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Hard Labor | The Nation

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Hard Labor

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There's little hint of these dilemmas in the shelf displays at Whole Foods Market in Berkeley, California. Posters hanging over the produce bins feature smiling white farmers posed against backdrops of lush fields, the sun glistening on their hair. More signs plastered to the bins helpfully spell out everything from the nutritional content of a coconut to the pros and cons of produce wax. None address working conditions.

Research support for this article was provided by the Investigative Fund
of The Nation Institute.

About the Author

Felicia Mello
Felicia Mello is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Salon and The Los Angeles Times Magazine.

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A gaggle of shoppers fill the aisles, peering at lists and hefting and prodding vegetables. Public school teacher Carmen Carreras is picking out artichokes for dinner. They were grown conventionally, but she almost always buys organic. "I buy it because it's better for everybody," she tells me immediately. "Better for the environment, better for me and better for the workers."

Carreras says workers on organic farms must work hard, "but I imagine they don't get as many illnesses related to their work. I guess it's easier for them, and I hope they feel more connected to nature because all the processes are natural."

Carreras's comments are typical of what market researchers call the "hard core"--those customers who buy mostly organic, shop at farmers' markets and are more likely to rank social justice issues as a high priority. While they may know little about actual working conditions on organic farms, they believe that their purchases are helping to create a more egalitarian food system. For them the word "organic" evokes not simply a growing method but a political and lifestyle choice.

But not everyone thinks like Carreras, according to Laurie Demeritt, president of the Hartman Group, a market research firm specializing in the natural food industry. The mainstreaming of organic is creating a new kind of organic consumer, says Demeritt, one who's more concerned about the immediate health of her family than anything else. These shoppers tend to understand organic in terms of the narrow, technical definition put forward by the National Organic Standards Board: a growing method that does not involve the use of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides.

"Today's organic consumer looks like the average US consumer," says Demeritt. "They haven't put a lot of thought into what they're consuming until they have a child. Then they think, 'I want my child to be healthy, so I'm going to buy them organic milk.'"

Such consumers rank concerns about workers very low on their list, if at all. It's not that they're anti-worker, says Demeritt. They're just not as invested in their buying decisions as the hard-core group. "They don't really have a lot of information and they don't really want it--as long as they can think they're making a better choice, that's enough."

Consumers, of course, also care about price, and organic food's relatively high cost turns off many potential buyers. If higher wages equal higher prices, as any Wal-Mart spokesperson will tell you, wouldn't bettering working conditions on farms cement organic products' status as luxury items? Is agriculture a zero-sum game, where we must choose between access to affordable healthy food and decent living standards for the people who grow it?

Feenstra, the UC Davis researcher, doesn't think so. "I think it's a false choice," she says. "Most of the money in the food system, about 80 percent, is in the marketing, processing and distribution sector, compared with 20 percent for production. Organic food is not just fruits and vegetables; a lot of it is processed, and that shoots the price up. So when you're talking about labor costs, they're probably going to add 1 or 2 cents, compared with what you're paying for excess packaging, transport from here to there, all those layers of cellophane and bright-colored boxes."

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