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Organic Power Struggle: Are factory farms flattening family farms?
by Amy Bell
Organic agriculture was first introduced in
Times They Are A-Changin'
The organic landscape has undergone a significant transformation over the past few years, forever changing the public's perception of the label organic. As an increasing number of large corporations crank out mass amounts of organic products, the word organic is becoming less and less synonymous with the words "small" or "homegrown."
Organic products, particularly dairy and bagged salads, can now be
found sprinkled throughout aisles in most major grocery store chains. In her
book titled, "Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in
The Earthbound Factor
Some attribute major changes in the industry to enormous organic operations
Bob Stowcroft, executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation, told the Associated Press (AP) that Earthbound "changed the organic game." He said, "You used to only be able to get fresh organic products in small stores supplied by an independent farmer. Earthbound ships trainloads and planeloads."
Surprisingly enough, Earthbound initially started off as a small,
family-run operation. Fresh out of college,
There were many days when
Although most well-known grocery stores were hesitant to take on
organic products in the 1990s, Costco took a chance with
Drew said, "We built our business little by little to meet a demand and didn't realize it was a big business until it had already happened. Growing organic has paid off."
Playing the Blame Game
Despite the tremendous attention Earthbound has attracted to organic products, some critics blame the company, along with other large organic operations, for crushing the business of small organic farms. Many smaller family-run organic farms simply cannot keep up with the incredible production pace of these huge, multifarm organizations. Liz Bourret, a buyer with an organic produce distributor called Veritable Vegetable, told the AP that smaller organic growers aren't necessarily being pushed out of the business. However, because they are being forced to adapt to the environment, these growers are moving away from the increasingly popular organic products, such as lettuce, and focusing more on specialty organic crops.
In her book, which serves as a comprehensive study of
Guthman says that organic agriculture has transformed from a small-scale family-run market to "industrial" agriculture. Guthman says that the organic industry is definitely facing major changes as a result of large corporations buying out smaller organic farms. She explains that this issue is much more than "big versus small or good guys versus bad guys. I call it a trilemma because it's about what growers need, what consumers need and what workers need."
Guthman also points out that much of the organic industry's growth has "come from within." She says, "There's a widespread misconception that big corporate interests took over the organic industry." Guthman says that on the contrary, large operations like Earthbound Farm recruited producers from outside the organic industry to grow for them because "they wanted more professionalism than what the visionaries of the 1970s were able to provide."
Big versus Small?
Although many organic industry players don't believe this is a game of big guys versus little guys, a recent rumble in the industry seems to prove otherwise. In this heated controversy, the Organic Trade Association (OTA) and the Cornucopia Institute, an agricultural policy research group that supports independent family scale farmers, duked it out over the release of a Cornucopia report. In the report, Cornucopia rates organic dairy brands determined by each operation's level of ethical organic practices.
Based on a survey the group sent out to organic dairy farmers, Cornucopia says their report "is a by-product of a five-year controversy that has been smoldering within the organic industry." The group accuses the OTA of conducting "backroom dealings" that have decreased federal regulations of organic dairy farms, giving large corporations in the industry an upper hand. Cornucopia also claims that some of the nation's biggest organic dairies are violating federal organic regulations, alleging that some of these large-scale operations are housing their livestock in indoor lots without access to pasture.
Helen Keyes, a Cornucopia board member, says that the USDA has done nothing to "clamp down on these factory farms" despite countless requests from organic farmers and consumers. In response to Cornucopia's accusations, the USDA released the following statement: "Cornucopia's initial allegations were found to be without substance in light of the National Organic Program pasture regulations as they are currently written."
Urging the Cornucopia Institute not to publish the report, the OTA said that such a rating system could "sow the seed of distrust in organic farming," causing a permanent rift in the organic farming industry. The OTA also says that Cornucopia took a "non-scientific approach" to the report by attempting to threaten dairy operations. The OTA is referring to a statement that appeared in the cover letter of Cornucopia's survey, which was distributed to organic dairy farmers throughout the country. In the letter Cornucopia wrote that any farm that did not participate in the survey risked "having its credibility tainted." The OTA released a statement saying, "This type of threat is counter to good research practice, and renders the results invalid. Furthermore, such tactics do not serve the interests of customers, the organic community or farmers themselves."
Cornucopia fired back by accusing the OTA of pursuing a "campaign of intimidation" against them. Despite the OTA's pleas, Cornucopia released their report, titled "Maintaining the Integrity of Organic Milk," in March 2006. Following the release, Mark Kastel, Cornucopia's senior farm policy analyst and the primary writer of the report, said, "Our report and the accompanying dairy brands scorecard will empower consumers and wholesale buyers who want to invest their food dollars to protect hard-working family farmers who are in danger of being washed off the land by a tidal wave of organic milk from these factory mega-farms."
In the report Cornucopia issued a substandard rating to nearly 20 percent of the organic dairy name brands that can now be found in grocery stores. Some large organic operations are already fighting back in response to Corncucopia's controversial report. The country's largest milk bottler, Dean Foods, which oversees Horizon Organic products, is allegedly pulling together its employees and farmers to rally against Cornucopia.
Although this controversy certainly appears to be a conflict between small independently owned farms and giant corporate organic operations, the Cornucopia Institute claims that it's an issue of ethics. Kastel told FoodNavigator-USA.com, "This is not a debate of small farmers versus big farmers. It's ethical farmers versus farmers that are willing to compensate the ethics of organic farming." Regardless of whether or not this is a case of family versus factory farms, there is no doubt that the organic industry is currently caught up in a turbulent sea of conflict and change
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The Green Invasion
By Betsy Querna
Grocery shoppers across
Today, most grocery stores stock big organic brands like Earthbound Farm. Wal-Mart plans to double its organic offerings this summer in some stores, and grocers like SuperValu and Safeway recently unveiled organic house brands. Major food companies have grabbed up organic brands. General Mills, for example, owns the organic brands Cascadian Farm and Muir Glen. Some food producers are even rolling out organic versions of existing products. You can now fill your cart with Ragu organic pasta sauce, Snyder's organic pretzels, Orville Redenbacher's organic butter popcorn, and later this summer, organic Kraft macaroni and cheese. "With Wal-Mart in the game and Safeway and just about everyone else, organic is at a tipping point," says Samuel Fromartz, author of the new book Organic, Inc. "It's really gone mainstream."
Getting specific. With so many more choices, consumers may wonder what they're really getting when they buy this newfangled organic food. Though the organic label is often perceived as synonymous with healthful, virtuous, or just plain better, organic has a specific definition, set in 2000 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture after years of varying standards muddled its meaning. In a nutshell, organic produce cannot be grown with pesticides or most synthetic fertilizers, while animals must not be injected with antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic farms undergo a rigorous certification process and are inspected for compliance by an independent agent.
To earn the "100 percent organic" label under the USDA system, a food must contain only organically produced ingredients. Next in line is "organic," in which at least 95 percent of the ingredients must be organic. The other 5 percent must be an approved ingredient. Those are mostly preservatives, thickeners, or other things such as baking soda and spices. Here and with "100 percent organic" foods, consumers may also spot the USDA seal. Products that have at least 70 percent organic ingredients can sport the term "made with organic ingredients." Any less and the food gets no boasting rights beyond noting the organic elements in the list of ingredients. (In some cases, you will see a certifying agent seal. More details are at www.ams.usda.gov/nop.)
Got that? It's a
mouthful, so to speak, and consumers often think that the organic label means
so much more. "It's confusing because the organic certification is a
process certification, not a product certification," says
What consumers should do, experts say, is carefully consider each organic purchase. There may be no reason to buy an organic version of a favorite food when its conventional counterpart is little or no different and most likely cheaper. On average, organic food costs 30 to 50 percent more than conventional food. Heinz's Classico pasta sauce usually sells for about $3; the organic version is a dollar more. Many expect the new players, especially Wal-Mart, to prompt a marketwide price drop. The retailing behemoth has said its organic products will cost only 10 percent more than its nonorganic products. What's more, shoppers need to keep in mind that the jury is still out on whether organic food is more nutritious or safer. For years, scientists have been fiercely debating the health benefits of organic food, and studies so far have been small and equivocal.
While organic fruits and
vegetables do usually have fewer pesticides than their conventional cousins,
there is no consensus on how harmful those pesticides are to humans. Joseph
Rosen, a professor of food science at
Choosy buyers. Pesticides may be more of a concern for children because their small bodies are less able to metabolize pesticides--and they ingest more food per pound of body weight than adults, according to a 1993 National Academy of Sciences report. Philip Landrigan, a pediatrician at Mount Sinai School of Medicine who chaired the report committee, advises parents to go organic on the fruits and vegetables their kids consume a lot.
To reduce potential exposure to pesticides without breaking the bank, consumers should become choosy fruit buyers. A 2003 Environmental Working Group study that looked at USDA pesticide data from more than 100,000 pieces of produce found that those with the most pesticides include strawberries, peaches, nectarines, bell peppers, and spinach. Because of the way they are grown or their heartiness, conventional broccoli, asparagus, mangos, and bananas are less likely to have pesticides.
Recently, several small
studies have shown that organic fruits and vegetables might also have higher
amounts of protective antioxidants. The thinking: Without pesticides, the plant
must rely on its own defenses to shoo away bugs; one way it does this is to
make more antioxidants. Still, it's only a hypothesis. "I wouldn't tell my
mom or neighbor to go buy organic because it has more antioxidants," says
Kathleen Merrigan, director of the agriculture, food, and environment program
In the dairy case, organic milk gained popularity in the early 1990s when many big dairies began using the controversial recombinant bovine growth hormone to help increase a cow's milk production. Some groups say it can increase the risk of certain cancers or contribute to the early onset of puberty in girls, though the Food and Drug Administration found no human health issues--nor did a Canadian panel that examined the hormone in the late 1990s.
roam. While health concerns motivate many buyers, others
prefer organic milk for more humanitarian reasons. Many organic milk producers
are small farmers, and their cows are often given more space to roam than cows
at large dairies. In fact, major organic dairy producers such as Horizon have
come under much criticism for their pasture size. On an
On conventional farms, animals are routinely given hormones and antibiotics, which could be passed on to your dinner plate. Though there is no scientific consensus about whether these substances cause health problems, shoppers who want to avoid them can look for other phrases on meat packages. "You are not necessarily going to see the organic label," says Keecha Harris, a national nutrition consultant for the Head Start program. "You are going to see how the animal is raised." Beef that is marked "pasture-raised," for example, means the cow grazed on grass, and "free-range" denotes chickens that aren't confined to small cages. Or the package of pork chops might state that no growth hormones or antibiotics were used or that the pig was fed an all-vegetable diet. Some stores, such as Whole Foods, set their own guidelines for the meat they buy, and thus the packages may not be labeled. The best way to figure it out: Ask the butcher.
These days, the biggest
organic explosion is in the middle of the store, where the cereals, frozen
foods, and processed packaged goods are sold. Experts urge shoppers to remember
that the organic label means one thing and one thing only. So the corn in
Orville Redenbacher's organic microwave popcorn comes from an organic farm;
Heinz's organic ketchup uses organic tomato concentrate and organic sugar.
Shoppers still need to flip over those jars and packages and scrutinize the
nutrition facts, says Dawn Jackson Blatner, a registered dietitian with
Take Whole Foods organic chocolate truffles made with organic cocoa beans, organic vegetable oil, and organic cane sugar. With just three candies packing more than half of the daily allowance of fat, they're not exactly a health food. But, "they taste pretty good," says Fromartz.
Organic Vegetable and Crop Outreach Specialist
C.S. Mott Sustainable Food Systems
303 Natural Resources Bldg.
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