Bringing Equity to Organic

November 2020

National Organic Standards Board member and First Nations leader examines how certifying Grower Groups, and other changes, could increase both black, indigenous, and people of color farmers and consumers

By A-dae Romero-Briones        Photographs by Joan Cusick Photography

Tribal Nations have grown food systems for millennia. In deserts. Along coastal and inland waterways. In low mountains. In high mountains. And in some of our most fertile and infertile lands across this country. Today, despite massive loss of land (which, ironically, some of which is certified organic farmland now), loss of animal and plant diversity, and limitations on access to traditional hunting and gathering grounds—Indigenous people continue to grow their food systems. And yet, we see few in the organic community. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, Black, Indigenous, and other people of color makeup nearly one-quarter of the population—but operate only 5% of farms nationwide. The USDA’s organic integrity database, with approximately 19,400 U.S. farm certifications, lists less than ten Tribal farm organic certifications. In the 2012 Agricultural census, 95.42% of all organic farms were white-owned and operated. Presently, we see the disruptions of societal institutions that have been created or implemented to serve primarily the white community, and so we should also evaluate who the organic community is serving and how.

Admittedly, the organic community is but a small part of a larger national, and global, food system that has insidious roots in the exploitation of BIPOC communities—Black, Brown, and Indigenous with little distinction. In 2020, we should be well aware of those historical wrongs, or at the very least, be observing the mass protests and toppling of historical markers that glorify these wrongs, essentially creating a status quo that serves but a fraction of our society. In many ways, the organic movement has always challenged the establishment. The organic movement has deep roots in combating extractive capitalism and corporate domination of our food system, lands, and rural community. We are the people’s food system; the alternative to chemical farming and mass production that leads to exploitative practice. In the organic community, we do purport to know and do better, be more responsive, be more inclusive and better food (and lifestyle) choice for consumers and society. But are we?

First, when I speak of organic, I am referring to the little green label that designates a product as grown and produced according to practices sanctioned under the USDA National Organic Program. To many in the organic community, organics is much more than that. It is a lifestyle. It is a promise and a representation of what our food world should be. While I agree we are much more than our labels, it is clear we are limited by them. As much as we want to extend our organic relationship to society, it is in fact a market—subject to market forces, communicates (and deviates) through price variations, and is regulated (protected by those within the market and government actors who recognize the market).  The limitations and weaknesses of our capitalist markets are embodied even in organics. We are only as strong as our roots—which in the organic case includes exploitation, exclusion, and an undercurrent of hyper-individualism. All markers of the dominant American retail food system.

In accordance with market values, organic certification is aimed at individual landowners. In dominant food systems, this individual landownership is extended to corporations recognized as persons. Even the most basic of understandings of agriculture and food systems begins with inequality—land ownership. Discussions in the organic world revolve around the practices of individual farmers, their certifications and inspections, and their place in the organic marketplace.

From 2012 to 2014, white people comprised over 97 percent of non-farming landowners, 96 percent of owner-operators, and 86 percent of tenant operators. They also generated 98 percent of all farm-related income from land ownership and 97 percent of the income that comes from operating farms. Organic farming is almost a mirror reflection of the mainstream food system in organic farm ownership and operation. As a result, conversations in the organic community are centered on the understandings of white landowners and their understandings of their landholdings, farming practices, and an anthropocentric worldview. Yet, human dominion over land is the pedagogical base that is failing us and our environment. How do we become an organic community that is inclusive, responsive, and in a better relationship with our environment, given the limitation of capitalism?

In the organic world, we often think about our food system in binary conversations—organic agriculture and conventional agriculture. Yet, there are many communities, people, consumers, and producers, who are systematically omitted from each of those conversations, intentionally and unintentionally.

On the consumer side, there are conflicting studies on who eats more organic food. But, in a study of organic consumers, the Economic Research Service of the USDA reported that African American households are less likely than Caucasian households to buy organic. Additionally, one of the primary consumer considerations in the purchase of organic products was the percentage of household income spent on food. Households with lower incomes were least likely to buy organic products. Considering that many federal feeding programs, such as the commodity supplemental food program which serves seniors, the WIC Program (Women, Infant and Children), or the summer lunch program, serve households with lower incomes, organic produce should be offered in these programs allowing access to households with lower incomes. Currently, organic products are not eligible for federal procurement in many institutional programs, effectively excluding access to the organic community by virtue of income—often excluding Black, Brown, or Indigenous people. In short, organic consumer is most likely white.

When we think about what is required for organic certification—from the certificates that give an individual person dominion over their plot of land, to the application for paperwork that begins the process of certification, to the markets where these products are sold, and even the consumer who seeks out the little green seal at that market—we are operating in a food supply chain that is leaving out large groups of people in this country and serves a privileged few. I count myself as one of those privileged. How can we change this? How do we increase the number of Black, Brown, and Indigenous organic producers and consumers? Perhaps, most importantly, why is this important?

One, the organic community has its roots in challenging the status quo. Without the will and breadth of organic leaders like J.I. Rodale challenging nationally accepted industrial production systems, and many others who lend their time and fight for organic, we would not have an alternative to corporate agriculture. Imagine lending that same fight and passion to challenging the tenure, thereby, roots of the anthropocentric agriculture altogether. This means lending time and passion to critically examining land ownership, its benefits to both conventional and organic agriculture, and the continued exclusion of Indigenous, Brown, and Black people owning land. In conversation with a farmer in Appalachia, she said, “If you only hang out with people who agree with you, you’re never going to grow as a person or a farmer.” Similarly, if we are a nation or community of white landowners we can’t really expect for organic agriculture to reach more than just our small community of organic advocates.

Second, infrastructure directed at marginalized communities is needed to participate in our existing organic system. Grower group certification (included in the most recent USDA rule, Strengthening Organic Enforcement) would create a path to infrastructure development for not only many Indigenous/Tribal growers but for marginalized small-scale growers. Grower groups are meant to create centralized management, marketing, and inspection systems for smaller groups of growers that have geographic proximity and uniformity of product. Appalachian Harvest, based in Duffield, Virginia, is one of the only certified organic growing groups in the United States. With no prohibition on grower group certification within the U.S., domestic organic certifiers site lack of guidance on applicability to livestock or produce, limitations of the number of growers within the group, and inspection expectation of grower members as some of the reasons there is a reluctance to certify grower groups. A focus or willingness from one certifier to embark on more grower group certification in the United States could carry this conversation and certification into marginalized communities—expanding the reach, and hopefully, diversity of organic growers. The conversations and infrastructure development in marginalized communities with producers is not easy, but then again, those who find themselves in the organic community understand any action worth undertaking takes care, time, and a whole lot of work.

It is these values that have called us all in some way to improve our homes, our bodies, and our relationships through the organic movement. We constantly argue for the betterment of the land, biodiversity, and community (microbial, animal, and human). While we want to talk about the microbial communities that make up healthy soil and determine what chemicals are weakening and killing the beneficial communities, we are shy to talk about who ultimately owns the land, how those land deeds begin in the first place, and why the organic community remains largely white. If we value biodiversity, we should be a reflection of that in our own meetings and conversations, in our own certified operations, and human community. If we want to expand the reach and breadth of the organic movement, we must start by including those who have been systematically left out.

A-dae Romero- Briones (Kiowa/Cochiti), JD, LLM was born and raised in Cochiti Pueblo, New Mexico and comes from the Ware Family from Hog Creek, Oklahoma on the Kiowa side. Mrs. Romero-Briones works as Director of Programs-Native food and Agricultural Program for First Nations Development Institute.


Dettman, Rachel (2008). Organic Produce and Who is Eating it? A Demographic Profile of the Organic Consumer. Can be accessed here: file:///C:/Users/abriones/Downloads/467595.pdf
Horst, Megan (2019). How Racism Has Shaped the US Farming Landscape. Can be accessed here:
Union of Concerned Scientists (USC) and HEAL Food Alliance (2020). Leveling the Fields: Creating Farming Opportunities for Black People, Indigenous People and Other People of Color.

This article was written for New Farm Magazine, the magazine of the Organic Farmers Association.  All OFA Members receive a complimentary issue of New Farm annually.  Join Today!