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Agribusiness Goes Organic

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    NHNE News List Current Members: 719 Subscribe/unsubscribe/archive info at the bottom of this message. ... AGRIBUSINESS GOES ORGANIC By Kim Severson San
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 15, 2002
      NHNE News List
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      AGRIBUSINESS GOES ORGANIC
      By Kim Severson
      San Francisco Chronicle
      Sunday, October 13, 2002

      http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2002/10/13/MN242010.DTL

      When Warren Weber and a band of other shaggy Northern California farmers
      started growing organic lettuce in the 1970s, they never thought it would
      come to this: organic Cheetos.

      Frito-Lay, maker of the popular neon-orange snack food, is plowing into the
      organic market. So are dozens of other mega-producers -- the very companies
      that organic farmers once derided as part of a chemical-dependent, agri-
      industrial complex choking the American food supply and deadening its
      farmland.

      H.J. Heinz Co. has a new organic ketchup. Gold Medal sells organic flour.
      General Mills Inc. owns Cascadian Farms, an organic brand started by a
      rag-tag group of Seattle-area free thinkers 30 years ago.

      The idea is to make profitable use of a new national law, rooted in the
      California organic movement, that will bring an avalanche of new grocery
      products bearing a simple, U.S. Department of Agriculture logo -- a stamp of
      approval that means no genetically modified raw material, no irradiation and
      little, if any, chemicals or antibiotics.

      But for California organic farmers who've fought big agriculture for years,
      the move from the fringes of the co-op produce bin to the shelves of Safeway
      is something of a shock. When the law takes effect Oct. 21, it will be a
      victory, to be sure, but one that comes with plenty of skepticism.

      Some worry that the big operations will offer more organic food at lower
      prices, pushing out smaller farmers. Others, who believe organic is as much
      about culture as it is about chemicals, wonder whether the government will
      cater to the big boys from corporate agriculture instead of protecting
      local, sustainable, earth-friendly food as the original organic movement
      envisioned.


      'BEYOND ITS WILDEST DREAMS'

      "I think what's really happened here is the industry has succeeded at the
      economic level beyond its wildest dreams," said Weber, the father of the
      modern California organic movement and one of the first to sell organic food
      to Chez Panisse's Alice Waters.

      "In the early years, we were trying to woo bigger companies and they
      wouldn't have anything to do with us. Now they're embracing it, but you've
      got a lot of people who are very hostile to the industrialization of the
      organic farmer."

      Weber urges people to look beyond organic Cheetos and see the big picture.
      "Putting more ground into organic production is just that much less land
      being put into pesticides."

      Already, however, the owners of Knoll Farms, a small organic Brentwood
      grower whose products are beloved by chefs and respected by organic farmers,
      won't seek the federal stamp because they think the new guidelines aren't
      strict enough and will mire them in bureaucracy instead of promoting
      sustainable practices. In other words, the law simply isn't organic enough.

      This sentiment was summed up by national nutrition activist, author and
      farmer Joan Dye Gussow in the September/October issue of Organic Gardening:
      "This isn't what we meant. When we said organic we meant local. We meant
      healthful. We meant being true to the ecologies of regions. We meant
      mutually respectful growers and eaters. We meant social justice and
      equality."


      ALL ABOUT THE MONEY

      To big food processors, it means money.

      Food giants are hungry for a slice of the fastest growing segment in the
      food business. Last year, consumers spent $11 billion on organics, compared
      to $1.5 billion in the late '80s and early '90s. That's still barely 1
      percent of the nation's food sales, but it represents several years of near
      20 percent growth. In a business where 1 percent growth in any sector is
      considered good, organic food is the rock star of the food supply.

      "It's not a value judgment for these companies; it's a business decision,"
      said Larry Hamwey, vice president of Earthbound Farms, which started in
      Carmel Valley in 1984 and grew into North America's largest grower and
      shipper of organic produce. "Look at Dole. They realized they needed to get
      into this market and do it fast. Organic wasn't on Dole's radar 10 years
      ago."

      Not everyone who was in the organic game before it was popular thinks the
      national law is the devil in overalls. In fact, all the hand-wringing makes
      people like Kelly Shea roll her eyes. Shea is the director of organic
      agriculture for Horizon Organic, a multimillion-dollar corporation that has
      been called the Microsoft of the organic business.

      "We're always most critical about that which we love the most," she said.
      "Nobody talks about your new hairdo more critically than your mother does.
      It's just that we're all so personally invested that no rule could have been
      published that had no questions about it. We won. Do you know any religion
      where people convert and someone is unhappy about it? All it says to me is
      we were right all along."


      DEMOGRAPHIC DRIVERS

      Beyond the politics of the law is the bigger question: Why has organic food
      taken off with consumers, even though it can sometimes cost twice as much as
      conventionally grown food?

      Much to many an organic activist's chagrin, the success of organics may have
      more to do with taste and convenience than any concern about the
      environment. A study by the Hartman Group in Bellevue, Wash., showed only
      about a quarter of consumers buy organic products because they want to save
      the birds and the bees.

      Driven by a spate of food scares and swept up in the fitness movement of the
      late 1990s, more than 65 percent of consumers said concern over health and
      safety was the reason they bought organic.

      "Health is big factor, especially for the Baby Boomers," said Earth Bound
      Farm's Hamwey. "I look at my health care system. I have to increasingly
      manage my own health. In the '70s, my doctor took care of my health.
      Suddenly we Boomers realize that heart disease and cancer could hit us at
      any time. We realize we'd better take care of ourselves."


      TASTE A FACTOR, TOO

      The next most popular reason was taste, with 38 percent of the people
      surveyed citing the promise of better flavor as the reason to spend extra
      money on organics.

      As chefs and cookbook authors will tell you, organic produce can have an
      intensity of flavor that conventional vegetables lack. In part that's
      because conventional crops are often grown using nitrogen-based fertilizer,
      which causes fruits and vegetables to absorb more water and thus dilutes
      flavor.


      GROWING UP WITH ORGANICS

      Younger consumers, who drive the market, also have a strong bias toward
      organics. Many people in their 20s and 30s were exposed to organic food as
      children, growing up with hippie parents and an increased sense of the
      importance of healthy eating.

      "I remember going down to the co-op with my mom to get cheese and a discount
      on organic food. I had a carob Easter bunny. I had my first TV dinner when I
      was 17," said Horizon's Shea.

      Not that all the organic food was good. "I was one of those kids eating the
      really horrible peanut butter and dying to be invited to a friend's house so
      I could have Jif and marshmallow creme," said Maria Rodale, who is a
      founding editor of Organic Style and whose grandfather, J.I. Rodale, is
      credited with coining the term "organic" in 1942 when he started Organic
      Gardening magazine.

      She points to two key changes driving the growth in organics. First, organic
      producers finally have a viable system to manufacture and distribute
      products to a wide market. Second, organic food is increasingly offered in
      convenient, prepackaged forms that appeal to the way many Americans cook and
      eat.

      "The organic food industry has realized that you've got to meet people where
      they are," said Rodale. "The organic industry got its act together for
      providing people with food and places to buy the food, like Whole Food
      Markets and the rise of companies like Horizon and Stonyfield Farms."


      A PRICEY ALTERNATIVE

      But she concedes that cost is still a factor, with organics costing anywhere
      from 15 percent to 100 percent more than conventional products.

      "Organic prices are dropping, but price is still probably the major issue
      for most people. Taste comes after," she said. "For most people, they just
      want cheap food that's not going to make them sick. It's, 'I only make so
      much a week and I've got to feed my family.' "

      Karen Klonsky, an agriculture economist at UC Davis, says it's too soon to
      tell how the new law will affect prices. On one hand, prices might rise
      because the law increases consumer confidence.

      On the other hand, she said, growers are saying the premium price organics
      have garnered is dropping because more and more companies are getting into
      the market.

      Organic activists warn that people who decide to eat more organic food
      shouldn't rely solely on the new label. As with any law, the organic
      standard is only as good as the people who enforce it.

      Particular attention should be paid to the wide-ranging companies now vying
      to become USDA-sanctioned organic certifiers, said Bob Scowcroft, executive
      director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation and one of the state's
      leading analysts of the organic market.

      In California, eight companies that certify organic food are based in the
      state. Four are from out of state, from as far as Nebraska and Florida. The
      questions are, how good are the companies and how much do they embrace
      farmers trying to do more than simply milk the latest profitable food
      market.

      "Changing the system is going to take a lifetime, and we've just put down
      the roots to empower the consumer," he said. "The law has the potential to
      change the food system, but that will require years of additional commitment
      and personal accountability. You have to keep reading the label and asking
      questions."


      CAUTIOUS OPTIMISM

      As farmers like Weber, who still works on 40 acres in Bolinas, watch the
      organic culture become part of an industrialized food machine, they remain
      skeptical but heartened.

      And, in classic California organic community style, Weber encourages people
      to come together and support what can only be a positive change.

      "The idea that somehow we're going to burn the baby because we don't like
      this new regime is not going to work. It's going to be very detrimental," he
      said.

      "These are good standards that need to be monitored. If we don't, big
      corporations are going to walk away with the whole organic name we created,
      and we will be out in the cold."

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