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The Organic Community, the USDA, and the Morning After

  • The Organic Community, the USDA, and the Morning After
    By Mark Keating
    Cooking Up A Story, November 19, 2009
    Straight to the Source

Our previous look at the history behind organic agriculture delved into the grassroots community's courtship of federal recognition and the consummation of that relationship with the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) in 1990.

Today's discussion will pick up in the light of the morning after and the reservations - felt to this day - whether hooking up with Uncle Sam turned out to be as advantageous as hoped. A healthy match between the two has always been a tricky proposition, given the USDA's top-down approach to decision making and the organic community's commitment to consensus process. The relationship is further complicated by the fact that though the OFPA affords the organic community considerable influence over the definition and practice of organic agriculture, it also ensures that the USDA ultimately retains the upper hand. Ceding ultimate responsibility for organic agriculture to the USDA has yielded a measure of the consistency, credibility and recognition sought by the organic community. However, these gains have come at the expense of twenty years of turbulence with a partner at times prone to indifference and capriciousness, to say the least.

Let's not get ahead of ourselves, since the USDA took no meaningful action concerning organic agriculture after OFPA's passage until December 1997. (I did mention something about indifference, didn't I?). It's important to consider the internal changes that organic agriculture underwent during this interval, and especially the significant consolidation in the production, processing and marketing sectors. For the first wave of self-identified and subsequently certified organic products that became commercially available during the 1960's and 70's, the reputation behind the name on the label was integral to success.

Budding enterprises such as Walnut Acres, Arrowhead Mills and Eden Foods gained a foothold in the markets for whole grains, rice and other staples because the people who ran them were recognized as leading practitioners and advocates of organic management. This process repeated itself during the 1980s for perishable products and canned and frozen foods as start-up ventures such as Pavich Grapes, Organic Valley, Cascadian Farms and Muir Glen garnered valuable consumer confidence. Many of these organic pioneers had been told not long before that they could never grow food without using agricultural chemicals and now they were supplying such food to national markets! The association with grassroots producers and processors who were frontline partners in confronting "the system" was an essential part of the branding that secured a sizable and growing market share for organically produced foods by 1990.

Two reasons why "the system" became (and remains) "the system" are its ability to capitalize on new consumer trends and to respond aggressively to competition. These forces triggered dramatic concentration within the production, processing, distribution and marketing of organic agricultural products even as the overall market grew rapidly during the 1990s.

The conventional food establishment didn't set out to beat or join the organic upstarts during this period; subsuming them was a much more practical business strategy. Their tactics included wholesale acquisitions, such as the purchase of Horizon Dairy by Dean Foods in 1998 and Cascadian Farms and Muir Glen by General Mills one year later. In another approach, large conventional producers - particularly in the cut-throat fresh produce market - ventured into organic production and used their deep pockets to eliminate veteran competitors. For example, wholesale produce buyers across the country received a standing offer from a California agribusiness giant to undersell Pavich on organic grapes by one dollar per box, resulting in the latter's bankruptcy.


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