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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Just in principle? : assessing the contributions of organic farming to socio-ecological sustainability in Canadian agriculture Klassen, Susanna Elsie


Agriculture is at the centre of society’s most pressing sustainability challenges, including food insecurity, climate change, ecological degradation, and social inequity. Organic agriculture, when practiced according to an ethic grounded in ecology, health, fairness, and care, has been proposed as a remedy to these challenges. Building on a movement for an alternative to socially and ecologically exploitative food production, organic agriculture is now a multi-billion-dollar industry with established legal and regulatory frameworks around the world. While this growth could be seen as a success, empirical research has called into question the extent to which organic agriculture and market-oriented third-party certifications can foster sustainability transitions and has found that performance is often context dependent (e.g. depending on which practices are adopted). There remain significant gaps in knowledge about how organic agriculture is practiced in jurisdictions around the world relative to the sustainability-related principles on which it was founded, especially the principle of fairness. To address these gaps, I developed a mixed-method assessment grounded in a critical realist methodological approach to evaluate the contributions of organic agriculture to socio-ecological sustainability in Canada. I utilized both qualitative and quantitative methods—drawing from interviews with farmers, inspectors and organic policymakers, analysis of census data for farms across Canada, surveys of vegetable farmers in British Columbia and organic policy documents—to investigate how organic agriculture is shaped and enacted by organic community members at multiple scales. My analysis of organic standards in North America, along with census and survey data in Canada, provide strong evidence for higher levels of adoption of ecologically sustainable management in organic agriculture relative to all other farms. Yet, despite explicit attention to the principle of fairness in organic standards and among organic community actors, I found little evidence that organic agriculture in Canada is correlated with improved working conditions for farmworkers in practice. Across Mexico, the US and Canada, no organic standards contain any requirements related to social sustainability. At the same time, standards governance and community-led efforts toward integrating the principle of fairness into certification show potential to advance a more just and sustainable agriculture.

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