As Grist‘s own Amanda Griscom Little recently reported, a trade group representing Kraft and Dean Foods has been quietly pushing Congress to tweak organic labelling standards to make them more friendly to food-processing giants.

Thankfully, the Organic Consumers Association has led a fight, so far successful, to stymie those changes.

While it’s important to preserve the organic label’s integrity on the supermarket shelf, it’s just as important to interrogate what it means in the field. An interesting study published in UC Davis’ Sustainable Agriculture Newsletter sheds much-needed light on that issue.

The study examines the attitudes of California organic growers toward farm labor. The results make melancholy reading.

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The authors point out that:

A common misperception among farmers and consumers is that organic certification already addresses working conditions for farmworkers, and that because organic agriculture rules forbid many toxic pesticides, it is often assumed that organic is “better” for farmworkers than conventional agriculture.

But U.S. organic accreditation standards have no workplace-conditions stipulations, the authors write. And given the defensive posture the organic movement finds itself taking viz. industry, most recently exemplified by the struggle over standards, it’s hard to imagine that changing any time soon.

However, the study doesn’t paint a picture of organic mega-farms shamelessly exploiting workers. The authors sent their survey to 500 organic farmers; 188 returned them. Here’s how the authors describe their respondents:

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Like most organic farmers in California, the majority of the farmers responding to our survey operate at a small scale in terms of area farmed and annual sales. Almost three-quarters (73.8%) of respondents farm 50 acres or less, and 64% of the farms reported less than $50,000 in annual sales … Two-thirds of the farmers responding hire workers in addition to their families at least part of the year.

I can tell you from experience that farming at that scale throws off little spare income for worker benefits; I’m surprised that such a high percentage can afford to hire help. That they can illustrates the relative abundance of cheap immigrant labor in California (although, as I discussed on Bitter Greens Journal recently, the cheap pool of labor to which California vegetable growers have grown addicted may be drying up).

Not surprisingly, there’s little support among this hard-scrabble of small-scale farmers for adding a workers’ rights amendment to organic standards, the authors report. Here’s a key sentence:

Most employers in the study do not (and perceive that they cannot afford to) provide things like living wages and health insurance. Indeed, many small-scale farmers like those who participated in this study do not provide insurance for themselves.

Nor, evidently, is there strong support for the right of collective bargaining, a right agricultural workers won in California some 30 years ago. Fully 40 percent of respondents told the authors they “strongly disagree” that ag workers should have the right to unionize. Amazing.

The report really ends up being as much about the sad state of organic farming as it is about labor conditions in the field. As corporations such as Kraft and Dean Foods rush into organic food to exploit its 20 percent compounded annual growth rate in the retail market, farmers — even in California, land of Berkeley and Alice Waters, the promised land of organic ag — are languishing.

“Our findings question expectations that organic agriculture systems necessarily foster social, or even economic sustainability for most farmers and farmworkers involved,” the authors declare. “Indeed, many farmers themselves forgo the kinds of employment benefits available to workers in most other sectors.”

Their conclusion seems spot-on:

We suggest that to create production conditions that are favorable to a broader conception of social justice, change is needed in the entire food system, not just at the point of production. Indeed, to move beyond the silence about labor within the sustainable agriculture and organic communities, we must situate these issues in the context of the entire food chain (production, processing, distribution and consumption).