Mark Kastel and his colleagues at the Cornucopia Institute in Wisconsin are keeping a close eye on how factory farms sneak into organic agriculture by exploiting loopholes in federal regulations. Writing in the Nation, Felicia Mello comes up on the same problem from the workers' point of view.
As anyone who's tried it knows, growing plants organically involves subsituting labor (weeding) for capital (a bottle of herbicide). Mello gives the figures for Grimmway, a California megafarm growing baby carrots: "In a conventional field, one worker can spray weeds with pesticides at a cost of $30 per acre . . . . Organic farming requires crews of laborers for weeding that can cost up to $1,000 per acre."
Are the workers at least better off for not having to deal with pesticides? Yes, but not as much as environmentalists such as myself would think. Between 1990 and 1999, almost half of the major insurance claims (i.e., more than $5,000) paid to California farmworkers were for strain injuries. Just 1.5 percent had to do with pesticides. Cesar Chavez knew what he was doing when he made outlawing the short-handled hoe a cause.
Organic growers aren't much more likely to favor farmworker unions than are conventional growers. Mello does profile one grower who's making a go of it with a union contract, but more typical is the single mother farmworker who told her, "I buy food grown with chemicals so I can save to buy something else."
FYI: Industrious Gristmill blogger David Roberts asks if there are ways to get people to "care about the broader food system," but suggests only flavor or distance-traveled labeling. Mello reports that there is already an organized effort at some kind of social labeling as well.