by Stan Dundon



            Organic farmers, as a group, have a serious moral obligation to come together and agree on a strong and rich statement of the many values it provides, or has the potential to provide, the public. They also have an obligation to form a consensus with public constituencies sharing  those values on the practical principles needed to preserve those values. These values and the mutual ethical principles which preserve them are the real "soul" of good farming as an honorable and indispensable vocation. The Soul of Agriculture Project was formed by family farmers, many of them organic, leaders of rural communities, churches, farm labor, environmental and farm animal welfare leaders to help in the  process of forming just such a broad farm--public consensus on the values and ethical commitments of family managed farming. Its work and history is viewable at

            In this article I will do three things: 1.) Indicate reasons for the urgency of organic farmers and their constituencies to form an explicit consensus on the values and ethics of their vocation, 2.) Suggest a "content framework " for consensus formation derived from work done by the Soul of Agriculture initiators, 3.) Give examples, with the framework, of  outstanding values in organic farming and ethical principles which farmers have already located to preserve those values.



1.       Family managed farming, organic and conventional, is in crisis in many areas because  policy makers and the general public do not know what values would be lost if industrial agriculture swept the field of all family operations. Until recently organic agriculture has been almost exclusively family-sized operations. Many of the values located in organic farming will have an extremely difficult time surviving in an industrial context. How to protect those values as organic operations scale up to sizes needed to supply public demand will be at most hit-and-miss without explicit agreement on those values and the guiding principles which preserve them. These are the real "soul" of  organic farming.

2.       When industrial firms co-opt the technical recipe  which entitles their market product to organic certification, the neglect of a whole range of other values is almost, but not necessarily, certain. Public policy makers cannot be expected to know why this loss of the soul of organic farming is even important if its supporters have not formed a single voice  and basic message to express it. The industrial operations are likely to continue the degree of commitment to environmental, labor, farm family, rural community, farm animal welfare values which has been traditional to their corporate culture. And successful family operations, in scaling up, will be strongly tempted to ape the corporate culture rather than to preserve that of their own tradition.

3.       The industrial segment hoping to profit by new genetic technologies find the market for foods derived from  genetically modified organisms (GMOs) threatened by the success of the principle of free choice in foods represented by the "organic section" in the grocery store. The GMO community has launched an open attack on the value of family farming. It needs to be defended explicitly.

4.       If public policy makers can be guided by an explicit, broadly supported consensus on the values and ethics of organic farming, so can the individual members of the organic farming community. It is extremely animating, encouraging, unifying and rededicating to review the rock-bottom values of a specific vocation, especially one which is arduous, innovative, under attack , and economically risky. A really solid answer to "Why am I doing this?" is a great thing.



The following content framework is taken from the first and second TASKS of the draft document Creating A New Vision of Farming. These tasks can be viewed at under the INFORMATION page. Further into that same page you can find a process framework for setting up a consensus formation activity. This process framework was prepared for rural church  groups. It gives you an idea of how to adjust the process to a specific constituency, drawing on your own organizational structures and ideals. Your own creativity will suggest an appropriate consensus formation process, here I will provide only a content framework.



            The first task for the formation of  a consensus on the values and ethics of organic farming is to locate  its most basic values. Like all agriculture,  organic farming has the three basic goal values, the values of its product: sufficient, healthy and sustainable food supplies. In addition all farmers face a range of  basic values which can be helped or hurt due to their choice of tools, and by  their involvement in practices  and social institutions which define and limit their choice of tools. We can call these tool values Examples of these are decent incomes and healthy living conditions for farmers, laborers and neighbors, beauty of the environment and animal welfare. 




Organic and Sufficient Food Supplies

            Organic agriculture makes a unique contribution to food sufficiency by developing, testing and retaining in actual practice ways of producing food which are capable of adding to local food sufficiency, also called "community food security," a sufficiency that is secured when food is locally grown and with cultural practices with less short-term dependency on distant and/or interruptible resources.

            Comment: The value of sufficient food supplies for all consumers and at prices or by means which are accessible to all, especially the honest poor belongs to agriculture as a whole. Different forms of agriculture contribute to that value in part. Organic agriculture's contribution is much greater than the portion of the consumer demand it serves. Organic agriculture provides a potential escape from the greatest threat to food sufficiency in providing locally proven models of food production which are significantly less unstable, in crisis situations, than industrial models easily disabled by the interruption of indispensable supplies of seed, biocides, fertilizers and capital.

            Answer to Objections:           

            Recently defenders of GMOs have resuscitated conventional attacks calling organic farming an elitist enterprise serving a tiny up-scale market and incapable of feeding large populations. How much of the world organic farming could feed depends on how many people want to eat organic food, how much it would cost and how much of the resources of land, labor, inputs and energy the world wants to devote to it. This is really an argument about future food sources, which will be discussed under "sustainability."  Right now organic farming does not have the job of feeding the world. But given that populations are increasing and the form of farming which produces the highest yields with the least use of the limited resources is often organic farming, its future importance to  sustainably sufficient food supplies is great.


Organic and Healthy

1. Organic is Delicious: That organic farms can produce delicious fruit and vegetables

more readily than most large conventional growers is too evident to argue about. Creating a New Vision of Farming, in its "Third Task" talks about the importance of local foods being delicious. Any wise parent  knows this. Get rid of the chips and candy and put out bowls of fruit and kids will eat what is delicious. The contribution to current and future health of those children is immeasurable.


2. Organic is Clean: The policy of organic farming to avoid application of toxic chemical biocides is perhaps the most outstanding public value in its professional code. Most of those biocides, which are applied deliberately with known residues and tolerance levels set to avoid "most" harmful side-effects,  are justified by the claim that food cannot be grown profitably, in adequate quantities, and shipped long distances without them. It is never denied that these residues are an ethical problem. A huge regulatory process is expensively maintained to make this risk/benefit tight-rope walk plausibly safe. Organic is evidence that the "necessity" of running the risks is not so necessary after all.[2]


3. Organic is Anxiety-Free: As a direct consequence of its refusal to use  toxic chemicals, consumers do not need to walk the risk/benefit tight-rope. The federal regulatory process which established the "tolerances" for residues of these toxic chemicals can produce anxiety in reasonable people wishing to eat them.[3]


Organic Farming is Sustainable

            Creating a New Vision of Farming distinguishes between sustainability of the end product, namely the perpetual supplying of sufficient quantities of food and fiber, and sustainability of the means used to produce it. Renewability of those means and the husbanding of the renewability is key to sustainability of the means. This is noted in "tool values" below. The basic threat to sustainability of sheer product would only be a population increase (or concentration in a small area) so great that available agricultural resources could not feed the population regardless of the means chosen. Demographic research suggests that it is the industrial displacement of farmers and laborers from farming which leads them, via their ensuing poverty and infant mortality , to chose larger family sizes. A form of organic farming in developing countries which gave stable farm families assurance of a safe future with only a few healthy children would be the best contribution to sustainability. Organic farming contributes to this scenario also by reducing the family's debt exposure and the threat of loss of the farm.




            Since goals enjoy priority over the  tools used to achieve them, they also determine the basic values of the tools. Organic agriculture's tools are pre-eminently those which are efficient in the use of resources, sustainable and safe. The organic farming community must determine its meaning of the notoriously slippery term "efficiency." Economists have faulted the "efficiency" of organic farming based on a notion of pecuniary efficiency which often ignores such incredibly important resources as clean air and water. Pecuniary efficiency is the ratio of the money required to produce a product to the amount of money gained in selling it. A more appropriate ratio is the amount of valued and limited natural resources (including human labor) consumed in the production of food to the amount of human life, health, delight and well-being produced by the entire production process. In this ratio human labor, namely the opportunity and delight of  peoples to be involved in the growth of their own food or to earn a wage doing it, may be as much a valued outcome as an input.


Organic is Efficient: Or can be. Because much of organic farming is still in innovative or experimental form, it may be terribly inefficient, especially in the use of the farmer's personal time and energy. Studies in innovation have demonstrated repeatedly that efficiency is attained only in the more mature stages of a productive process or organization. Conceptually, however, it is clear that to the extent that resources used in organic farming are renewable and actually renewed, it achieves an efficiency which so  troubles economists that they suspect it of claiming immunity from the laws of thermodynamics. Academic economists who measure efficiencies of productive processes often arbitrarily ignore (or designate as "externalities") input costs such as damage to the environment or to the health of  the laborers. They also can discount such output values as superior quality (e.g. superior taste and nutrition), community benefits (food security, employment) and long term values such as the retention and enrichment of a body of knowledge about a productive process to be passed to the next generation (e.g. the locally appropriate art of organic farming itself).


Organic is  Sustainable: Here we refer to the sustainability of the tools used in organic farming, including the labor of the farmer and his/her helpers. The renewability of resources in the present promises a perpetual renewability, absent any plausible argument to the contrary. In general the prudent use of non-renewable resources is not a direct contradiction to sustainability in organic farming since the pace of innovation in developing renewable resources is more likely to match the exhaustion of non-renewable resources if that pace of exhaustion is slow. And organic farming has the greatest potential to slow that pace. Organic farming does not have to violate the second law of thermodynamics.


Organic is Safe: This is the safety of its tools in their impact on workers, the environment and all living beings who share in it. Clearly its rejection of toxic chemicals and a careful use of organic fertilizers demonstrate organic farming's potential of being ideally safe.


Answer to Objections:

            Recent GMO community attacks on organic farming have discussed the risk of e-coli infections from organic fertilizers, complete with  quantitative gestimates of the risk.

Here a distinction has to be made. Inherent risks are those unavoidably connected to a tool, such as toxic residues when toxics are deliberately applied. Accidental risks are risks that are usually avoidable by more careful policies. The e-coli risks are avoidable by proper composting, the toxic risks are inherent in the need for the chemical to be toxic. If a complete survey and mish-mash combination of all risks were allowed, the danger of serious human diseases being communicated via farm labor urinating on crops due to the corporate refusal to supply adequate port-a-potties would have to be included.




            The organic farmers who contributed to the draft  Creating a New Vision of Farming did not go into the details of their specific strategies and the values attached to them. You might want to read  the section on "specific tool values" in the draft. In its spirit we give here just a handy taxonomy and some suggestive examples of tool values to guide any organic community's deliberations. Only experienced organic farmers can do an adequate job of locating the values of their specific techniques and tools.


1.      Values for those who do the work

(a)    Values without which farmers and workers will not work at all.

(b)   Values without which they will not be able to farm with excellence.


Under (a) are adequate family income, income security, health and bearable levels of stress.  Under (b)  are the knowledge and caring which make excellence both attractive and possible.

            Creating a New Vision of Farming  under (b) notes the value of long term familiarity with local soils, weather, markets are critical values. Organic farming, more than any other, seems to embody and cultivate that local intimacy which is so often neglected by industrial firms. In your deliberations you could probably list dozens of sub-values which proceed from that local knowledge. Under "caring" it notes the rewards which support caring, "the promise of long-term living in a safe, beautiful and reliably productive environment."

            The organic community seems so naturally to cultivate this knowledge and caring that they may not realize how both precious and essential they are to the excellence of what they grow and the community they can create in the process.


2.      Values Impacting on Animals and Other Living Systems.

(a)    Animals   Organic operations which  integrate livestock tend to do so in the scale which makes possible the caring which is the most reliable basis for farm animal welfare which  Creating a New Vision of Farming highlights. A large animal welfare constituency supportive of organic farming can be secured by cultivation of this caring.

(b)   Other Living Systems  Organic farming has the highest potential to value the stunning beauty of the ecosystem from soil micro flora and fauna to the diversity of wild and cultivated plants. This is derived both from a natural reverence for this beauty and diversity and an awareness that it can help food production.



3.      Values of Farmer to Farmer Relationships

(a)     Sacred     Creating a New Vision of Farming calls attention to the corrosive kind of competition which industrial agriculture seems to cultivate. Organic agriculture has the potential, at this time in its development, to find ways to promote a friendship-based competition in which farmers can work in an atmosphere of genuine love of neighbor.

(b)   Useful    There has never been a time when cohesiveness among organic farmers has more purely utilitarian values. Your deliberations on the values of organic farming need to list and cultivate these, from technical to political. Innovative enterprises are particularly in need to learn, without having to repeat, all the experiences of success and failure which occur in their field.  With so little help from academic agriculturalists, organic farmers have only each other. 


4.      Values in Community and Consumer Relationships

Organic farming, with its presence at farmers' markets, has practically written the text-book on how to bring farming and the community closer together. This is an outstanding value worth constant cultivation. The underlying value of the farmers' market for the farmer is the "very human pleasure in being appreciated for a good product, the outcome of one's intelligence, labor and caring." Because of the safety of its tools, the farmer has the pleasure of living in peace with his/her community. For the consumer there is the value of confidence and reliability from knowing the people who grow one's food.





            Values are nouns, ethical principles are complete sentences stating commitments to preserve those values. For most of the values, which your deliberations locate, you will find that those commitments already exist in organic farming, but often in a strictly implicit fashion. You will have to decide when these should be made explicit and be stated like a kind of code of professional excellence. Ethical and professional excellence are impossible to distinguish and separate. One secures the other. Creating a New Vision of Farming lists sets of mutual ethical principles for farmers and for society which can help preserve family managed farming. These sets are organized to parallel the values which they serve. It is too long to repeat here, so instead we will list a few suggestions as to how organic farmers  might add to or rephrase those principles. Our list will parallel the value taxonomy laid out above. Principles listed in this way are meant to stimulate creative thought about how to make explicit your moral insights about organic farming. Given that the principles are reciprocal, many  will be require commitments  from various constituencies of organic farming.




Principles Which Secure or Promote the Goal Values of Organic Farming;


1.      Fertile land which is close to communities and even contiguous to homes is preferably devoted to organic agriculture (due to values of sufficiency, safety, etc.).

2.      Organic farmers should farm in a way which is safe to close neighbors.

3.      Safety of organic foods must not rely merely on "certification" rules.

4.      Organic farming must not abandon concern for sustainability.

5.      Organic farming's ability to preserve and regenerate agricultural resources must not be abandoned with the growing scale of its farms.

6.      Regulation and education in agriculture must encourage the growth and prosperity of organic farming and enhance its ability to protect the health of the soil and safety of its products.


Principles which Guide the Tools of Organic Farming:

General Tool Principles

1.      The working and economic conditions of organic farmers and their workers must be rewarding and healthy enough to assure that the vocation will not be abandoned.

2.      Because "caring" is at the heart of organic farming, workers must be treated with dignity and generosity so that they too will care about the values of organic farming.

3.      Organic farming must pursue efficiency, humanely defined, while allowing for "inefficient" experimentation.

4.      No experiment which involves serious risk to the public or to the reputation of organic farming should be allowed. (Or: All experiments should be conducted safely.)

5.      Public agricultural schools should support organic farming experimentation.

6.      Organic farming must not treat important human and natural impacts as "externalities."

7.      The body of local knowledge of organic farming must be preserved locally.

8.      Organic farming must exercise superior care about accidental risks involved in its innovative tools or procedures.

9.      Larger and growing organic farms must carefully preserve in its managers the familiarity and intimacy with the fields and crops which secure the excellence of organic products and minimize its impacts.

10.  Beauty and diversity should remain a hallmark of organic operations.


Specific Tool Principles

A.     Farmers and Workers

1.      The continuity of farming organically, with the local knowledge and caring which distinguish it, should be secured in local policy, including economic incentives.

2.      Toward the goal of # 1, the entry of young farmers into organic farming should be encouraged..

3.      Consideration for the health, housing and schooling of worker families should be present




B.     Impacts on Animals and Other Living Systems

1.      Although used and even consumed in production, natural beings, plants and animals are the sacred gifts of Creation, given for our use, not abuse. They are worthy in themselves of being treated with respect. Their diversity and the harmony of their coexistence  are prima facie good and should be protected.[4]

2.      The reputation of organic farming's respect for nature is precious and should be guarded jealously.

3.      Needless or trivially profitable harm to animals used in integrated organic operations should be treated as wrong in itself and an inevitable path to compromising the cleanliness of farm products and the health of the environment.

4.      The effort of organic farmers to protect animals and the environment deserve public support.


C.     Farmer to Farmer Relations

1.      Organic farmers must avoid aping the destructive forms of competition found in industrial agriculture.

2.      Organic farmers should seek amicable relationships with conventional farmers and help them make marginal improvement in the direction of less toxic farming.

3.      Organic farmers should join together for mutual help and for cohesive communal and political action.


D.    Farmer--Community Relations

1.      Organic farmers should consider the feasibility of additional efforts to encourage the community to know them personally and even visit their farms.

2.      Organic farmers and the community should make mutual efforts to make the proximity of farming operations to their homes enjoyable.

3.      Community leaders should recognize that economic hardship of farmers reduces their ability to accommodate community needs.


E.     Farmer--Consumer Relations

1.      Organic farmers and their community supporters should engage in educational efforts concerning the consumer values of their crops.

2.      Organic farmers should attempt to inform consumers about the need for the "premium prices" of their products.

3.      "Community Supported Agriculture" arrangements should be seriously examined not merely for economic reasons, but to enhance the friendship and trust between consumers and organic farmers.

4.      Organic farmers at farmers' markets should consider having educational displays or events about the value of their products for consumers.




      In many ways organic farming in California is the envy of the nation. Its relative prosperity and growth make it a prime target for co-option by industrial interests. And scaling up to larger farms carries with it its own dangers. But every idealistic activity or institution faces these risks. Only by both making explicit the values and the ethics of the ideal and then by conducting occasional communal exercises to review and reaffirm these values and ethics can decline be avoided. Your first step would be to reflect on the ideals of your vocation and begin the work of building that consensus.      Most statements of values and ethics in any mature vocation or profession tend to be very private affairs, very "internal"  defensive documents. But the consensus on values and ethics in all family farming, but especially in organic farming, must be a mutual consensus embracing all the constituencies who look to you to provide that whole range of cherished values beyond the wonderful food you grow. When policy makers see that broad consensus,  they will, if friendly, know how to direct farm and land-use policy. Hostile or indifferent policy makers will be made cautious in seeing that support.

Now is the time to act!



[2] Standard applied ethics has had a long tradition of justifying choices of tools that have unintended but foreseen actual harms (surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy to cure cancer) or known risk of harm, such as pain killers which could shorten a patient's life. The risk is borne for the benefit intended. But the application of this principle, sometimes called the principle of double effect, or risk/benefit analysis, always supposes that there is no alternative tool which can achieve the good effect without incurring the harmful effect or running the risk thereof. The entire regulatory process in the federal FIFRA legislation is based on the notion that organic farming cannot feed the nation.


[3]  Toxic residue tolerances on food are usually set to fall significantly below the "safe" levels of ingestion by some "average consumer". In some cases this is determined, for example, by taking all the grapefruit consumed in this country in a year and dividing it by all the consumers producing a ridiculously low number of grapefruit per actual devoted grapefruit eater. How many of them would buy a grapefruit that was advertised to be safe, provided one eats only six or seven a year?


[4]  This principle is directly quoted from Creating a New Vision of Farming. Significant numbers of organic farmers are vegetarians for ethical reasons, others are not for equally ethical reasons. The reader may wish to consult the footnote in Creating a New Vision of Farming at this passage for a way of thinking about this difficult issue and the problem of animal rights in general. Also, it would be worthwhile to read there the remaining ethical principles on the treatment of animals.