“I people believe that people mistakenly believe that if it came from an organic producer, that says something about working conditions,” said Marty Mesh, an activist and organic farmer from Florida. Mesh, head of the Florida Organic Growers association and one of the founders of the certification, spoke with FoodNavigator-USA as the Expo East trade show recently in Baltimore, MD.
“I’m thankful that the USDA program has become more and more rigorous. The accreditation audits are good. But right from the outset the USDA said they were not going to get into the social aspect,” Mesh said.
From his experience in Florida agriculture, Mesh saw the potential abuses inherent in the system. He saw that, even all these years after the activities of Cesar Chavez and the founding of the United Farm Workers, most agricultural laborers lacked a voice. And those systemic shortcomings could be true whether the food was grown with pesticides or without. Mesh said he got into organic farming to make a difference in terms of ecology, in terms of health and in terms of social relationships. He and other organic pioneers were disappointed that there was no way to bring that message to consumers, to verify that the people who were involved in growing a particular product and bringing it to market were treated fairly
“When I started farming organically, I was farming differently. We were behaving differently with our social relationships with our buyers and our workers,” he said.
In 1999, Mesh joined with Michael Sligh of the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI – USA), Richard Mandelbaum of Comité de Apoyo a los Trabajadores Agrícolas/Farmworker Support Committee (CATA), and Elizabeth Henderson of Florida’s Peacework Organic Farm to start developing standards for a new way to look at organic products.
“The roots of this go back many years. We wanted to come up with a market-based label to say let’s help people differentiate their products even beyond the organic label. If the US government isn’t going to do it, we decided to do it for ourselves,” Mesh said.
The effort, branded as the Agricultural Justice Project, set out to gather information on working conditions around the globe. Draft standards, which were translated into both Spanish and French, were circulated among stakeholders in many countries. High level meetings on the developing standards were held in Washington, DC, Thailand, Uruguay and Austrailia. Throughout the process the AJP team was working with the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements. The final draft of the standards went through a pilot test on organic farms in the US Midwest to make sure it was something farmers could work with and would be willing to paticiapte in long term.
“The standards encourage long term relationships and talk about fair contracts that cover the cost of production,” Mesh said. “We wanted to create a system that levels the power dynamics between the farmer and the workers.”
The final standards take into account the following parameters:
- Workers’ rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining
- Fair wages and benefits for workers
- Fair and equitable contracts for farmers and buyers
- Fair pricing for farmers
- Clear conflict resolution policies for farmers or food business owners/managers and workers
- The rights of indigenous peoples
- Workplace health and safety
- Farmworker housing
- Status of interns and apprentices
- Children on farms
Delving into those power relationships is a tricky thing, Mesh said. Agricultural laborers are specifically exempt from the labor laws that cover other US workers. Another complicating factor is the immigration status of many farmer laborers in the US. Those lacking documentation would be less likely to come forward to speak about working conditions. Mesh said the certfication tries to take this into account. Every certified entity has to have a designated, independent worker representative who can weigh in on how the organization is meeting the standards.
“We believe everybody deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. The average life expectancy in the United States right now is about 73. The average life expectancy of a farm work is more like 49,” he said.
The young label has so far certified six agricultural operations in the US and one in Canada. The organization is still in getting-the-word-out mode, and to that end Mesh and Sligh spoke at a Consumers Union event on food labeling held in San Francisco on Sept. 19.
“We do have an enlightened self interest to differentiate ourselves,” Mesh said. “But the people involved in the program do fundamentally believe in these things.”
For more about the program visit the Agricultural Justice Project website.