What does ‘socially just’ agriculture mean?

Driving into the office today, I heard a quick plug for an urban agriculture program on my local public radio station. The short tagline said the group’s mission was to create a “socially just” local food system, among other goals.

It’s been bugging me ever since.

What does “socially just” mean? Does that imply that the rest of the area’s farmers are somehow working in a socially unjust system? Are they morally irresponsible? Ethically blind? Are we oppressing others?

Some say yes.

“A market economy will not ensure social justice,” writes John Ikerd, University of Missouri professor emeritus of ag economics.

“Economic disparity inevitably creates a sense of social injustice, and an unjust society is neither stable nor sustainable,” Ikerd adds in an essay, Sustainable Agriculture: A Question of Social Justice.

He then turns that meaning toward agriculture, writing, “… food and farming systems that do not accept responsibility of ensuring that all have adequate food, clothing and shelter are not sustainable.”

I get it, and yet I don’t. Of course, we want everyone to have access to basic needs, and farming has always been part of a bigger picture — it’s the very nature of what we do and the product we provide. But lay the problems of global food deserts (the new buzzword for geographic pockets with little or no access to foods to ensure a healthy diet) on farmers’ backs? That’s a heavy burden.

We are privileged to farm, to plant a seed, watch it grow and harvest the bounty. And I don’t know any farmer who takes that privilege — that responsibility — lightly. In fact, I would say the circle of life that surrounds agriculture — plant and animal, food and fiber — gives farmers a greater sense of spirituality than many other industries.

So are farmers socially unjust?

I say no.

I suggest, instead, that society currently expects three things from farmers. First, produce high quality and safe food. Second, protect the environment. Third, treat farm animals humanely.

If we can farm with those three goals in sight, we work within our own socially just contract. Every farmer, every link in the food chain, needs to make decisions based on those expectations. To do anything less is unconscionable.

But don’t tell me farmers are responsible for obesity, or the country’s skyrocketing rates of diabetes, or for limited retail sources of food in Chicago.

I guess my indignation comes from an uncertainty of exactly who is defining “socially just agriculture,” and exactly how far they’re willing to stretch that edict. Who gets to define the “right way to farm”?

Farmers do have a very important social contract, but don’t try to place the world’s woes on their shoulders.

About the Author

Farm and Dairy Editor Susan Crowell has been with the paper since 1985, serving as its editor since 1989. Raised on a farm in Holmes County, she is a graduate of Kent State University.You can follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/scrowell and follow Farm and Dairy at http://twitter.com/farmanddairy. You can also find her on Google+ and Facebook. More Stories by Susan Crowell


  1. Kymberly says:

    Excellent points all.

    Who gets to decide indeed.

  2. djack says:

    You ask:

    “Does that imply that the rest of the area’s farmers are somehow working in a socially unjust system? Are they morally irresponsible? Ethically blind? Are we oppressing others?”

    And then answer yourself saying “Some say yes”. Nowhere in Ikerd’s essay did I hear him imply that he would answer yes to those questions.

    Based on the essay I read, I think Dr. Ikerd would likely agree with you that farmers are not socially unjust. They are just as caught up in an oppressive economic system as the rest of us.

    “… food and farming systems that do not accept responsibility of ensuring that all have adequate food, clothing and shelter are not sustainable.”

    To me, this statement reads as the whole agricultural system – not just farmers. Dr. Ikerd is not singling out farmers. I also don’t hear the author saying that it’s the sole responsibility of agriculture systems to ensure adequate food, clothing and shelter. Instead he says it’s the responsibility of us all:

    “Each of us must accept our ethical and moral responsibility to help ensure the sustainability of human life on earth. We can do this, in part, by supporting farmers who are committed to protecting the natural environment – helping to make ecologically sound food and fiber systems economically viable. But, we must also accept our responsibility to help build food and farming systems that are socially just. Social justice includes employment equity for farmers, farm workers, and others employed in the system.

    More than anything I hear Dr. Ikerd attacking the market economy system (and capitalism/corporatism to some extent). These systems are not sustainable and almost by definition ensure unjust societies.

    I’m not sure what bugged you about people wanting to create a socially just food system, but it may be helpful to actually talk with those people to get a better idea about what they mean, what they are doing and why they see a need for doing the work they’re doing.

  3. G. Young says:

    The term “Socially Just ____ ” , just fill in the blank with food, economy, housing, etc, is nothing more than code words used by liberals to disguise communist ideas. Surprise! surprise! the professor is a Communist! Our colleges are filled with them. The Free Market System is undisputably the best and it does work, just look at the history of this great country. Look at the great inventions in agriculture or otherwise, and guess what, they have been fueled by Capitalism. U.S. citizens enjoy limitless supplies of cheap, safe, and delicious foods thanks to farmers and the Free Market System.

  4. Jared says:

    Totally disagree with that guy. A free market economy is the best system out there. America was founded on the free market system.

  5. Daniel Lang says:

    I do not see Dr Ikerd as a communist or a socialist. He is out there at a grass roots level helping the small farmer. He is not legislating law. When the small farmer is helped the poor and downtrodden will be helped also.

    I would highly recommend viewing the documentary “Broke Limbs” on sustainable farming. I am glad I can write the words I am, and not see the big picture. I saw a vague big picture in the past, but it has certainly crystalized and this documentary helped.

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