Organic Goes Industrial -- by Rich Ganis, Center for Informed
OAKLAND, Calif., Nov. 4 (AScribe Newswire) -- 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
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 foods.
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 products.
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
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
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 on diversity,
localness, and sustainability.
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
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 ends.
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.
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