How Sustainable is Big Organic?

Organic has gotten big. Really big. So much so that most of the organic food available in the supermarket is now owned by companies you might not expect to represent organic, like Cargill, Heinz/Hain, Kraft, Kellog, Dean, and General Mills. All those familiar organic food brand names: Muir Glen, Cascadian Farm, Odwalla, Kashi, Dagoba chocolate, and so on, are  owned by some of the largest food processors in the country, whose other product lines don't exactly jive with organic principles. The question is, is big organic good, or not so good? And what does it mean for small organic food producers?

There is a series of really fascinating charts put together by Dr. Phil Howard at the Michigan State University that illustrate the relationship between major corporate companies and organic food brands. One chart is even animated to demonstrate the consolidation of organic food brands that took place between 1997 and 2005. While it used to be the case that consumers of organic food could be assured that what they were buying supported small, family-run, independent companies, but with the advent of federal organic standards in 2000, large companies began to buy up organic. We've watched this change take place in our supermarkets. At one point in time, organic was relegated to natural food co-ops and the like; now snazzy packaging advertising organic this and that line the aisles of chain supermarkets, Wal-Mart supercenters, and even convenience stores.

There are positives to the ubiquity of organic. For one, it means that organic food, which really is held to a decent set of standards and is certainly better regulated than a lot of other labels, is more available to a wider section of the population. Organic food is no longer just hippie food, it's food for everyone. The presence of organic in mainstream stores has also meant a heightened awareness of why organic is important and people are increasingly willing to purchase organic over conventional food for environmental and health reasons

But it's not all positive, and some of the downsides to big, industrial organic are becoming apparent. Michael Pollan predicted a weakening of standards and organic food quality, a blow to small-scale organic farms, and a weakening of the meaning of the word organic. While standards for organic are still pretty intact, there has a real push for small farms who practice organic agriculture to find their spot in the market. This seems to be becoming more successful as the local food movement takes off and farmer's markets, CSAs, and other avenues support small farms. Perhaps the greatest loss with the rise of big organic is how the word itself has become washed out because it is applied to so many products that are a far cry from the original essence of organic. For something to be organic used to imply that it was grown and processed (if at all) in an ecologically responsible and sustainable way. These days, a giant organic farm that produces only one crop and uses lots of technically organic-approved inputs and energy isn't exactly in harmony with the environment, and is maybe just one step up from its conventional counterpart.

But while big industrial companies may own "organic" these days, it's the small sustainable farms that are still connected to their food and to their environment. Nevermind big organic's fancy packaging and the lengthy list of health benefits on frozen dinners and canned soup--go pick up the real deal at your local farmers market and get back to organic's roots.

photo credit: ilovebutter