Employees at Maharishi Vedic City Organic Farm adjust hundreds of threads for cucumber vines to grow on unhampered. – Photo by Donna Schill

Among purists in the organic farming community, big has never meant better.

Especially when big is in the form of major food corporations that they believe are co-opting the popularity of locally produced food grown naturally.

But ever since the federal government kick-started the organic industry with the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, the increasing number of people willing to pay premium prices for organic food was bound to attract any corporation searching for the next trendy and lucrative market. And it did.

Organic food sales rose from 1.2 percent to 3.7 percent of all U.S. food sales from 2000 to 2009. Fruits and vegetables total 11.4 percent of all organic fruits and vegetables sold in the United States.

But to organic purists, the cost of this growth may be more than just the higher prices they willingly pay to get food with the organic label. For them, the suspicion of big corporations in part fuels their growing skepticism of the federal government’s organic certification standards.

They say the growth has at times come at the cost of weakening the standards set in the Organic Foods Production Act, the document from which the government-run organic program was constructed. For example, the staff of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program wrote regulations allowing organic farmers to use a number of synthetic ingredients in production although the act prohibited that any be used.

Organic devotees objected, and in 2002, Arthur Harvey, a farmer, who was 73 at the time and grew blueberries in Hartford, Maine, filed a federal suit. When an appeals court ruled in his favor and ordered companies to either phase out synthetic ingredients or stop claiming the organic label, the corporations unleashed their lobbying power to change the law.

At the request of large multinational food corporations represented by the Organic Trade Association, the 2006 Farm Bill included an amendment to the 1990 Organic Food Production Act that made it legal to use synthetic ingredients in organic food.

The amendment also gave the secretary of agriculture authority to permit new synthetic substances in organic production and loosened regulation of organic dairy production.

The loosening of organic standards did not go unnoticed.

“We’re caught between pressure to grow and to lower the standards, and to keep the trust of the consumer,” Walter Robb, co-CEO of Whole Foods, said during the Organic Summit of 2007.

He warned that if the industry didn’t clean up its act, it was “in a position to lose everything.”

With looser standards, the organic industry has continued to grow. Organic food costs consumers 20 percent to more than 100 percent as much as conventional products, although private-label organic products tend to cost less.

In Ames, Iowa, farmers who sell produce to natural food store, Wheatsfield Cooperative, receive up to 20 percent more than conventional or local suppliers thanks to their certification.

Price premiums reward farmers’ extra work but have also spurred mainstream food companies to acquire organic food brands. Kellogg, for instance, owns Kashi and Kraft owns Boca, facts not readily available on the website of either company.

“There are certainly people who are just in it for the bucks,” Daniel Giacomini, 2010 chair for the National Organic Standards Board, said at a meeting in Madison, Wis., in November, 2010, “and there are people who are interested in the absolute purity.”

In Iowa, more than 80 percent of land in organic production is in row crops such as corn, soybeans, hay or alfalfa, according to 2008 USDA figures. These crops are often sold to companies such as SunOpta, a big player in the organic industry, which sources, processes and packages organic and natural food products.

Curt Petrich, general manager of a branch of SunOpta in Minnesota, believes larger producers provide a better product.

“It’s more efficient. They do a better job and provide better quality.” Petrich said that working with larger producers was best for SunOpta, allowing them to get the same quantity of seed from one large producer instead of 35 small ones.

He feels that consumers misperceive that big is bad when it comes to organic production, and his patience with them is short. “These people are not connected to what agriculture’s actually about,” Petrich said. “I don’t have time for that.”

But the organic purists are equally adamant, and tension in the organic community is growing in recent years, because the purists espouse practices they say are beyond organic standards set by the National Organic Program.

Fred Kirschenmann, a farmer and distinguished fellow for Iowa Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, identified that tension four years ago during the Organic Summit of 2007 and helped define what may be forming into a movement.

Farming practices seen as “beyond organic,” he said, are developing because of a perceived loss of integrity as organic grows in size.

“ ‘Beyond organic’ refers to the tension in the organic community between those who want to maintain the original principles … and those who feel the need to move the organic community into the industry, into the mainstream.”

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