Florida Organic Growers
Catholic Relief Services Fair Trade
Equal Exchange Fair Trade Coffee

Plants and Social Justice

Plants have played an important role throughout history as sources of food, commodities, disease, health, energy, politics, and many other sources. Plants are extremely connected in our lives, and history proves this. Since the beginning of history, societies have learned how to take full advantage of the usage of plants. Therefore, it is essential to remember how much plants have, are, and will continue to affect our daily lives. It is our responsibility to be conscious growers, eaters, and buyers of plants and their products. In the 1970s the Green Revolution began, as conscious individuals began seeking out better yielding and disease-resistant varieties. This revolution, however, was met with some skepticism, as crops began depending more on fertilizers, and other modern technology that placed poorer farmers at a disadvantage (Plants and Society, 2012). Today, scientists are researching new ways through biotechnology to use plants for better medicine, environmental alternatives, and healthier food alternatives for those in poverty. According to Plants and Society, biotechnology is defined as, "the use of living organisms to provide better products for humanity" (Plants and Society, 2012). With an ever increasing population and limited natural resources, scientists are using biotechnology and genetic modification to discover new methods to produce more efficient, disease free crops. According to Plants and Society, "In 2009, genetically modified crops were grown on 134 million hectares in 25 countries around the world, with the United States growing almost half of the total. The main crops that have been modified are corn, soybean, and canola, and the main traits are herbicide resistance and insect resistance" (Plants and Society, 2012).

Therefore, plants affect our daily lives and have inspired various movements, like the Food Justice movement or Green Revolution, and have caused riots when food was a shortage, like the Potato famine. It is essential to be conscientious growers, consumers, and eaters as plants are integral to our economy, climate, health, etc. Plant social justice looks to evaluate whether or not society takes care of plants that treat not only the environment with respect but also those involved in the process. Inequalities exist today and throughout history in the ways society grows plants. Are workers being treated fairly? Is production harming the environment? How much fertilizer is being mixed with crops? What are alternative crops for energy and other consumer products? In asking these questions, society will hopefully avoid the injustice of past relationships with plants, like cotton and sugarcane's relationship with slavery.

The recovery of the people is tied to the recovery of food,
Since food itself is medicine: not only for the body,
but for the soul, for the spiritual connection to history, ancestors, and the land.
Winona La Duke (Planting Justice)

Ethnobotany is the field of study where plants are viewed through the lens of both science and culture. Ethnobotanists not only study the botanical characteristics of plants but also how plants affect society. Since plants have played such prominent roles in society, it is vital to understand the relationship between plants and people. Ethnobotanists will assist society in how to better understand and utilize our natural resources in a just manner.

Learn more about how Ethnobotany affects our daily lives:

Read some articles on the importance of plants and social justice:
The New York Times
Time Magazine
"A Question of Fairness," William Neuman for //NYT//

Some solutions:
There is a wide variety of solutions to the injustices associated with each of the plants we have investigated, but the best way to ensure fairness of your food is to buy locally at farmer's markets or pursue home gardening. Fair trade is also a good solution to some of the crops that are climate dependent such as sugar, coffee and cocoa. Fair trade and environmentally friendly products can usually be purchased at health food stores such as Whole Foods and other local health foods stores. Some other human rights organizations have special lines of fair trade products that support economic empowerment efforts in the developing world, where the farmers are usually exploited. Catholic Relief Services is one such example as is Amnesty International. In William Neuman's November 23rd article in The New York Times, "A Question of Fairness" he notes, "Sales of fair trade goods in 2010 were $1.3 billion in the United States and $5.8 billion globally." This leaves much work for us to do, but some of the current proposed ways to do so involve lowering the standards for the "fair trade" seal of approval, by extending it to corporations and plantation-style farms. Hopefully, these changes will be met with resistance in order to protect the small coffee and coco farmers who have sought some salvation in the fair trade movement.

One campaign for food justice within Equal Exchange (Fair Trade Coffee, Chocolate, Tea, Almonds, Olive Oil, Bananas and gifts from the leader in Fair Trade since 1986) aims to educate consumers about the 'just-ness' of their food, Fair Food Fight. They write: "If we don’t fight this fight alongside the challenger, look what we have: A handful of companies that create the vast majority of your food, with fewer, less interesting choices every year. These companies demolish rural America by bringing in feedlots for cattle and pig towns with their lovely manure lagoons, drive out small farmers, and drive down wages until whole communities screwed. That, and the health of America as a whole is threatened by centralizing the food system so that just one nasty germ in the national meat bucket or the national tomato packing plant can sicken thousands upon thousands of people." While the focus of this particular campaign is mostly on food-justice issues in the U.S. and most of our page focuses on internationally grown crops, their mission is one which aims to bring about food justice through consumer education which is what we hope to do!

Our Plant Focus:

sugarcane_news.jpg There have been times when society does not always use plant products in a just manner. For instance, sugarcane , formally classified as Saccharum officinarum, greatly enforced slavery and the harsh conditions slaves had to face, in order to meet the high supply and demand quotas throughout the world. Sugarcane has played a political role even in the U.S., as the U.S. placed an embargo on Cuban sugar. Even with a more modern example, sugarcane has been recommended as an alternative to oil for ethanol. The historical interplay between society and sugarcane displays how much a plant can affect society, both in just and unjust ways. This section will give the botanical characteristics of sugarcane, as well as provide the historical relationship the plant has had with society.

The Cotton Plant has played a huge role in the world's global community for hundreds of years. King Cotton has been a major crop that has created large amounts of revenue, as it has been an institution that has created social struggle and has affected social and political agendas for many years. Cotton, or Gossypium, is a shrub-like plant that produces fruits that can be broken into small fibers that are woven together to make cloth and other products. These products are then sold and distributed far and wide throughout the global market. While cotton has many benefits, even today people are struggling with the social and political struggle that King Cotton represents. In this section we will look at the botanical
make-up and general information about Cotton as well as the past and present social injustices that are a result of the growth of cotton


Banana Plant
Banana is the common name which embraces the species or hybrids of the genus Musa in the Musaceae family and the fruit that these plants produce. While there are many different species of Musa, the two from which almost all modern edible bananas come from is Musa Acuminata and Musa Balbisiana. These species have been cultivated as far back as 5000 BC in Southeast Asia and throughout the course of history have spread westward to central Asia, Africa, and eventually onto Central and South America. Today the plant is grown in almost every tropical region in the world and now constitutes the 4th largest fruit crop in the world. Unfortunately this mass production of the banana has not come without a steep price. Through the formation of the banana plantations and the unjust exploitation of the workers, a monopolization of the banana industry in the Americas occured. This monopolization was led by United Fruit Company, who used their immense power and wealth to essentially control the governments and economies of many Central and South American countries. These countries came to be known as the"Banana republics" and the influence of the United Fruit Company and the banana industry forever changed their nation's history.

Coffea Arabica

The two main types of coffee bean are: Arabica (Coffea arabica L.) which is cultivated in Latin America, east Africa, Asia and Arabia, and Robusta (Coffea canephora Pierre ex Froehner), which is grown in central Africa and southeast Asia, and to a small extent Brazil.
Brazil is the largest coffee producing country followed by Vietnam, Indonesia and Colombia.
The coffee cherry is the part of the plant that contains the beans that we, as consumers, are most concerned with, but the cherry undergoes an extensive harvesting process before it makes its way to our mug of coffee.
There is a variety of social and environmental issues surrounding this small bean and the extensive process of harvesting it. Learn more about the environmental and social concerns as well as the botany of this beautiful plant and its tasty product!

The production, harvesting, and processing of the cocoa bean has evolved from an ancient Mayan tradition into a global corporate enterprise. The Theobroma cacao L. has a huge impact on the global economy by extending it's presence from third world farmers to first world households. Because the cocoa plant is limited to areas near the equator, it's production has often been kept away from the eyes of first world consumers. It has become a reason for why many children are forced into slavery. Even though it's products are something everyone all over the world can identify, the plant itself has generated suffering for thousands of impoverished people who are forced to produce it. This section will examine the botanical aspects of the cocoa plant and take a look at the climate of social injustice that surrounds this plant.


Levetin, Estelle, and McMahon, Karen. Plants and Society. 6th Ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., 2012).
Planting Justice. Guiding Principles. Web. 27 Nov. 2011. http://www.plantingjustice.org/about-us/guiding-principles.
Florida Organic Growers. Web. 27 Nov. 2011.http://www.foginfo.org/ajp.php.
"Foodies Can Eclipse (And Save) the Green Movement".Time Magazine. 15 Feb. 2011. Web. 27 Nov. 2011. http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,2049255,00.html.
"Fresh and Direct From The Garden An Ocean Away". The New York Times. 29 Aug. 2011. Web. 27 Nov. 2011.
Neuman, William. "A Question of Fairness," The New York Times. 23 November, 2011.