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In December of 1997, the USDA released the National Organic Program Proposed Rule, an attempt to culminate the legislative process that began in 1990 with the passing of the Organic Foods Production Act. By April of the next year, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) received over 300 000 comments on the legislation, more than any in American history.  This shows the extent to which organic agriculture has become a matter of public concern and controversy. The word has entered the vocabulary of popular newsmedia and dinner table conversation seemingly overnight.

Before we go much further, a definition of organic should be given. The USDA defines organic agriculture as an “ecological production management system that promotes and enhance biodiversity, biological activities, and soil biological activity.” This includes attempts to minimize pollution, and “enhance the ecological balance of natural systems,” with the primary goal being to “optimize the health and productivity of interdependent communities of soil life, plants, animals and people.” I use this definition only as means of providing some sort of official reference point, and varying understanding of the idea of organic will be fleshed out.

Now for a brief history: organic agriculture can be traced back to before the Second World War with famous proponents J. I. Rodale in the United States and Sir Albert Howard and Lady Eve Balfour in Britain, all of whom criticized the industrialization of agriculture and its negative impact on human and environmental health. In the 1960s, a back-to-the-land movement invigorated the organic movement, building on earlier philosophies while developing critiques of the nature of urban life, consumerism, and modern disconnect with nature.

These movements were part of a larger social and environmental movement, inspired by such writers as Leo Marx and Rachel Carson. Marx’s The Machine in the Garden (1964) speaks of a place that is neither urban nor rural, a space of an agrarian ideal where people live and work with nature as a source of life, in contrast to the factory-like rural space of industrial food production. These sentiments continued to drive the organic movement through the rest of the century.[1]

Organic agriculture has grown from negligible levels until the 1980s to approximately 623 000 farms with some 31.5 million ha of organically farmed land in 2006. Worldwide sales of organic products reached US$28 billion in 2004.[2] It is hard to say definitively what has caused this rapid growth, but a general trend of environmental awareness spawning from the movements of the 1960s has much to do with a public demand for organically grown food.

When asked why they had enrolled in the student directed seminar, GEOG 442 “Communications in Food Systems Analysis,” most if not all of my classmates indicated a strong desire to simply “know where there food comes from.” The desire for this knowledge can be closely related to the organic movement as an attempt to reconnect with natural production processes in response to the negative impacts of industrial agriculture on human and environmental well-being.

Unfortunately, the critical evaluations of the ways in which our food is grown and processed have often ignored the social aspects of agricultural production. While the tomatoes I have eaten for lunch may be pesticide and non-GMO, it does not address the abysmal wages that the Mexican worker was paid to pick it, or even the American truck driver who drove it through two countries to get to the grocery store down the street. Movements to eat local, closely associated with organic agriculture under the wide umbrella of ‘natural’ or ‘sustainable food,’ while addressing many important problems, do not expressly deal with the social impacts of food production. For the most part, discussion around local eating focuses on the carbon footprint of a particular product although support for local, small-scale farmers, an important social aspect of the food debate, often closely follows. However, local produce, such as that grown in the Fraser or Okanagan Valley is often picked by low-wage, non-unionized migrant workers from other parts of Canada or outside the country.

This is not to mention the thousands of products from all over the world where labour regulations, wage rates, and working conditions vary widely, or may be virtually uncontrolled by governmental agencies.  In Costa Rica, workers at banana plantations often work ten to eleven hour days, making five to 15 US dollars in this time depending on the yield. Complaints from workers are often met with dismissal and placement on a blacklist restricting the employee from being hired at other banana plantations. Plantation companies have little tolerance for attempts to unionize and are often met with mass firings. It is also worth noting the ugly histories of companies like Dole and Chiquita, the latter of which was found guilty of making payments to international recognized terrorist paramilitary groups.[3]

Fair-trade certification attempts to address these social issues. The program works with farming co-operatives to ensure that a minimum guaranteed price is paid to producers in an attempt to compensate for imbalance trade values. However, fair-trade is still largely limited to cocoa and coffee production, and does not address wider trends of worker mistreatment under larger companies or within wealthier nations.

These examples are used to illustrate the different aspects of food production that can be ignored by a focus on ‘organic.’ Although advocates for organic agriculture have not completely ignored social issues of food production, the official documentation/legislation as well as the current public discourse surrounding organic, focus almost all of its energy on the environmental. It should be hoped that the public continues to question the modes of production of food. However, when we question whether or not the bananas at the market are organic, we should also consider the lives of those who picked them.


[1] Vos, Timothy. “Visions of the middle landscape: Organic farming and the politics of nature.” Agriculture and Human Values 17 (2000): 245-256.

[2] William Lockeretz, Organic farming: An international history, (Cabi: Cambridge, 2007) 1.

[3] Caitlin Kuzila, “Banana plantation employees.” jrscience.com, 18 May 2007 Web. 30 Sept. 2009.

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