Video: Organic ideals swallowed by food giants

KENASTON, Sask. — The organic food sector began as a fringe social movement in the 1960s, a far cry from the global market that today racks up more than US$70 billion in annual sales.

Social movements are often appropriated and transformed into profit seeking markets, and when that happens, the movement’s original goals are challenged, said University of Saskatchewan food researcher Lisa Clark.

This is what has happened with the organic food industry, she added.

“There has been a shift in the movement as it has become more mainstream and more corporate,” she said during her April 1 presentation to the SaskOrganics annual general meeting in Kenaston.

“It shifted from focusing on the health of the soil and the organic agriculture process to promoting marketable qualities of organic products.”

Clark, who recently published The Changing Politics of Organic Food in North America, said there are two competing models within the organic industry. One focuses on the methods used to grow organic crops, while the other is a product-based approach that focuses solely on the end commodity.

She said the organic movement’s original philosophy was based on three general principles: economically viable farms, environmental sensitive practices and social sustainability.

Consumers began taking health and healthy eating more seriously in the 1980s, and organic food became popular.

Large businesses bought into the industry, and they focused on the growing consumer demand for a greater variety of organic goods, including processed food. The ideals of the original organic food social movement began to be brushed aside.

Clark said four big players own most of the organic companies in Canada and the United States: Hain-Celestial Group, United Natural Foods International, Whole Foods Market and Kurig Green Mountain. They a have combined collective annual earnings of more than $5.3 billion.

Big food companies have taken over the organic sector in the U.S., and some worry that standards and ideals are being brushed aside to secure global markets. | USDA photo
Big food companies have taken over the organic sector in the U.S., and some worry that standards and ideals are being brushed aside to secure global markets. | USDA photo

“They are making a lot of the decisions over what happens in the organic sector in Canada and the U.S.,” Clark said.

“They own a lot of the processing and distribution and production.”

The original organic standards reflected bioregional differences, and producers were able to change the standards as more information and growing techniques become available. The standards also reflected the ideals of the original movement and supported growing processes that promoted environmental and social sustainability in local economies.

Clark said these socio-economic and environmental qualities were a large part of what made organic distinct from conventional agriculture.

Developing organic standards at the provincial and then national levels was controversial, including the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s ratification of Canadian organic production standards in 2009.

The sector was divided over what should be included in the regulations and who should be involved in crafting the codes.

Clark said large industry players persevered and the regulations focused on end products, Socio-economic and environmental standards were largely left out.

“These regulations are now product based, meaning as long as you don’t have the synthetic inputs of fertilizers, pesticides and GMOs, your product can be certified organic,” she said.

“You don’t necessarily have to be a steward of the land, you don’t have to care about biodiversity, you don’t need to practise polyculture or do it on a small scale. It can be an industrial sized farm, using mi-grant labour, which in the case of California is exactly what’s happening, and still be a certified or-ganic production.”

The organic food industry be-came incorporated into conventional agriculture’s existing power structures, and liberal international trade policies pressured the sector to adopt a product-based approach.

Equivalency agreements for organic standards with the European Union, the U.S., Canada, Japan, and Australia now mean that any of the organic products from these countries can be sold without having to acquire organic certification in the country in which they are sold.

“As organic has become more of a tradable commodity, these liberal market principles that are used to govern conventional agriculture and food are now used in organics as well, things like economy of scale, go bigger, reduce overhead cost wherever possible, and try to be as efficient as possible,” she said.

“Efficiency on its own is not a bad thing, it makes sense, but these kinds of moves to reduce often catches things like making sure there is biodiversity on your land and in your space.”

Organic certifications are losing their ability to signify food that’s produced by farms with specific social qualities that use good land stewardship, she said.

However, Clark said consumers who want to use their purchasing power to support production techniques that support the original ideals of the organic social movement can use other certifications.

“If you do value the social element of organic, then you can get something like a certified organic product that is also fair trade, or an organic product that has an Ecocert label, which means there is more consideration for the environmental principles,” she said.

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