New Year, New "Organic"

For many people the New Year is a rejuvenating time for taking on new challenges, committing ourselves to life-affirming resolutions or recommitting ourselves to goals that we have previously set for ourselves but may have let slide with the chaos of the holidays. Buying local and buying organic are two goals that are increasingly on many peoples lists, and with the increasing availability of organic foods, the second of these goals is becoming easier for people around the country to commit to.

With "Organic" becoming so pervasive, it is important that we look at what is happening to the meaning of the term, and to consider what the current marketing trends are doing to the "organic food" movement and what the effects of this are on small farms.

Mega chain stores such as Wal-Mart, Costco, Wegmans, Safeway, to name a few, are now selling organic food items often at lower prices than can be found in our local mom-and-pop co-ops, farmers' markets, or natural food stores. A lot of these new organic food items to hit the supermarkets are now being produced by major food processors such as Kellogg and Kraft, who are still pumping out Rice Krispies and macaroni and cheese, but now with "organic" options.

There is a sea change occurring in the organics industry as these large producers and retailers stake their claim in this booming new market of everything and anything "organic." And while it seems that the hugely profitable organic market signals the occurrence of a much needed shift in consciousness about our food choices and how they impact our bodies, quality of life, families, and our environment, it also seems necessary to step back and think about the larger implications of the recent corporate embracing of the "organic" label.

While Wal-Mart is marketing its new emphasis on organic food as being a democratizing move towards making organic food available to everyone, many worry that the retail giant's new "Organics for Everyone" slogan merely signifies the repackaging and clever, if not insidious, marketing of processed junk food. Many large food processors are now offering "mass market" organics. While these companies will still have to meet the same organic standards that other producers have to comply with, the "organic" label, used in this way, will nevertheless merely help to legitimize packaged and processed food and turn the consumer's attention away from other fresh, unprocessed, and more sustainable food options.

Others worry that the entrance of these heavy weights into the organic market will signal the demise of organic standards, both in terms of the USDA organic guidelines and with the outsourcing of organic agriculture and food production to other countries that don't have adequate environmental and human rights regulatory oversight.

While these concerns are quite real, we at LocalHarvest think that the core issue, and one that is sometimes lost in the discussion, is the definition of "organic." It is unfortunate that the organic movement, which started as a reaction against the industrialization of agriculture, and grew mostly due to the desire by consumers to support more "wholesome" old-fashioned farming, became known for and branded by a singular and simplistic avoidance of synthentic chemicals, in the form of fertilizers and pesticides. It is this singularity that has made the organic movement so likely to be, and, in fact, so easily co-opted by big business interests, which too easily ignore the larger picture that pesticide-free farming practices are merely a part of. Most "organic food" in the market now is grown by factory farms which in many cases use practices just as insidious as those of their "chemical" competitors. What is needed is the willingness to embrace and support the earlier vision of "organic" - not simply as signaling the absence of pesticides and chemicals, but rather as the more integrative and holistic concept of sustainability.

Some of LocalHarvest's member farms now feel that "organic" has lost much of its meaning, and are now choosing not to certify their farms as such. Also, organic certification has gotten more expensive and bureaucratic, and many small farms cannot afford it anymore. Small farms that sell less than $5,000 of organic produce per year are now allowed to sell their produce as "organic exempt", but for some small farms that exceed this threshold, the effort and expense of organic certification, coupled with the dilution of the "true meaning" of the term, as seen by many of the small farms that created the movement, make it less appealing for them to become certified.

Ideally, buying local from farms you know and trust, coupled by consumer awareness, would reduce the need for certification, but for many, the time and effort required for this is out of reach, which makes certification necessary. Alternatives to "Organic" such as "Certified Naturally Grown" are now becoming popular. Buying locally grown whenever possible and knowing your local farms is the next step in the evolution of what was originally called "organic". Now that the term also encompasses many things that the original creators of it never intended, many purists are going back to the roots, by promoting things like CSA subscriptions, humane treatment of animals, and the importance of buying local.

Organic farming practices, and consumer commitment to buying organic, should indicate a dedicated willingness to produce food humanely and ethically, both with the health of our bodies, environments, and future generations in mind. When we commit ourselves and our New Year to "organic," we should also make a commitment to sustainability in our food choices, our environmental impact, and our relationships. In addition to buying organic, cultivating relationships with our small, local farmers, getting to know them and their farming practices, supporting CSAs, as well as farmers' markets, and buying local whenever possible, are just a few ideas for "going organic" in the New Year.

Back to the January 2007 Newsletter