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The Ugly Truth Behind Organic Food

The organic labeling standards do nothing to denote how farms treat their workers. Is your organic food a humanitarian nightmare?

Is it time for a strawberry to make a political statement, again?

I'm standing on a farm south of San Francisco that is unremarkable in that it, like all of the other farms in the area, is a golden canvas of brilliant yellow flowers with the occasional patchwork of verdant greens, early signs of this year's season sprouting up.

It's a slice of California's multibillion-dollar agricultural region that spreads east through the state's Central Valley, down the coast toward Salinas -- America's salad bowl -- all the way to the Mexican border and north toward Oregon. While still a small minority, a growing number of these farms are now organic.

Plenty of people, including me, prefer organic produce because it is healthier and safer. But this certification does nothing to ensure that it was produced with sustainable agricultural practices.

The little strawberry I'm munching is part of a bigger story that begins in the fields and ends on your plate. It's the story of a lucrative industry that offers consumers a commodity at a low-cost but with high consequences.

Forming the backbone of this industry are the oft-forgotten armies of farmworkers who travel California's freeway arteries to plant and harvest crops in every corner of this region. The policies that oppress the 2 million people who grow our food betray its true costs.

Food writer and activist Eric Schlosser, speaking at the Slow Food Nation conference in San Francisco last fall, said that he would rather eat a conventional tomato picked by well-treated workers than a local heirloom variety harvested by oppressed workers.

The strawberry I've just plucked from a neatly lined row of plants was grown at Swanton Berry Farm, the first organic berry farm in California and the first organic unionized farm in the nation.

The Golden State has nearly 1,800 organic growers, according to 2005 agricultural records -- 30 percent of all of the state's farms. And Swanton Berry is in a class by itself, a renegade operation that is bucking the corporate trends of many of its counterparts.

It's a small farm operating on 200 leased acres with 50 staff during peak season. Its products are sold on farm stands, at regional farmers markets stands and some Whole Foods Markets. At first glance, it looks like all of the other picturesque farms in the area, with weathered handmade signs that invite passers-by to pick their own or buy fresh produce, pies and jams from the farm stand.

But inside the farm's store and visitor lounge, the scene is markedly different from neighboring operations. Delicate glass shelves, lined with fresh berry pies, strawberry chocolate truffles, homemade jams and T-shirts (all for sale through an honor-system cash register), also include photos of United Farm Workers Founder Cesar Chavez. Memorialized near the door is the story of the farm's unionization process in 1998. Farm Manager Forrest Cook sits at his computer in a corner below an enormous photograph of Chavez.

And it struck me, why is this place such an anomaly in the organic movement?

The pioneers of organic farming in the 1960s were as eclectic as a bag of mixed greens. For some hippie farmers, embracing organic farming was part of their broader vision and commitment to sustainable agriculture. And, that meant not just treating the land well, but also the workers and animals on that land.

The social-movement component of organic farming, however, has been largely discarded. What's left, to a large degree, is quaint packaging that's strategically conceived and mass marketed to lure consumers into thinking big organic agriculture is really a sustainable mom-and-pop deal. The demand for organics continues to skyrocket, even under dismal economic conditions.

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