Friday, January 25, 2008

Organic and Labor--Economics of Farming

From a Tom Philpott piece on an organic conference and a presentation by Eric Schlosser (reference tomato pickers and Burger King):

While he treated his audience with great respect -- and won enthusiastic applause in response --Schlosser didn't let the assembled growers off the hook. He noted that organic standards make no stipulations about how growers treat workers. For him, he added, organic means nothing if workers are systematically mistreated. His remark must have caused some unease (though the cheering audience didn't show it). As my friend Bonnie Powell of Ethicurean writes in her account of Schlosser's speech, "labor is an Achilles-heel issue for many organic farmers." Bonnie reminds us that:

A 2005 report published by researchers at UC Davis found that of 188 California organic farms surveyed, a majority failed to pay a living wage or provide medical or retirement plans.

There's nothing easy about that issue. As I wrote when the UC Davis study came out, organic farming is so labor-intensive, and its profit margins remain so low, that most small- and mid-sized growers would probably go out of business if they paid a decent wage.

That's the economics of farming--the farmer cannot price his or her output, so the premium is on reducing costs. How? By mechanizing and rationalizing (aka "industrializing") and paying labor poorly. The return in farming is on capital, i.e., land, not labor.

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