USA/Canada – The Organic Farming Movement in North America: Moving towards Sustainable Agriculture

It has become increasingly well-documented that conventional agriculture, as it is currently practiced, cannot be sustained indefinitely. In North America and beyond, the ever-consolidating food systems are characterized by interlocking, mutually reinforcing vicious cycles involving rural depopulation, urban sprawl, and eroding local food security, as well as a host of environmental issues including water problems, soil erosion, and unintended consequences of pesticide and GMO contamination.

As ever-more sophisticated North American consumers begin to embrace all things organic, the last two decades have seen a skyrocketing demand for organic food. The ‘mainstreaming’ of organics is a dynamic, complex, and sometimes controversial phenomenon. As consumers buy mixed salad greens that travel thousands of kilometers to their local Wal-marts and Costcos, environmental and consumer activists condemn commercial organics for how it has drifted away from the movement’s original ideals.

Meanwhile, other voices, such as that of Michael Pollan, author of the pivotal Omnivore’s Dilemma, see the mainstreaming of organics as the start of a transformation towards a more sustainable approach to food and farming. This introductory report will provide a snapshot of the ‘landscape’ of North America, and will serve as a preface to a second report to appear on the website soon. This follow-up report will focus on one business which is helping to create new virtuous cycles as North America shifts towards a more sustainable food system.

While it is impossible to capture the breadth or scope this subject deserves, this paper will highlight some general emerging trends, as well as specific mechanisms driving these trends. It will provide a historical context on the movement as it transformed from a movement into a multi-billion dollar industry, and outlines the role of various stakeholders: the government, consumers, producers (from the family farmer to the ‘agribusiness’), civil society, and retailers. It will also look at how this landscape ties into food security and sustainability, and how the current mainstreaming of organics is just one stage in a larger EcoTipping Point towards sustainable agriculture in North America and beyond.

The ‘Negative Tip’ of Conventional Agriculture

The organic movement began as an alternative model to industrial agriculture, which arose in the 20th century as a result of advances in various technologies such as biochemistry (the creation of nitrogen fertilizer), creation of the internal combustion engine, and development of hybrid seeds. World War II accelerated these technological innovations, with large-scale irrigation and application of fertilizer (made from ammonium nitrate, a cheap source of fertilizer which had been used in munitions) and pesticides such as DDT, (also a development of military technology).

However, it has become increasingly recognized that industrial agriculture, as it is currently practiced, cannot continue indefinitely. There are many ‘negative tips’ associated with modern farming which link culture, economics, society, environment and equity. These include the following issues, many of which unleash mutually-reinforcing vicious cycles, such as:

  • Agricultural, oil and water subsidies distorting market forces and leading to oversupply and depression of produce prices on world markets (and leading to floods of cheap produce such as rice and grain into areas where local farmers can’t compete);
  • The vulnerability of small and mid-size farmers to deflation of prices or volatility of markets for agricultural commodities, leading to their inability to compete with larger farmers;
  • Inability of small and mid-size farms to compete in increasingly global markets, leading to their bankruptcy and foreclosure, which in turn leads to the cycle of rural depopulation and eroding rural social fabric;
  • Subsidies on water and oil which lock farmers into industrial-scale irrigation, groundwater ‘mining’, which sets up a ‘time bomb’ where major aquifers of the world’s breadbaskets (such as the mid-west of the United States and Punjab State in India) may dry up rather suddenly;
  • Erosion of soil and escalating dependence on petroleum-based fertilizers and its impacts on rivers and other water bodies;
  • Dependence on fossil fuels on farms as well as for long-distance transportation of produce;
  • Erosion in local food security as farms consolidate and are located increasingly distant from urban regions, and distribution becomes more centralized;
  • The global trade of farm produce eroding local food marketing and distribution networks;
  • Escalating dependence on pesticides as pests develop resistance to ever-stronger pesticides;
  • The emergence of genetically modified food and its potential to ‘contaminate’ non-genetically modified crops on a regional and even continental scale;
  • The loss of co-adaptation and loss of resilience; for example, mono-cropping creating vulnerability to pest outbreaks, the vulnerability of dependence on global markets with their volatile fluctuations on prices;
  • The ‘addiction’ dynamic: the pesticide treadmill, the fertilizer/soil erosion treadmill, the dependence on subsidies.

The Emergence of Organics

Organic agriculture arose in response to many of the social, health, and environmental concerns of conventional agriculture. While technically, many pre-industrial, small-scale farms in the developing world may be considered ‘organic’, this is mainly because farmers have had either little exposure to modernization or can’t afford inputs or machinery. Organic farming has its roots with the ideas of scientists such as Rudolph Steiner, J.I. Rodale, Lady Eve Balfour, Sir Albert Howard and other scientists beginning from the 1930s. The concept took shape as a movement in the 1960s and as a mainstream market from the early 1990s. This was mostly as a result of public scandals such as the one in 1989 when American researchers announced that Alar or diaminozide, a ripening agent commonly used in apples, was found to have caused tumors in lab animals and was a potential carcinogen.

Scandals like this one, combined with recent media attention on pesticides, fueled a surge in demand for organic food in the 1990s. Other crises, such as BSE or ‘mad cow disease’ have also fueled an increase in demand for organic meat. In the meantime, the number of organizations involved with organic agriculture began to grow, and networks between farmers began to grow. The environmental and consumer-rights movements began to include organic farming on their agendas.

With an annual growth rate of about 20% per year in the industrial world, global sales are approaching US $40 billion this year.

There are many definitions of organic farming. Moreover, the terms ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ have become so overused as to be nearly meaningless, and new buzzwords are emerging to supplement it, such as ‘local’ or ‘sustainable agriculture’. At its most basic level, ‘organic’ is generally accepted to refer to food grown without synthetic inputs (fertilizers or pesticides), genetically modified organisms, or ionizing irradiation (used to delay ripening of produce to increase shelf life). More comprehensive definitions might address other issues such as water use, biodiversity, soil quality, working conditions for producers, and the transportation distance between producer and consumer. (In Switzerland, for example, the domestic organic label Bio Suisse refuses to sell any product transported by plane as that would violate its organic standards). Common practices among organic farmers include crop rotation, cover crops, green manure, mulching and application of compost and natural pest management.

Others define organic farming in terms of fundamental design. Wendell Berry writes: “An organic farm, properly speaking, is not one that uses certain methods and substances and avoids others; it is a farm whose structure is formed in imitation of the structure of a natural system that has the integrity, the independence and the benign dependence of an organism.”

IFOAM (the International Federation of Organic Agriculture movements) defines organic agriculture in this way: Organic agriculture is an agricultural system that promotes environmentally, socially, and economically sound production of food, fiber, timber, etc. In this system, soil fertility is seen as the key to successful production. Working with the natural properties of plants, animals, and the landscape, organic farmers aim to optimize quality in all aspects of agriculture and the environment.

Productivity: Organic vs. Conventional

There have not been many comparative yield studies, but those which have been done tend to show organic yields to be either on par or slightly lower (up to 20%) with those of conventional yields, while expenditures on inputs are substantially lower.

However, ‘productivity’ is not just about summarizing yields (calculated by production per land area). It may also be calculated in labor. This factors in the fact that organic farming methods are more labor-intensive, which is a double-edged sword—while it provides rural jobs, it also increases costs to consumers (but it may also be argued that this is the fault of conventional agriculture, whose artificially low prices have created unrealistic expectations among consumers about the cost of food).

Moreover, since grain makes up the majority of global agricultural produce, most of which is fed to animals, it is hard to calculate how much agriculture is feeding people when there are several levels involved (where food is grown to feed animals which is then fed to people).

One reason why comparative yield studies between conventional and organic agriculture are important is so they can address the question “Is it possible to feed a growing global population organically?”

Some scientists or other experts argue that advances brought about by the Green Revolution, or biotechnology, are the only way the world can be adequately fed, and that an organic produce-consuming world would require more land and organic material (i.e., compost) than is available. However, other studies support not only the possibility, but the necessity, of a global transition to organics. Even if it were assumed that yields for organics are lower (which in many cases they are not), there are other factors not included in comparative yield studies that would support the argument for organics, such as:

  1. Inefficiencies in current centralized distribution resulting in wasted surpluses.
  2. The fact that small and mid-sized organic farms are much more efficient than large-scale farms.
  3. Inherent to organics is local self-sufficiency, and the potential of urban and suburban agriculture to provide a substantial amount of food for urban consumers.

While this question exceeds the scope of this report, it is worthwhile to acknowledge these important issues (see Sources section for links to this subject).

Organic Standards: Governmental and non-governmental regulation agencies

As organic food becomes established in the marketplace, it has been increasingly regulated through government standards, though there are still many logistical and organizational obstacles to harmonizing these standards internationally (a challenge as the trade of organic products is increasingly global in scale).

IFOAM (The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements): Founded in 1972, this democratic umbrella organization is grappling with the challenges of harmonization, an important aspect of which includes maintaining consistency while recognizing regional variations and local capacities. Among other achievements, IFOAM has created a set of Principles of Organic Agriculture, upon which the IFOAM Norms (consisting of the IFOAM Basic Standards and Basic Accreditation Criteria) are based. The IFOAM Basic Standards are intended to ‘standardize standards’. The Basic Standards are set up through an international, democratic process and are a continuing work-in-process as organic agriculture evolves. The challenge of the Basic Standards is to provide a framework for national and regional certification while trying to stay responsive to local conditions.

IFOAM has also been instrumental in working towards a streamlined process for trade in organic products. At the moment, ‘mutual equivalence agreements’ have not been created between countries on organic standards. However IFOAM has worked to map these out together with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the International Trade Center of the UN Conference on Trade and Development and the European Union. While there is agreement about standards on major issues such as the clear exclusion of GMOs, there is still debate on other issues such as food additives and processing aids.

The Emergence of National and Regional Standards: In a few countries, including Europe, the US, and China, organic is defined legally, which means that the commercial use of the term ‘organic’ is regulated by the government. In other words, even if a produce is grown in line with organic principles, it is illegal to market a product as ‘organic’ unless it is certified; that is, there is third-party confirmation that the product was produced in line with government standards. In addition to this, non-governmental national and international associations have also created their own standards, and in countries where organic production is legislated, these bodies still must receive government accreditation.

From the 1970s, standards on organic food began to be created by various private associations through which producers could voluntarily have themselves certified. Later, governments became involved in this evolving process, and in 1991 the European Commission created the first system to regulate the labeling of organics. The European Regulation set rules in 12 countries on the continent, which became compulsory to all certified operations. These rules also applied to imports from outside the region. During this time Europe became the most visible target market for organic products for suppliers around the world for higher-priced, specialty niches. The Japanese and US governments also followed suit in legislating organic production in 2001 and 2002 respectively (Canada is set to follow with its own legislation in 2007).

Certification in the USA: The US passed the Organic Food Production Act in 1990, which was intended to regulate organic production and food processing. Up until this time, organic standards had been developed by individual states since the early seventies. The involvement of the federal government helped to legitimize the movement and bring these issues into the mainstream.

The Act mandated the formation of a sub-department of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) known as the National Organic Program (NOP). The National Organic Program consists of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) whose 15 members are intended to represent various stakeholders in the organic food industry:

  • four farmers
  • two handlers/processors
  • one retailer
  • one scientist
  • three consumer/public interest advocates
  • three environmentalists
  • a certifying agent

By representing these diverse interests, the NOSB acts as an advisory panel to the Secretary of Agriculture. The NOP’s early years were disorganized and unproductive, and it wasn’t until 1992 that Board members were appointed and given a budget, and began working on the standards. The Board, however, was strictly an advisory board and did not make policy, which left final decisions up to the Secretary of Agriculture.

In December of 1997, a draft of the new organic standards was released for public comment. It received a groundswell of criticism from consumers, retailers, activist groups and even lawmakers in the six months that followed, because the standards would have allowed what has become known as “The Big Three” (sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic modification). In 1998, the USDA announced fundamental changes to the draft which would not allow foods grown with ‘The Big Three’ to go under the organic label. Between 1998 and 2000, activists and the NOSB went through a lengthy process involving heated debate, to convince the Secretary of Agriculture about what should be included in the standards. Some of these issues were not immediately obvious and addressed scale, energy use, treatment of farm workers, soil protection, crop diversity, or animal welfare.

In December 2000 the final rule was published, went into effect in April of 2001, and farmers were given 18 months, until October of 2002 to comply. The USDA Organics label began to appear on shelves in October of 2002.

The standards fell short of the expectations of many activists in the organic farming movement, who were critical that they didn’t go far enough. The standards included:

  • Prohibition of synthetic pesticides, including herbicides, fungicides and other chemicals;
  • Prohibition of genetic modification, or the splicing of genes between species;
  • Prohibition of irradiation of foods;
  • Prohibition of use of processed sewage sludge, or biosolids, as fertilizer;
  • Livestock must be given access to pasture;
  • Livestock are not given growth hormones or antibiotics (sick animals are treated, but removed from the herd and not sold as organic);
  • Livestock are given organically grown feed;
  • Land must be free of chemical applications for three years before its crops can be considered organic;
  • Written farm plans and audit trails are required.

In response to the concerns by activists, some farmers are choosing to give up their certification in order to focus on being a sustainable farmer rather than adhering to what they consider to be watered-down standards. For example, the USDA Organics label allows certified farmers to merely purchase the organisms and other organic inputs for their farms, which, for some, is a violation of the values on which organics was originally based. The USDA standards also allow practices considered questionable, such as chlorination of salad greens or use of sodium nitrate.

One producer, known as Knoll Farms, has dropped their organic certification and are promoting the idea of ‘Sustainable Farming’. This has been a marketing and distribution challenge for them, however, as they have been dropped by several organic distributors and most grocery stores because currently only two categories exist: ‘organic’ or ‘conventional’. By eschewing the ‘organic’ category, they would fall naturally into the ‘conventional’ category, which is even less suitable for them. Meanwhile, some markets are creating in-store labels that indicate that produce was grown with sustainable or ecological farming methods.

There are continued concerns among those in the environmental and consumer rights movement over the increased consolidation in the organic industry in the form of mergers and acquisitions, and the growing influence of these larger players over USDA organics standards (see more in the Organic, Inc. section later in this report).

How USDA Organic labeling works: The NOP Standards address the methods, practices, and substances used in producing and handling crops, livestock, and processed agricultural products. To enforce the regulations, fines for selling or labeling products not up to the standards are up to $10,000.

There are two types of certification; for ‘growers’ (farmers), and ‘handlers’ (processors/manufacturers). Certification agencies allowed to use the USDA Organics label must be accredited by the USDA. The USDA also has agents in several other countries, which allows imported agricultural products to be sold in the United States.

The certification process for the American farmer involves considerable expense, paperwork, and a three-year transition period (during which they may sell their produce under a label which display’s the produce’s status as ‘transitional’). Larger farmers have an advantage over smaller farmers because of the costs, learning curve, and considerable paperwork associated with the transition to organic. (There is a certification exemption, however, for farmers whose annual gross income from sales is less than $5000). In Europe, there are incentives to these farmers and this ‘point of leverage’ is credited for the accelerated spread of organic farmers on the continent compared to North America. As researchers Sligh and Christman write in their report “Who Owns Organic?”:

Differences between Europe and the US can be partially attributed to the EU’s much more aggressive policy incentives for farmers to convert to and remain organic. In the US, interest in organic research and marketing is increasing at the state and national levels, but the USDA organic research budget is still miniscule compared to its conventional research budget. There are no systemic incentives for farmers to convert; in fact, there are significant disincentives for farmers seeking to make a change in production systems. For example, farm support and crop insurance programs are pegged to past production and yields.

To address some of these challenges, the USDA has set aside several million dollars in funding to defray the costs of certification, as well as funding for competitive research grants which will identify potential obstacles to the expansion of organic agriculture in the areas of marketing, society, or policy. Costs of certification are scaled to the farm size, so that larger farmers have to pay more, but there is still criticism that there are any costs at all to farmers wanting to transition to organics, and that it should be the other way around—conventional farmers should be taxed for using environmentally destructive practices.

There are various classes of labeling: 100% Organic must consist of 100% organically- produced ingredients; Organic products must consist of at least 95% organically produced ingredients; and Made With Organic Ingredients are processed products that contain at least 70 % organic ingredients can use this label and list up to three of the organic ingredients or food groups on the front of the package. However, in this case, the USDA Organic seal may not be used anywhere on the package. Processed products containing less than 70 % organic ingredients cannot use the term “organic” (except to identify the specific ingredients that are organically produced in the list of ingredients).

A Summary of the Certification Process in the USA: There are several stages to certification:

  1. Selecting a certifier: The producer or handler gets an application packet from a certifier. While there are various types of certifiers (listed on the NOP website), some of which are private (non-profit or for-profit) or governmental, all are accredited by the USDA. However, some are better recognized than others, and some offer certification to further standards, such as IFOAM, the EU, Japanese Agricultural Standards (JAS), Conseil des appellation agroalimentaires du Quebec (CAAQ), Biodynamic, GAP, Kosher, or Fair Trade. Others provide other services, such as newsletters or educational opportunities. It is up to the farmer or handler to decide which certifier best meets his or her needs.
  2. The application: The producer or handler fills out the application and submits an Organic System Plan (OSP), along with other requested documentation, licensing agreements and fees. The OSP is essentially a detailed written plan which concerns all aspects of the applicant’s operation. For example, crop producers would be required to describe land-use history, field maps, crop rotation plans, plans for soil improvement and pest control, seed sources, material inputs, measures to maintain organic integrity (ie borders and buffers between applicant’s crops and neighbours, post-harvest handling and storage, etc.) as well as other relevant requested information.
  3. Application and OSP review by the Certifier: The Certifier reviews the OSP and application, and if it is evaluated to be capable of meeting the requirements for certification, a qualified organic inspector will do an on-site inspection.
  4. Inspection: Onsite inspections are performed before certification and then on an annual basis afterwards. Inspections must be performed when a person knowledgeable about the operation is on-site, and during a time when normal operations are underway. The inspector does the onsite inspection and reviews record-keeping to confirm that operations are consistent with the operator’s OSP. Records to be checked would include input materials, production, harvest and sales records, as well as appropriate packaging and labeling. The inspector might take soil, tissue (from livestock) or product samples if needed. At the end of the inspection, the inspector will provide a report to the Certifier (who then makes the certification decision—it is not the inspector’s role to do so).
  5. Review of inspection report by Certifier: After reviewing the report, the Certifier will decide whether the operation is eligible for organic certification. Operations not in compliance will organic standards may be denied or revoked certification, or require correction before certification is granted or renewed. The operator will then be given a time frame to correct the issue and provide documentation to the Certifier showing that the problem has been addressed.
  6. Certification: A certificate is issued to successful applicants and when this is received, the operation may begin selling their products under the organic label which identifies the Certifier beneath the name of the producer or handler.

From farm to table: The distribution of organics

In the US, organic farmers have four main channels for their products:

  1. Direct sales to consumers, restaurants or retailer;:
  2. Direct sales to processors,
  3. Sell through brokers or to distributors for resale to natural foods stores and chains;
  4. Sell through brokers or to distributors for resale to conventional supermarkets and club stores.

Naturally, direct sales bring the highest prices to the farmer. This option includes sales at the farm itself, through farmers markets or community supported agriculture (CSAs), or local buyers such as restaurants or hotels. Processing or otherwise adding value to their products increases profits as well. Farmers may also make direct sales to retailers (wholesale), particularly through co-operatives or local stores, though this network is increasingly undermined by the appearance of large organic retailers such as Whole Foods. In general, the larger the store, the harder it is for farmers to have direct relationships with it. Sales to retail outlets, whether they are organic or conventional supermarkets, generally require a distributor. Approximately two-thirds of organic products in the US go through distributors.

In the US, approximately half of organic products go through what is called the ‘core channel’. This includes natural food retailers (both independent and national chains such as Whole Foods) (48%), cooperatives, and direct sales between farmer and consumer (3%). ‘Natural foods supermarkets’ are the fastest growing part of this category. Whole Foods Market is the largest in the US and the world, with 140 stores and $US 3.7 billion in annual sales. The second largest is Trader Joe’s, and the third is Wild Oats. Over the past several years, Whole Foods and Wild Oats have acquired almost all other sizeable retail chains in the ‘core channel’. Roughly the other half (49%) of organic products are sold in mainstream supermarket chains.

Organic, Incorporated: The movement vs. the industry

Organics is the fastest-growing sector in the global food industry, and one that is full of volatility, opportunity, and convergence of forces among different scales. In the process, questions have arisen over how–or whether–the organic industry can maintain this level of growth and retain its fundamental principles.

Since the early 1990s, organic farming in the industrialized world has grown about 20 per cent annually in response to rising consumer demand. While small independent producers and consumers initially drove the growth of organic farming, production has now become increasingly large-scale as the diversity and volume of organic products has grown.

As CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation)’s Jill Eisen says:

The mainstreaming of organics has split the organic sector into two streams — the industrial and the local. One is large-scale and feeds the big supermarket chains, while the other is small-scale and sells direct to consumers, restaurants and independent stores. There’s little room for mid-sized farms in this new organic landscape. Consumers benefit from the two streams. The industrial stream is bringing the price of organics down, while the local stream is supplying high quality fresh seasonal produce. But this bifurcation isn’t leading to the kind of agriculture veterans of the organic movement had in mind.

(“Organics Goes Mainstream”. Ideas, CBC radio).

The entry of organics into mainstream consciousness and markets may be embraced by eco- and health-conscious consumers. It has also revealed the complexities in the public discourse about feeding the world sustainably and equitably. As the sector has expanded, critics have pointed out a widening gap between the organic movement and the organic industry. As this sector grows, so have fears that organics has left behind many of its values, and what has emerged is the classic ‘double-edged sword’.

For advocates of organic food, the successful entry of large corporate players into the organic market is raising some difficult questions about the key values and vision for sustainable agriculture. On the one hand, activists are happy that organic foods have achieved such wide appeal. Some industry pundits argue that without the support of supermarkets, organics will never develop the political clout needed to shift government policy on food production in the direction of sustainability.

On the other hand, some worry that the vision of early organic activists – who sought not only healthier food and more environmentally friendly production but also smaller and locally based alternatives to the dominant food system – is being lost in the rush to maximize market share. These critics point out that the current expansion of organics to include sourcing cheap raw materials from developing countries reproduces the neo-colonial structure of the conventional food system.

(Cuddeford, Vijay, “When Organics Goes Mainstream”)

Key issues regarding the mainstreaming of organics

  1. Widespread concern that the rapid buying-up of smaller organic labels by multinational food corporations has completely ‘co-opted’ the organic movement and even become a front behind which business-as-usual continues.
  2. By extension, the concern that large-scale players at the production, processing, or retail level are steadily watering down certification standards and rendering them meaningless.
  3. Concerns that the playing field among larger and smaller organic producers is growing increasingly uneven, which has created a climate where the latter cannot survive, and where the larger remaining players must sacrifice standards in order to stay competitive.
  4. Questions about whether large-scale industrial organics is in line with sustainable practices.
  5. Concerns over whether social attitudes towards food are changing or if the market is simply ‘re-branding’ a heavily consumerist culture.
  6. Criticism that organic standards do not address conditions and treatment of farm animals and farm workers.
  7. Questions about the sustainability of global organics and the logic of using fossil fuels to transport organic products around the planet.
  8. Issues of scale: The impact of large-scale organic farms, and large retail chains like Whole Foods, to small farmers, local distribution networks, and smaller retailers.
  9. The transformation of an originally open, fragmented structure that characterized organics towards concentrated production, processing, and distribution. This leads to reduction in genetic diversity, less responsiveness to consumer or social interests, and fewer decision-makers in the industry.
  10. Concern that the financial and bureaucratic burden of organic certification is a barrier to many small farmers wanting to transition.

Many of these dynamics are intimately connected and mutually reinforcing. Ironically, a look at the history of commercial organics reveals that many pioneers of the organic movement in the 1960s and 1970s are now key players in an industry which the original movement was meant to subvert. As can be seen by other aspects of the environmental movement, the growing momentum towards more sustainable agriculture is characterized by a process of ‘mainstreaming’ which often diverges from a movement’s more grassroots origins.

A handful of entrepreneurs involved in the early organic movement have facilitated the growth in scale of organics. In some ways, their lives exemplify some of the dynamic which has characterized the transformation of organics from grassroots to global industry. For example, Vice President of General Mills Gene Kahn was once a farmer who was part of the organic movement of the sixties and seventies involved in some of the early experiments in the cooperatives that helped these early organic farmers to survive. In those days, he was committed to dismantling the conventional food distribution system, and creating a paradigm where food was produced and consumed locally.

However, by the mid-seventies, he became disillusioned by the fact that conventional agriculture was moving in the opposite direction, towards ever-increasingly large and global scales. He decided to shift his approach and work on influencing the mainstream from within. By bringing organic food into mainstream consciousness, more organic cropland would be brought into production, which would have an effect on the environment.

In 1997, Kahn consolidated his company Cascadian Farms with Muir Glen to create Small Planet Foods. In late 1999, Small Planet was bought by General Mills, and while he remains CEO of Small Planet, he also became Vice President of General Mills. For Kahn, it does not mean his company has “lost [its] soul or the meaning of organic. Rather, it’s the chance to have a much greater presence.” When asked in an interview with writer Charles Fishman about the ‘tension’ between his earlier organic ideals and the current situation, he responds: “Yes, there’s a lot of tension……but I have no personal tension. A lot of people wanted to maintain that original, small model. But to imagine that we were going to change U.S. agriculture and keep it all in the hands of market gardeners, instead of production scale farmers, is not only a fatuous dream, it’s an undesirable perspective from my view. While success certainly makes it harder for smaller producers, there are plenty of opportunities for all”.

Critics of commercial organics argue that the movement has been ‘captured’ by the same systems from which the original players intended to break away. The breakneck rate of growth of the organic market has been partly driven by the acquisition of organic labels by multinational corporations. Today, almost every single major organic food label has been bought up by a handful of the giants in the food processing industry. (To see a visual map of the industry’s landscape and who owns major North American organic labels, please refer to “Who Owns What in the Organic Industry” by Phil Howard in the ‘Sources’ section).

“In McOrganic? Is corporate organic changing the organic landscape in Canada?” author Hillary Lindsay writes:

Kellogg owns Kashi, a supplier of organic whole grain cereals. Kraft has bought out Boca, a maker of organic soy burgers. The corporate interest in organics goes beyond food to include things like organic cotton and organic seeds. Select Walmart stores now sell a limited line of organic cotton supplies for yoga, bath and baby. M&M/Mars has bought Seeds of Change, an organic seed company. “Many organic seed varieties are now available only through a giant seed company called Seminis, which earlier this year was acquired by Monsanto,” reports Howard.

As well, it is difficult for the consumer in the organic supermarket to know that the companies they are supporting are owned by Phillip Morris, Kraft, or Nestle, because only the name of the subsidiary appears on the package. This is sometimes referred to by critics as ‘stealth labeling’, as M&M/Mars knows well that it is more likely to sell an organic product under the label of Seeds of Change. Large companies are also more able to sell one organic product at a lower price by ‘subsidizing’ it with a line-up of non-organic products. Critics accuse the food giants of co-opting the term ‘organic’ and have called this new landscape the ‘industrial-organic complex’ as it has spearheaded this divergence from the organic movement.

Critics also worry that the industrialized world’s consumption habits are being re-branded with only marginal improvements in sustainability. In this context, consumers may be lulled into a sense of doing well by the planet while not substantially reducing their ecological footprints. As Vijay Cuddeford says in “When Organics Goes Mainstream”:

They worry that when organics are added to the regular supermarket’s dizzying array of choices, the consumer may somehow feel absolved of any need to think critically about the agri-food system. Supermarket organics may allow shoppers to assume they can eat healthier and be greener without changing, or inconveniencing, the consumer lifestyle.

In “The Organic Myth”, authors John Byrne and Diane Brady write:

Next time you’re in the supermarket, stop and take a look at Stonyfield Farm yogurt. With its contented cow and green fields, the yellow container evokes a bucolic existence…… pure, pesticide-free, locally produced ingredients grown on a small family farm.

So it may come as a surprise that Stonyfield’s organic farm is long gone. Its main facility is a state-of-the-art industrial plant just off the airport strip in Londonderry, N.H., where it handles milk from other farms. And consider this: Sometime soon a portion of the milk used to make that organic yogurt may be taken from a chemical-free cow in New Zealand, powdered, and then shipped to the U.S. True, Stonyfield still cleaves to its organic heritage. For Chairman and CEO Gary Hirshberg, though, shipping milk powder 9,000 miles across the planet is the price you pay to conquer the supermarket dairy aisle. “It would be great to get all of our food within a 10-mile radius of our house,” he says. “But once you’re in organic, you have to source globally.”

Hirshberg’s dilemma is that of the entire organic food business. Just as mainstream consumers are growing hungry for untainted food that also nourishes their social conscience, it is getting harder and harder to find organic ingredients. There simply aren’t enough organic cows in the U.S., never mind the organic grain to feed them, to go around. Nor are there sufficient organic strawberries, sugar, or apple pulp — some of the other ingredients that go into the world’s best-selling organic yogurt.”

While this article articulates some of the important issues around the divergence between consumer ideals and the reality of surviving in a global market, it tends to portray the organic movement as full of good but unrealistic intentions. Byrne and Brady continue:

The compromises that [Stonyfield CEO] Hirshberg is willing to make say a lot about where the organic business is headed. “Our kids don’t have time for us to sit on our high horses and say we’re not going to do this because it’s not ecologically perfect,” says Hirshberg. “The only way to influence the powerful forces in this industry is to become a powerful force.” And he’s willing to do that, even if it means playing by a new set of rules

This article and others appearing in business-oriented publications tend to be based on an assumption that underpins not only the future of food, but energy production and waste management. The assumption is that alternative technologies (such as organic farming practices or renewable energy) are to be substituted into the industrial paradigm, rather than a bottom-up, profound, transformation of the industrial paradigm. Assuming large organic farms are going to replace large conventional farms (just as large wind or solar ‘farms’ are going to replace coal-fired power generation plants) raises doubts and questions such as “Can we realistically feed the world with organic food? Do we have enough land, water and organic material to do so? By extension, can we realistically supply the world’s energy needs with renewables?” For example, Byrne and Brady write: “Some believe organic farming, if it is to stay true to its principles, would require vastly more land and resources than is currently being used. Asks Alex Avery, a research director at the Hudson Institute think tank: “How much Bambi habitat do you want to plow down?”

By contrast, if it is understood that ‘sustainability’ inherently implies appropriate scale and regional variation, the discourse will shift from ‘whether’ to ‘how’ the world will meet its needs. Appropriate scale includes diversification and decentralization of options. This would involve more urban self-sufficiency to take pressure off of rural agricultural lands and the need for a distant and centralized ‘global economic’ system which is inherently unsustainable. Examples of urban self-sufficiency includes:

  • backyard food production
  • urban community food production
  • more family-sized farms in the outer ring suburbs of urban areas with improved distribution networks to urban consumers.
  • Growing food on rooftops, edible landscaping

A ‘bouquet’ of food options, in addition to a globalized food system, would reduce consumer vulnerability to unforeseen events and would strengthen local food security. Cuba’s transition to nearly total self-sufficiency in food and energy as a response to its own ‘peak oil’ crisis is an important example which challenges earlier assumptions on which the industrial model is based.

CBC’s Jill Eisen emphasizes the importance of ongoing work in the grassroots:

Although organics has gone mainstream, the original strands of the organic movement haven’t disappeared. In fact, small-scale organic farms selling to local markets have been growing in numbers in recent years, bucking the general trend of declining farms in North America. It’s here that some of the most interesting innovations in sustainable agriculture have been taking place. (“Organics Goes Mainstream”, CBC Radio, October 2006)

The mainstreaming of organics, through consolidation in the production and retail sectors, is also helping to bring organics to consumers who may not otherwise be exposed to its philosophy or benefits. For example, Whole Foods has been criticized for dismantling local distribution networks and putting smaller health and natural-food retailers out of business. At the same time, Whole Foods also has the economic and marketing clout to provide an alternative to conventional retailers such as Safeway and offer more easy access to consumers than a small health food store might. By appearing in places where conventional supermarkets are currently the only choice, chains like Whole Foods are creating new ‘paths of least resistance’ for mainstream consumers. In his article “Whole Foods’ arrival in Hawaii daunting to small grocers”, Andrew Gomes writes:

The entry by the upscale food grocer will present new options for Hawai’i consumers, and introduce major new competition to large supermarket chains.” [Consultant]Wells….said Whole Foods…… has helped make the natural foods pie bigger by increasing consumer awareness and demand that benefits smaller rivals. Damian Paul, owner of The Source Natural Foods in Kailua (Oahu), said he believes that positives from Whole Foods will outweigh negatives. “Whole Foods will introduce natural and organic foods to a whole crop of people who wouldn’t shop in my store,” said Paul, whose business is a block from Whole Foods’ planned store site. “I think it’s really going to affect Safeway, Foodland and Times more than it will [other health and natural food stores].” (The Honolulu Advertiser, August 19th, 2007)

In other words, natural food chains like Whole Foods are facilitating a shift in consciousness which–however superficial–ties into efforts of players at the grassroots who are committed to pushing the envelope in defining the true meaning of sustainable food production.

Changes in the food industry towards sustainability have yet to address some core issues the organic movement was meant to solve. However, this mainstreaming process may be simply part of a necessary transition to a time where these deeper issues will be slowly addressed in stages. For example, mainstream organics continues to convert acres of conventional cropland to that which is tended free from pesticides and chemical fertilizers. As Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, explains in an interview on CBC radio:

Pollan: “Now there’s a move in the industry, towards….a parallel food supply. And you see that now with things like organic Oreos, a lot of the same foods that have their ‘organic doppelganger’. And that has succeeded in growing that sector of the industry……[Gene Kahn, president of General Mills] ‘if you sell as much organic food as possible, you will protect as much land as possible. If you can take a big chunk of the food industry and turn it into organics, that much more land will not have pesticides on it, will not be polluting the water, and that’s what he cares about.”

Interviewer: “So in your conclusion [of your book] did you conclude that industrial organic is an oxymoron?”

Pollan: “It is. It is finally. It’s a contradiction…..But we have to live with contradictions, sometimes. And it’s OK. And you can do it at least for a little while. It’s not an evil thing. It’s done a lot of good. These big farms are better places to work, not necessarily from a salary point of view or anything like that. There’s similar kind of labour situation as industrial farms, with some exceptions. But these are workers that don’t have to inhale pesticides all day long. This is land that is being treated better than it’s been treated for fifty years. The water downstream of these farms is cleaner than it’s been for fifty years. These are all very positive things. Nevertheless it’s not everything it could be. And I think the challenge with organic is for us to raise the bar again and figure out, well, what’s next after organic? How can we do it even better? And it seems to me there are many different threads in that movement to kind of go beyond organic. One is local food. And simply getting out of the supermarket and buying your food from farmers markets and CSA’s. This….supports a whole other range of values. It supports land conservation in your community. It supports keeping farmers in your community which is an enormous value. It supports the aesthetics of being able to experience an agricultural landscape within a day’s drive of your home. It slows sprawl.

(“Organics Goes Mainstream”, CBC Radio, October 2006)

From this perspective, the ‘mainstreaming’ process is the start of an ‘EcoTipping Point’ towards slower, deeper changes and the emergence of new challenges. Mainstream culture and marketing can resonate more easily with a larger number of people. Even if changes brought about seem superficial, elements at the grassroots can continue to challenge society, government and business towards further sustainability. It is those in civil society, such as consumer rights and environmental activists, who will continue to ‘hold the bar high’ by creating alternatives, demanding more from governments and educating the public to propel our food systems towards further sustainability. For those at the forefront of this paradigm shift towards sustainable food, the ongoing work is to ensure that today’s trends are not the final destination, but a series of milestones in a larger process towards a more sustainable food system.


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