The US Agricultural Social Certification Landscape: A Comparative Perspective

Efforts to improve farm labor conditions in the US historically have focused on regulation and unionization. While these efforts have led to improvements in farm labor wages and conditions over the years, recent decades have been characterized by a decline in farm labor union organizing and inadequate enforcement of many regulations.

In the last few years, there has been a rise in an alternative paradigm focused on market-based efforts to promote improved farm labor conditions in the US. The social certification landscape has evolved to include initiatives targeting large, industrial farms employing the majority of US agricultural workers, with great potential for widespread impacts. Current initiatives are significantly different from each other in nature. With agricultural social certification in the US in its pilot stages, a deeper understanding of similarities and differences among these labels and approaches will shed critical light on the potential for voluntary social certification to substantively improve farm labor conditions in the coming years.

BFI’s research investigates how the principle social certification labels compare and contrast, including an analysis of their approach, objectives, standards, evaluation, reach, and to what extent the programs are tracking impacts on farmworker conditions, including occupational safety and health, income, and job satisfaction. The project also analyzes the competitive landscape and explores perceptions of the different labels from up and down the supply chain, investigates buyer plans regarding social certification requirements, and explores potential impacts on buyer and grower adoption.

Team members:

  • Christy Getz, Associate Cooperative Extension Specialist, UC Berkeley (Environmental Science, Policy, and Management)
  • Ron Strochlic, MS, Nutrition Policy Institute, UC Agriculture and Natural Resources
  • Vera Chang, PhD student, UC Berkeley (Environmental Science, Policy, and Management)

2020 Publication

R. Strochlic and C. Getz. 2020. “Agricultural workers’ participation in certification as a mechanism for improving working conditions: The Equitable Food Initiative.” Journal of Applied Communication Research. DOI: 10.1080/00909882.2020

The Equitable Food Initiative (EFI) is a third-party certification program seeking to improve agricultural working conditions as well as food safety practices, environmental stewardship, and farm viability. The initiative uses innovative cross-functional labor-management teams to promote compliance with EFI standards and advocate for worker interests. Based on focus groups, interviews, and observations at five EFI-certified operations in the U.S. and Mexico, we describe how farms implemented the participatory system and the degree of involvement and influence the teams achieved. We elucidate how organizational dynamics generally associated with concertive control instead contributed to logics of collective advocacy. Theoretical implications address debates about (a) worker participation and empowerment, (b) corporate social responsibility (CSR), corporate accountability, and third-party auditing, and (c) positive deviance and critical praxis. Practical insights can guide EFI operations and other worker-driven accountability systems.