Corporatization has redefined organic food
Since the early 2000s, on the heels of a huge growth in consumer demand for organic food, an unprecedented change in how food is marketed and produced has occurred. The result is that a word that was once quite important has lost most of its meaning, and both consumers and farmers are the ones losing out.
Consumer interest in healthy food and lifestyle habits, spurred by the ever-worsening obesity epidemic, has fully enveloped the psyche of our nation since the turn of the century. With increased consumer interest has come an explosion of new health products, formula-based exercise programs and a litany of new superfoods. Nearly all these trendy products come accompanied by buzzwords with tremendous amounts of selling power — power that is oftentimes used to dupe consumers into buying products that are not actually healthier.
One word, above all, has emerged over the last 10 years as the defining marker used by many when judging whether something is not merely “edible,” but actually good for them: organic. While the O-word is now commonplace in any supermarket, to the point when most people think they know the basics of what it means, it has become less understood today than it was before the health food boom went mainstream — before there was any sort of national certification process for organic farmers. Meanwhile, over the last 25 years the meaning of the word has slowly been undermined by big agricultural corporations looking to capitalize on a steadily growing consumer market.
The Organics Boom
The use of the word “organic” emerged in the mid-20th century as a method of differentiating more traditional agricultural methods from the industrial methods that began to popularize in the 1920s. Although the word was first used in reference to food in the 1940s, it took until the late 1960s before it caught hold as a popular term. From the ’70s through the early ’90s, organic and other health food products were sold almost exclusively at specialty stores and co-ops. This growth of an alternative market eventually produced a demand large enough that conventional grocery stores began to take advantage of it. Even so, in 1990 the national market for organic food was a scant $1 billion compared to $35.1 billion in 2013. While that market share still only accounts for around 4 percent of the $760 billion in annual food sales, 73 percent of Americans now say they eat at least some certified organic food. Most importantly, the organic market is still seeing a 10 to 15 percent annual growth rate, compared to a 4 to 5 percent growth rate in the conventional food market.
The Corporate Takeover
Amy Guptill, a professor of sociology at The College at Brockport State University of New York who studies humans’ social relationship to food, described the reformation of what was a counterculture movement in the 1970s into a corporate-dominated industry today as a “movement to market” shift. In the 1960s and ’70s, Guptill said, activists “promoted organic agriculture as a way to forge relationships with nature — as well as one another — that were closer and non-exploitative.” But then that movement “spawned an organic market” that is product-focused rather than process-focused, as those early organic advocates initially stressed.
Phil Howard, an associate professor at Michigan State University, studies food systems and corporatization trends more generally and from a market-focused perspective. Howard agreed with Guptill’s assessment of what the focus of organics is for consumers today as compared with what it was initially, but refrains from passing too much of his own judgement on the matter.
“A lot of ideas were co-opted but there’s some that haven’t been,” he said.
Howard said, although a lot of organic products today “might be coming from China or Latin America, presumably that label still means something,” in regard to the actual content of the food.
Howard said he sees the move to a national certification program as the turning point.
“When it was clear that they were going to implement a national standard, that really triggered a wave of consolidation, first by venture capitalists,” Howard said. In many situations those venture capitalists would bundle a bunch of natural products and companies together and sell them off together for a large profit.
An infographic by Howard put out by the Cornucopia Institute in February 2014 shows the consolidation of organic companies by larger food companies that has followed in the wake of the Dean-Horizon deal. The trend shows no signs of stopping. Dean Foods’ WhiteWave acquired Earthbound Farm, the nation’s largest organic produce supplier, in a $600 million acquisition last December. Coca-Cola recently acquired a 10 percent stake in Green Mountain Coffee for $1.25 billion. Many of the corporations purchasing companies, or at least with stakes in them, have clear larger objectives for their subsidiaries. This corporate dominance has impacted the marketing techniques of many companies, leading to…
…The New Meaning of Organic
Because organic is now a label with selling power, the social meaning of organic has changed a great deal.
“Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu notes that elites seek consumption practices that distinguish them from the masses,” Guptill said. “Organic food has come to have that elite cachet, whereas, in the 1970s, it was the food of people seeking to reject elitism. The corporatization of organics supports the elite status of the label, because it hides the conditions of its production, leaving only the attractive product.”
This corporate takeover has led to organic being associated most with personal health, rather than global health.
“The idea that organic is healthier — the science behind that is kind of contested,” Howard said. Those personal health factors, in Howard’s assessment, are “not necessarily the motivation for the most committed organic consumers…They’re interested in the environmental impacts.”
Thirdly, as Howard noted, while the certified organic label “still means something,” it doesn’t mean nearly what it used to — not only in terms of social and environmental impact, but in terms of what is actually directly used in the food production process. The corporatization of organics has unquestionably led to…
…The Rapid Weakening of Organic Standards
It’s easy to forget just how new that little green-and-white USDA Organic symbol is. The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 was the piece of legislation that first authorized the creation of a National Organic Program by the USDA — a piece of legislation that Guptill referred to as the “turning point” in the process of corporatization.
“Before organics was mainstream, producing and consuming organic food marked you as a member of the counterculture,” Guptill said. “As more and more consumers sought non-industrial food, the organic associations created certification programs to communicate their distinct ethical standards to their growing ranks of consumers…As that certification process has been subsumed under mainstream, industrialized food channels, the relationship between producers and consumers has become just as opaque as that in the main industrial food system.”
While most organic consumers today think the term organic means there are no pesticides involved in production, in reality there are more than 20 chemicals commonly used in the growing and processing of organic crops that are approved by the U.S. Organic Standards.
Specifically, the pesticides used in organic farming must be of natural origin and minimally processed, whereas conventional farming allows the use of synthetic pesticides. This implies some sort of tested difference in the toxicity between synthetic and natural pesticides, but that’s not necessarily the case.
The factory farms employing these methods, as guru-of-all-things-food Michael Pollan put it in a conversation with Organic Gardening Magazine, are “organic by the letter, not organic in spirit… if most organic consumers went to those places, they would feel they were getting ripped off.”
There was a lot of opposition from small organic farmers when the National Organic Program was created and the Organic Consumers Association was formed in 1998 in direct opposition to the national regulations for organic farming that had finally been put forth in compliance with the passage of the 1990 law. The concerns of the time went mostly unheeded, but over time support for them has gained strength as they appear increasingly valid. Since its formation, the OCA has waged a Safeguard Organic Standards campaign, aimed at contrasting the small scale, sustainable methods used by many organic farmers with what they foresaw as a certification system that would quickly become subject to corporate manipulation. The organization now represents over 850,000 members, subscribers and volunteers.
The story of Horizon Organic is a prime example of how the new kinds of organic food producers — which were created by the wave of venture capitalist investment, as noted by Howard — can easily exploit the organic certification process. Started by a group of millionaires with experience in both factory dairy farming and the organics industry, Horizon was unquestionably growth-focused, which contrasted with many other organic brands. When Dean Foods, one of the nation’s largest food suppliers, purchased Horizon in 2004, it significantly contributed to setting a precedent for how other companies would choose to approach problems of growth and competition on a large scale.
The effects of Dean’s acquisition of Horizon were quite obvious within just a few years. In 2007, the nonprofit Cornucopia Institute filed a complaint against Dean for the keeping conditions of cows producing organic milk. Lactating milk cows were not given access to pasture — a clear stipulation of organic standards. As the Chicago Tribune wrote in 2006, the dairy had “been so obsessed with increasing production to meet the soaring demand for organic milk that it has mostly kept the cows in the barn.” The Cornucopia Institute’s complaint was dismissed by the USDA without regulators ever being sent to the dairy in question.
So What’s the Answer?
Factory farming, be it conventional or “organic,” is not the answer to world hunger as we were told back at the beginning of the so-called — and spectacularly inaptly-named — “Green Revolution.” It is unsustainable, harsh toward biodiversity, concentrates profits in the hands of a select few and requires an immense amount of finite resources. But, largely due to growing concern around climate change, the pitfalls of conventional farming are increasingly falling subject to the scrutiny they’ve long withstood. As Leah Douglas wrote a few weeks ago at the popular blog Civil Eats:
From the United Nations Climate Summit to the People’s Climate March and the accompanying
Flood Wall Street action, all eyes have been on the climate…
Amidst heated discussions of global policy change, greenhouse gases, and emissions caps,
food and farming — and the impact they are having on our changing climate — were also in
the spotlight. After all, agriculture is one of largest contributors of human-caused
Even before this increased scrutiny came about due to climate change, as Guptill noted, the most committed organic consumers, reacting to this trend of corporatization “have focused intently on creating more direct relationships, in which the conditions of production (including labor) are more transparent to consumers.”
So, while organic might not mean much as a label anymore, there are a growing number of people working to raise awareness of the role our agricultural system can play in a sustainable future, and they are doing so through a variety of methods. This includes urban farms, community-based direct-to-consumer distribution systems and buses carrying holistic produce that service low-income “food deserts,” where residents have no regular access to fruits and vegetables.
The bulk of these are done through holistic certification processes beyond the manipulation of a central regulatory agency. Howard paid a lot of attention to these
newer approaches to sustainable food certification, which include approaches he collectively categorizes as “eco-labels.”
“Organic is just one eco-label,” Howard said. “There are a lot of others that farmers are using to try and address some ecological and cultural criteria that aren’t necessarily embedded in the conventional food system.”
The label of biodynamic has been around even longer than organic and has received increased attention in recent years. Based on an early-20th century philosophy, biodynamics envisions a farm as a closed-loop system that mimics a self-sufficient organism.
Remembrance Farm in Trumansburg, New York, has been biodynamic since it was founded in 2004. The owners, Nathaniel and Emily Thompson, have always been interested in more holistic approaches to farming, making the biodynamic certification process a perfect fit, as it also allows them to claim the organic label without undergoing additional certification.
“We meet all the standards but we also meet a higher standard,” Nathaniel said. The Thompsons essentially need to be certified, as they mostly sell to wholesalers and nearly all retail stores “need the organic certification,” Nathaniel said. “That’s just the reality of the world we live in.”
“If you’re selling even to a co-op they tend to prefer produce that’s certified so that their member-owners have greater confidence in it,” Howard said, in support of the Thompson’s reasoning behind being certified. But another interesting change has been afoot in the sustainable food world at the same time that organic has been corporatized. As Howard pointed out, a growing number of farms distribute their produce through community-supported agriculture programs, or other forms of direct-to-consumer marketing, and many of these farms “don’t even bother with certification because they’re selling to direct markets and people have that face-to-face interaction and trust and they don’t need a third party,” he said.
The bottom line, Howard said, is: “Diversity is better. When you have just one model it’s susceptible to co-optation, just like organic.”
Max Ocean is senior journalism major with a double minor in CSAs and food shares. Email him at mocean1@ithaca. edu.