top of page

Farmers’ Rights: It Is not too Late to Set This Right


Farmers’ Rights in the international area is used as shorthand for the hard-fought rights to save, share and sell seeds as defined under the UN Treaty on Biodiversity, which remains a very critical and urgent ongoing concern that still needs greater support and accountability. However, farmers’ rights must also be understood more broadly as the relative ability of individual farmers to negotiate fair terms in highly concentrated marketplaces and for such rights to be protected and enforced. These rights include the rights to seeds along with the rights to fair contracts, fair market access and choice, fair prices, and must accompany similar rights for all farm and food-chain workers.

While we are heartened and remain hopeful that the current Administration will succeed in securing meaningful reforms to our current highly predatory agricultural markets, we must not assume too much. We do recognize that Campaign promises have been made, and that some appropriate executive orders have been issued and that USDA is currently re-engaging these critical agricultural concentration topics through listening sessions. All of this means that this is the right time to make our voices heard.

Organic entering the “mainstream” has brought many positive benefits, including much greater consumer access to organic foods, more acres under organic production, increased taxpayer support for organic research and certification cost-share, and new resources for transitioning to organic, all of which lowers global pesticide loads, is climate-friendly, better protects our natural resources and reduces consumer, farmer and farmworker exposure to toxic chemicals.

But the state of play in agricultural markets reminds me of the sad old joke about the farmer being the only one who pays the freight in both directions and when asked what price they want for their goods, responds with “what do you give me”? Not too far from the truth for many farmers.

Many of us, converted to organic to avoid the predatory cruelties of the industrial system. However, the mainstreaming of organic has also meant that organic farmers and their workers are exposed to the same macro- marketplace dynamics that conventional farmers have long been facing. The unfair marketing advantages reaped by hydroponics, confinement dairy and poultry operations are also examples of how the lack of standards for fairness hurts farmers who faithfully practice all of the requirements for organic production without working loopholes.

For family farmers and farmworkers, the failure to create fair and functional immigration and migrant reforms leaves both farmers and workers in jeopardy. If family farmers do not have protected rights and access, then their workers certainly will not either. The long-standing strategy of pitting farmers against workers remains highly effective, just as pitting poor whites against people of color continues to be so. Politically, family farmers and farmworkers need each other to win much needed reforms and basic fairness. Such a re-coupling of common interests would generate much more meaningful outcomes.

There are multiple macro-trends that negatively impact US family farmers’ and food-chain workers’ ability to secure their rights, which now includes organic farmers and workers:

  • Failure to update US labor laws to specifically include and protect farmers and farmworkers.

  • Rapid concentration and consolidation of both the agricultural inputs and the marketing of agricultural products from seeds to retail accelerates the loss of fair competition and greatly limits farmer choice of where to sell their products, at what price and from who they can buy their seeds and other ag inputs from. If there is only one main buyer or seller, then farmers’ prices, choices and terms will always be less.

  • The continuing decline of farmers’ share of the food dollar (currently about an average of 9 cents), is exacerbated by the corporate practice of raising retail prices while shrinking product size. There are no effective governmental controls to prevent this. They call it “inflation” as if this is some magical market term, while it is really just code for corporate greed, fueled by un-restrained market concentration, and because they can.

  • Failure of Congress and the Supreme Court to curtail and limit campaign finance contributions to members of Congress. When corporations can funnel millions of dollars to both political parties and hire thousands of lobbyists to comb the hill (in 2020, there were over 11,000 registered lobbyists in DC), it is very hard for the public good to win out over private gain.

  • Continuing decline in the total number of farmers (now about 1.3% of US population), and our ability to organize across sectors, race, regions, commodities and production systems. This challenge is also hampered by farmer and farmworker isolation, growing depression and a sense of despair.

  • Failure of the US to sign International Labor Organization (ILO) Conventions to protect the rights of farmers and workers. The US is tied with China on adopting the fewest number of standing international labor conventions, only two out of the eight core conventions - those on forced labor and on the worst forms of child labor. The US has never ratified Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining.

  • Loss of federal parity mechanisms that linked supply and demand with costs of production for some major crops, thus ensuring that farmers were paid enough to cover production costs and even make a small profit.

  • Failure of USDA to implement their own crucial reports, all of which could have shifted federal policy toward greater fairness for family farmers – A Time to Choose, Secretary Berglund, Carter Administration, A Time to Act, Secretary Glickman, Clinton Administration, “Joint Department of Justice and USDA Hearing Findings on Agricultural Concentration,” Secretary Vilsack, Obama Administration.

  • Chronic unfair lending and USDA programmatic discrimination against farmers of color and women farmers.

  • Failure to plan for and adopt comprehensive policies to encourage farmers attempting to convert to organic.

  • Failure of the National Organic Standards Board and the National Organic Program to embrace the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements Principles of Organic, which include fairness for people who grow and process organic products.

So, given all of these real and overwhelming challenges – what can be done?

It was 100,000 consumers signing a petition led by a multi-sector coalition composed of consumer, environmental, humane and farmer groups that pushed and won the passage of the Organic Food Production Act in 1990, after a decade of failed attempts. Can we imagine such a modern-day, multi-cultural, multi-sector cooperation to push for real legal and market rights for family farmers and farmworkers?

It is my strong belief that if such a coalition would push buyers and politicians to agree to fairness standards and to enact policy to reward and protect such standards, coupled with real penalties for abuses, we could begin to turn the tide toward greater fairness and justice for our food and fiber production sectors.

First, organic should lead the way. We could start with a campaign for NOSB and NOP to adopt all four IFOAM Principles of Organic, thus laying the groundwork for public and participatory dialogue on implementing fairness standards for organic. The framework for such standards already exists through the long and hard work of the Agricultural Justice Project (AJP), The Farm Worker Support Committee (CATA), Fair World Project (FWP), and the International Fair-trade Organization (FLO).

Secondly, we should all call for and support the establishment of an Independent Farmer Protection Bureau, within USDA with powers to protect farmers and farmworkers' rights.

I do believe it is not too late – if real organic is to remain the gold standard, and if we who gave the bloom of our youth to this movement wish to leave a truly enduring legacy, environmental and humane organic standards will not be sufficient.

There must also be justice for all that labor in agriculture.

Michael is a farmer, scholar and organizer who retired at the end of 2019 from RAFI-USA after serving 29 years as Program Director for their Just Foods Program. Michael Sligh comes from a long line of West Texas family farmers and ranchers, but lives, writes and farms in North Carolina. He has helped found numerous organizations, including the Agricultural Justice Project, which promotes, develops and approves food justice standards across the US. He was the founding Chairman of the National Organic Standards Board, and has farmed organically since the early 1970’s.

16 views0 comments


bottom of page