Social Justice in Agriculture Forum

I recently had an opportunity to represent food co-ops at a forum for Social Justice in Agriculture, along with representatives from organizations representing farm workers, fair-trade initiatives, farmers, manufacturers, nongovernment organizations, consumers, and activists. At the heart of the discussion was the development of an alternative food system that creates an economic incentive for social equity and just working conditions through the establishment of a “social justice” food label. As could be expected, there were varied opinions around the room of whether or not this label should “value enhance” certifiable organic standards, stand alone, or work in tandem with other transitional agricultural programs.

We reviewed a set of draft standards for a social justice label developed by Elizabeth Henderson of Peacework Organic Farm, Michael Sligh of Rural Advancement Foundation International–USA, Richard Mandelbaum of the Farm Worker Support Committee, and Oscar Mendieta of the Association of Organizations of Ecological Producers of Bolivia. These standards were drafted to be consistent with and to build on International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) principles on social justice and the work of the International Labor Organization. They further address farmers’and buyers’ rights and responsibilities; indigenous people’s rights; farm worker rights, and the role of interns and apprentices in organic and sustainable agriculture. We brainstormed to identify missing voices that should be brought to the table for ongoing discussion, how to maintain transparency, and how to determine a process by which all can agree to the “bar” set by any finalized standards.

These are complicated issues, and reminiscent of the many discussions that took place all around the country and in many different forums during the formation of organic standards. We have talked at length within the NCGA membership about our need for differentiation and the unique value proposition that food co-ops play in the grocery marketplace. Organic products formerly helped to define that point of differentiation. The value-added components of fair trade—promoting local and sustainable food systems, and valuing the dignity of work that is required to produce our food—often are present and assumed within our stores’ operations, but they do not have a defined and promoted presence that is consistent and recognized by a wide range of consumers.

Today, we have the commoditization of organics and the spread of many organic products into mainstream channels. We need to refine our attempts to differentiate by effectively promoting the components of the broad reach of a sustainable food system beyond organic agricultural practices. We must build consumer awareness of the next phase of influencing the way food is produced and valued in our society. Sound familiar? At one time it was organics, and food co-ops helped to lead the way. Now, our opportunity is to build upon those agricultural practices and further build the model of sustainability where it counts—with consumer food choices.

We have been talking about this “value-added label” in strategic and formative ways going back to our investigations into controlled brands and through securing the use of the Co-op label from the Blooming Prairie Foundation. This is a complicated undertaking, but I am inspired by the enormous amount of work and collaborative spirit of the group who put these draft standards together. I will be working with a small task force that grew out of the larger forum to create a bench test of the standards. We will identify an organic certifier, a grower, and a group of retailers in an attempt to launch a pilot project with these standards and identify the marketing message and process that resonates with consumers. I will continue to report on our progress.

National Organic Coalition (NOC)


NCGA is working to maintain the integrity and safeguard the future of organic food in our marketplace through our Leadership Circle support of the Organic Trade Association (OTA) and our partnership in the NOC in Washington, D.C. The OTA and NOC are working together and in independently targeted ways to secure funding for the USDA research and marketing programs of importance to organic farmers and consumers.

Whether it be seeking funding for the USDA’s organic standards work, pushing for increased funding for research programs to help farmers transition to organic, or insisting that the USDA respect the role of organic producers and consumers in the organic standards-setting process, the annual Congressional appropriations process is critical to our members’ interests.

Even though the federal government’s new fiscal year started on October 1, Congress has not yet completed is work to finalize this year’s funding details for agriculture programs.  Congress is scheduled to make the final decisions about funding levels for the USDA and other agencies in December 2004.

From time to time, NCGA may need to call on our membership to help deliver grassroots messages to Congress about important funding matters. Your support and readiness to rally your own member voices in these matters can make, and historically has made, all the difference!

*** Robynn Shrader is CEO of the National Cooperative Grocers Association ([email protected]).

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