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Who Owns Organic?

The passage last October of an amendment to the Organic Foods Production Act has split the organic movement. Steve Gilman’s centerfold article in this issue conveys some of the anger which many felt at the way the amendment was pushed through Congress by the Organic Trade Association and a minority of organic “big food” companies.

This issue of The Natural Farmer was commissioned by the NOFA Interstate Council to take a broad look at where we, small scale organic farmers, gardeners and consumers, now stand relative to the industry we helped create. Besides Steve’s article on the amendment and what we can do about it, this issue contains several articles tracking consolidation in organic food. Phil Howard traces the forces driving such consolidation, Sam Fromartz looks at how they apply to organics specifically, Laura Sayre analyzes how such consolidation takes a different face in Western Europe, and Amy Guptill and Rick Walsh show how at least some US farmers are responding to buyer consolidation by forming mega-cooperatives to maintain their bargaining power.

Two articles exemplify these forces. Cynthia Barstow puts a human face on “big food” executives trying to make sense in this strange marketplace, and George DeVault tells the tragic story of what happened to Walnut Acres, once a pioneer in organic food marketing.

Liz Henderson offers two articles – one comparing the lofty principles of organic agriculture as set forth by the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements to those more mundane ones enunciated by the United States Department of Agriculture. The other, with Mark Dunau, looks at the “Farmer’s Pledge” as an alternative for small farmers, disillusioned with organic certification, who are selling to local markets.

Lastly, several folks active in last fall’s events give their views about what happened and where we go from here. George Siemon (Organic Valley) supported the amendment as a way to increase the supply of organic food. Michael Sligh (RAFI-USA) opposed it as unnecessary and divisive. Both of them give their own take on how we should now proceed in a post-amendment world to avoid tearing ourselves apart. Grace Gershuny (NOFA/VT and NOP) writes about the history and significance of the various fights over organic standards during the last 20 years, and Emily Brown Rosen (NOFA/NJ and OMRI) responds with her thoughts on the same topics.

Even our book reviews feature a couple of relevant volumes. RAFI-USA’s 2003 Study “Who Owns Organic” in some ways prefigures this issue of The Natural Farmer. Julie Guthman’s “Agrarian Dreams” takes a hard look at the reality of organic farming as played out in the incredibly fertile (but expensive) farmland of California.

We hope that this issue serves to inform and ground you. The forces of consolidation and expansion in organic food are only going to continue. Whether and how we as farmers and consumers continue to relate to the National Organic Program will be thrashed out on NOFA boards, in conferences, and at kitchen tables throughout the Northeast during this next year. It is an important discussion, and needs our full attention.