute for Labor and Employment and for institutional support from the University of California Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program.

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Correspondence to Christy Getz.

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Aimee Shreck is a sociologist and the Research Specialist for the California Faculty Association. Previously, as a postdoctoral researcher with the University of California, Berkeley and the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, her research focused on social justice, sustainable agriculture, and fair trade.

Christy Getz is an Assistant Cooperative Extension Specialist in UC Berkeley’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management (ESPM). Her research and extension work links natural resource-dependent people, activities, enterprises, and organizations in California with teaching and research programs in the College of Natural Resources. Her program is focused on community and economic development in natural resource-dependent communities, social justice and labor in natural resource-dependent industries, and sustainable food systems and community food security. She received her PhD in sociology from the University of California, Berkeley. Currently, she is Co-Chair of UC Cooperative Extension’s Building Food Security Workgroup.

Gail Feenstra is the food systems analyst at the University of California Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SAREP). She coordinates SAREP’s Food Systems Program, which encourages sustainable community development that links farmers, consumers, and communities. Her research and education efforts include: direct marketing, farm-to-school programs, urban agriculture, food security, food policy, and food system assessments. Feenstra’s professional training is in nutrition with a doctorate in nutrition education from Teachers␣College, Columbia University. She is past president of the Agriculture, Food, and Human Values Society and associate editor of Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems (formerly American Journal of Alternative Agriculture). In her spare time she loves to garden and cook using foods from her local foodshed.

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Shreck, A., Getz, C. & Feenstra, G. Social sustainability, farm labor, and organic agriculture: Findings from an exploratory analysis. Agric Hum Values 23, 439–449 (2006).

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