Dr. Jessie Luna, Ph.D. student Becca Chalit Hernandez, and Abdoulaye Sawadogo (Université Joseph Ki-Zerbo/Ouagadougou) published “The paradoxes of purity in organic agriculture in Burkina Faso” in Geoforum this December.
For decades, critical agri-food scholarship has sought to evaluate the outcomes of alternative agri-food systems such as organic. Two key critiques have emerged: the first focuses on the limitations of certification-based systems that rely on a neoliberal model of consumer concern; the second critique highlights the Whiteness of alternative food movements and the persistence of racial exclusions. In this paper, we draw these critiques together and extend them through an ethnographic case study of organic cotton in Burkina Faso, West Africa. We explore contradictions in the win–win–win discourse of organic cotton, which promises ecological sustainability, improved livelihoods for producers, as well as pure products for consumers. We argue there is an implicit prioritization of consumers within several organic cotton regulatory rules that focus on ensuring final products free of contamination from pesticide residues. We contend that these rules create difficulties for producers and obstacles for the expansion of sustainable agriculture. Further, the focus on “purity for the consumer” may actually reproduce and transmit (historically fraught and colonial) racialized imaginaries of purity. Some Burkinabè producers see organic as prioritizing purity for an imagined White consumer. Organic’s call to “get back to the dirt” also clashes with a cultural context where aspiration for development is often expressed as “getting out of the dirt.” This paper thus raises new questions about the implications of organic agriculture’s intense focus on purity for a) the full realization of the promise of organics and b) residual racial imaginaries embedded within the idiom of “purity” itself.