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Organic
    - the Coporate Take Over

 

 

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'We understood that being connected to the land and producing healthy food was something we really valued...Only lately has it been, in some ways, co-opted by marketing interests and now large corporations who see there is a lot of profit to be made from the organic industry'.
Linda Prym organic farmer and farming inspector.

The first European organic farms date back to the 1920’s. The organic movement began to take off in Northern Europe, North America, New Zealand and Australia in the 1960’s and 70’s, following Rachael Carson’s best selling expose of the dangers of synthetic pesticides “Silent Spring”.

The 1990’s saw organic food distinctly breakthrough to the mainstream, no doubt in part attributable to the reaction to increasing concerns about food safety, BSE, CJD and geneticall engineering. In the 15 countries of the European Union between 1986 and 1999 the land area being farmed organically grew on average by 25% every year. The global organic food market is now worth over $5 billion a year.


Along the way organic farming has changed greatly, once the preserve of a few pioneering and idealistic individuals struggling against the grain, organic is now a fast growing sector of the mainstream food industry. There are still great many committed small organic growers producing good healthy food in an ecologically aware manner, but the kind of large-scale producers that are now beginning to grow organic are inspired by simple profit.

The big food and agribusiness corporations have not failed to notice the growing amount of affluent consumers willing and able to pay extra for healthier options. Their move into organic is certainly not due to a new found interest in public health or the environment, they will go on producing polluted food for everyone else. As Paul Rosenburg points out 'we could find ourselves in a future where the poor eat poisoned food which the affluent avoid, and no longer even think about'.

Food Manufacturers
Big food manufacturers have begun bringing out organic versions of their common brands, but they are aware that their names do not associate easily with healthy food. They also lack the expertise to make these products. Consequently they have begun buying out small organic companies. By doing this they gain a brand name that is trusted by healthy food consummers, under which they can market their new organic ranges.

The prominent example is Mars buying out Seeds of Change, a small independent seed company that promotes rare varieties and biodiversity. Mars have invested heavily in marketing and advertising their range of organic food products under the Seeds of Change name in Europe and the US.

Other manufacturers who have bought up independent organic companies include, Kellogg (bought natural cereal maker Kashi), Kraft Foods, part of Phillip Morris, (bought Balance bar company and Boca Burger Inc), General Mills (Small Planet Foods Co.), Coca-cola (Odwalla, maker of natural juices). Meanwhile Rank Hovis MacDougal have launched their own organic range under the name of the Enjoy Organic Company.

Supermarkets
In the early days organic producers could find few retail outlets to sell their products and in many areas they responded by setting up their own local marketing and distribution systems. The box scheme became a common way to receive organic produce. Only a decade and a half ago it was nigh on impossible to find organic products outside of specialist health food outlets and most organic food was sold in the form of fresh fruit and vegetables from local farms.

However today due to competition from supermarkets many box schemes have declined. Organic farmers who sell to the supermarkets find themselves coming under the same squeeze as their conventional counterparts. Supermarkets aim to buy in bulk and at the lowest possible prices, favouring large farms that do less to protect the environment.

The organic sector has started to resemble the conventional food sector in the way foods are distributed, transported, stored, packaged and marketed. Organic certification simply covers food produced without chemicals. Energy used in transport, processing and packaging as well as the pay and labour conditions of farm workers are not considerations. According to a 2001 report by the Soil Association, 80% of UK customers now buy their organic products at the supermarket and over 70% of the organic food that they buy has been imported.

A survey by economist Dr Anna Ross compared prices of organic foods sold in different outlets. The conclusion was that supermarkets are the most expensive of all organic food retailers and that they offer a smaller range of fresh produce than box schemes, farm shops and farmers markets.

Dr Ross’s report came out of research she was commissioned to carry out by the Soil Association and was originally meant to be published in their magazine Living Earth. However at the last moment the Soil Association got cold feet saying that Dr. Ross’ conclusions were 'unhelpful at this time'. This is an indication of how important ties with the supermarkets have become to Britain’s leading organic organisation. Ross was even threatened by letter when she published the report herself, the Soil association wrote 'you should compensate the SA for using copyrighted material without permission in your report or cease to sell the publication'.

Costs of certification
An apple grown in Chile, in a certified orchard, and then flown to Britain during the season for apples is organic. Yet the costs of organic certification restrict many small-scale growers, who do not use chemicals and produce in an ecologically aware manner, from using the organic label on their produce. It takes three years to undergo the transition to an official organic producer. Three years which usually involve falling yields and thus loss of income. In order to get the Soil Association organic mark farmers must then pay an annual certification fee of £475 plus VAT

Phil Chandler is director of the Wholesome Food Association a body set up to offer a way for producers to market local ecologically farmed produce at much lower cost than 'organic' certification. He points out 'It is not feasible for the smaller grower to cough up nearly £500 for the privilege of using the SA logo. There is also a lot of unrest about its association with supermarkets'.

No grower is legally allowed to use the term organic unless they are registered with an organic certification body that is a member of UK Register of Organic Food Standards. It is this government body, and not the Soil Association, which controls the standards of organic food production in the UK. In both Europe and North America the decision about what can and cannot be labeled organic does not rest with the producers, or the national organic farming movements. The US movement recently had to fight very hard to prevent food produced using sewage sludge, irradiation or genetically engineered crops from be allowed to be labeled as organic.

Since 1999 the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation has taken over the international standards of organic agriculture and requirements for organic food labeling. This is done through the little known body, Codex Alimentarius, is a food industry dominated committee that wields great power behind the scenes by deciding on international rules on how all foods can be produced.


Conclusion
The term organic has been assimilated by the food industry and ceased to have its original meaning. Organic agriculture is not synonymous with ecological or sustainable farming. It can still deplete natural resources and drive small producers out of business.

Large scale food growers and manufactures will be able to offer cost price organic foods due to the kinds of economies they achieve by their sheer scale. Small-scale growers who follow ecologically sound practices need to find other methods of developing trust in their customers than through organic certification. We have many more positive things to say about our products and methods than the big commercial producer does by simply reaching the minimum organic standards.

All growers are likely within the next few years to be under increasing threat from cross-pollination with nearby genetically engineered crops. Organic growers face the added threat of their crops losing their organic symbol. This is a difficult time and food consumers are being bombarded with confusing messages due to the constant stream of industry propaganda that finds its way into the media.

But there are reasons to be hopeful. There is a growing awareness of the problems of industrial food production and the beginnings of a movement for local food production that will open new opportunities to market produce to local customers. Rebuilding locally based and controlled food production and distribution systems that completely bypass the mass industry, based, not on centralised control, but on direct contact between growers, consumers and communities.


SOURCES

Organic farming: evolution and challenges A talk by Lynda Prim

Organic panic by Andy Rowell http://www.domainomania.com/wfa/downloads/organic_panic.html

Organic Food Prices 2002 Comparisons of prices: Supermarkets; Farm Shops; Box Schemes, Farmers' Markets. Report by Dr. Anna Ross, brief outline of conclusions online at http://www.domainomania.com/wfa/ross_report.html

Nation's growth-starved food conglomerates suddenly have rage for organic food market, Kevin Helliker, The Wall Street Journal




Further Reading:

'For the Liberation of Seeds and Humus, A Manifesto for Survival'
by 'Association Kokopelli.'
A powerful indictment of the forces leading to crop varietal extictions and laws that have forced an inspirational French seed company to stop trading.
'Biodiversity Threat'
by Hope Shand
The steamroller of modern monoculture and factory farming is sweeping away our crop and domestic livestock diversity, putting future food production at risk.
'Everything not permitted is forbidden'
by Jeremy Cherfas
In Europe, one set of legislation applies to giant intensive farmers and small home gardeners. That is why Europe's losses of genetic diversity are probably among the most severe in the developed world.
'Rescuing Traditional Food Crops'
by Kent Wealy
founder of the US Seed Savers Exchange.
We are going to need all the genetic resources we can possibly muster to overcome what we are going to face in the future.
'The Importance of Diversity and Pressures for Uniformity.'
2 Chapters from Heritage Vegetables, The Gardeners Guide to Cultivating Diversity.
by Sue Strickland.
Many characteristics of our wild crops and old varieties are as yet unnoticed, unvalued, unrecognied or uneeded. These qualities may be vitally importnat in the future.
'Earmarked for Extinction, Seminis Eliminates 2,000 Varieties.'
Report by Rural Foundation International.
Announcement by Seminis, the world's largest vegetable seed corporation, that it would eliminate 2,000 varieties - or 25% of its total product line - as a cost-cutting measure.

 

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