The corporate takeover of organics
Think your pesticide-free food comes from small, local farmers? Think again.
Picture organic food. The images are romantic, aren’t they? Ranchers’ hands reaching out to pick fruit from trees, farmers kneeling down to cut vegetables from their fields, chickens wandering freely over ranges and cows grazing idly in grassy pastures.
But organic foods nowadays are not what you might imagine. They don’t have to come from small, local growers or even from domestic farms. Getting the “organic” certification from the U.S. Department of Agriculture requires only that the food is grown without chemical fertilizers or pesticides and that it is processed without forbidden chemicals.
And as the demand has skyrocketed in recent years, food giants like General Mills, Heinz and Campbell Soup are getting into the organics market. Big time.
It’s not always easy to make the connection. Take Odwalla, for example. Its Web site boasts about the “luscious goodness” of its juices and how the company strives “to nourish the rest of the world as much as we nourish your body.” Nowhere, however, is there a mention that the company is owned by Coca-Cola.
And then even if consumers know that the nation’s biggest milk bottler, Dean Foods, produces Horizon organic milk products, they may not be aware that the company’s “strict and unwavering adherence to upholding the rigorous organic standards is a cherished part of our heritage” involves industrial-sized farms where thousands of cows are confined in dry feedlots and milked three times a day.
Organic products manufactured by some of the country’s biggest food companies—and the alliances among them—are identified in the graphic above. The chart was developed by Phil Howard, assistant professor in the Department of Community, Agriculture, Recreation and Resource Studies at Michigan State University. He updated the chart for SN&R in mid-August to capture the latest developments in a constantly changing industry.
What does it all mean?
“The corporate takeover of organics can be seen as both a success and a failure for the organic movement,” Howard said. “On the one hand, the acreage devoted to organic production, without synthetic pesticides, increases every year to meet the market demand. On the other hand, some of the ideals of the organic movement, which were in large part a response to industrial agriculture, have fallen by the wayside. Organic increasingly resembles the global, industrial agriculture system it was created to combat.”
The upside: There’s better distribution of organic foods, allowing more people from different locations and income brackets to buy them. Increased consumer demand also translates into more resources devoted to researching organic production.
The downside: The increasing amounts of food being imported and decreasing prices brought on by large players in the marketplace serve to harm small, domestic organic farmers.
The bottom line: “Whether the positives outweigh the negatives remains to be seen,” Howard said, “and depends on how well we support our ideals.”