Agribusiness Goes Organic
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AGRIBUSINESS GOES ORGANIC
By Kim Severson
San Francisco Chronicle
Sunday, October 13, 2002
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
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
'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
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
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
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."
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
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
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
"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
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
"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
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
"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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