Is Industrial Scale Organic
Farming Really Organic?

From <>

By: Rich Ganis, Center for Informed Food Choices

On October 21, a new law codifying federal standards for organic food and
agriculture came into effect in the U.S.

Many food industry analysts are hailing the U.S. Department of Agriculture's
National Organic Rule (NOR) as a long overdue reform that promises to lend
some coherence to what has so far been an inconsistent set of guidelines
governing the composition of organic foods and the methods used to produce
them. They welcome its clear definition of organic (no genetically modified
raw material, irradiation, synthetic chemicals, hormones, or antibiotics are
allowed), and its straightforward rules for classifying products as either
"100 percent organic," "certified organic," or "made with organic

Some leaders in the organic movement are not so sanguine, however. They
worry that the new law is not stringent enough, and that it may be a boon to
large food producers bent on "industrializing" organics, moving it in a
direction far afield from its founding ideals.

Since gaining notoriety in the 1970s, when it was embraced by the
"counterculture," organic agriculture has been concerned with safeguarding
the ecological integrity of local bioregions; creating social justice and
equality for both growers and eaters; and cultivating whole, healthful

Fears that NOR will bring us closer to a future in which neon-orange snack
foods become the new face of organic appear to be justified. The
government's official organic label will now be affixed to a large and
growing list of processed foods -- everything from H.J. Heinz Company's
organic ketchup to organic Cheetos, Tostitos, and Sun Chips, produced by
PepsiCo's Frito-Lay unit.

And this is only the beginning. Eager to exploit the marketing cachet of the
USDA's Good Housekeeping-like organic seal, food conglomerates are currently
pumping loads of capital into the research and development of similar

Major produce distributors are also poised to boost sales with the help of
the government's official organic imprimatur. The label will now appear on
organic fruits and vegetables grown by huge produce distributors like Dole
and Earthbound Farms. Sold at major grocery chains such as Whole Foods
Market and Safeway, much of this organic mega-produce is designed to attract
convenience-minded consumers with "value-added" features. Earthbound, for
example, sells precut carrots packaged with single-serve containers of ranch
dip dressing.

While these innovations promise to reward manufacturers with fantastically
high profit margins, they are an affront to the basic precepts of
traditional organic agriculture.

Big Food's efforts to assume control of the organic market should surprise
no one. Sales of organic foods are soaring. They're expected to top $11
billion this year, with a rate of growth five times greater than other
sectors of the food economy.

Clearly, large food makers are not about to cede such enormous profit
potential to small farmers producing whole, healthful, locally grown foods.
Instead, they've opted to channel consumer demand for more healthful and
ecologically sustainable foods in a direction that poses no threat to the
industrial foundations upon which modern food empires have been built.

Supporters of big organics point to its potential to reduce the amount of
land farmed with agricultural chemicals while making organic produce more
affordable and accessible to those with lower incomes. While not discounting
these possible benefits, critics maintain that the large-scale organic model
entails social costs that industry is not as eager to publicize.

For example, operations like Earthbound pose a serious threat to the
livelihoods to small organic farmers, who lack the resources and capital to
compete with agricultural giants that have designs on their customers and
their farms. Regrettably, the new organic guidelines, with their complicated
rules and extensive paperwork requirements, will likely put them at even
more of a competitive disadvantage.

Big organics can also be criticized on an environmental level. Adding
organic Twizzlers to the Safeway snack aisle may result in a little more
acreage being put into organic production, but those modest ecological
benefits would be offset by the tremendous amount of fossil fuel, packaging,
and other resources expended in the production and distribution of these
products. Much the same can be said for big organic farms, which are highly
resource-intensive operations set up to produce a limited variety of crops
and distribute them over great distances. This approach is far removed from
the original organic movement's emphasis diversity, localness, and

Also, the "greening" of the junk food market will probably do little to
improve the nutritional well-being of consumers -- an objective that's
especially pressing in light of recent studies showing that one-third of all
American adults are now clinically obese and at risk of developing
diet-related health problems such as heart disease and diabetes.

Sadly, big corporations' efforts to portray industrial organics as a
foretaste of a brave, new, healthier, ecologically viable tomorrow will no
doubt resonate with citizens whose ideas about food have been shaped by a
social and political climate dominated by the technological discourse and
prescriptions of industry.

It's incumbent upon those who know better to expose these products for what
they really are: the creations of profit-driven corporate elites with a
vested interest in greenwashing their image, not in fundamentally
restructuring the massive agri-industrial complex. That's a task for social
movements, organizations, and concerned citizens -- not corporations. And it
must be undertaken if we are to put an end to Big Food's efforts to co-opt
and subvert the meaning of organics in the service of its own profit-driven

Rich Ganis is coeditor of Informed Eating, a newsletter of food politics and
analysis published by the Center for Informed Food Choices, a nonprofit
organization based in Oakland, California that advocates for a diet based on
whole, unprocessed, local, organically grown plant foods Web:
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Dana Coffield From The November 2002 Issue of Natural Foods Merchandiser

Among the wave of articles in the wake of the introduction of the NOP rules
in the USA that are (mostly) critical of the entry of large corporations
into the organic market, Dana Coffield offers a rather rare analysis with
interviews with some of the big players justifying their approach.

Gary Hirschberg, president and chief executive of Stonyfield Farms, assailed
for selling 40 percent of his company to French conglomerate Groupe Danone,
says he was happy to finally return profits to investors friends and dairy farmers
Mills is going to grow a lot more," he says. "So let's be Trojan Horses.
Let's go in there as [Cascadian Farms founder] Gene Kahn and [White Wave
founder] Steve Demos have and change them."

Rick Sterling, president of The Sterling-Rice Group, a Boulder, Colo., brand
development company that's developed campaigns for companies ranging from
Taco Bell to Celestial Seasonings; "The dilemma is that the original
consumers, the cultural creatives, want to buy from companies that mean it.
And probably nobody will mean it and come from the heart more than the
founder," he says. "You give some of that up, but what you gain is broader
mass access. This is a movement that even the founders would like to spread
through society. There are a lot of things that big business can do that
could allow it to spread more widely and faster."

"We're only 2 percent of the economy, so we can't start cannibalizing each
other on size and economies of scale," says Bob Scowcroft, executive
director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation.. "We should be in
solidarity with all products entering the stream of commerce that are
certified organic. When we get to 40 or 50 percent of the economy, then
we'll be ready to work on issues of food security and distance of travel.
Not that we shouldn't be thinking about that now, but it should not cause
conflict between us."

Full article:

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