Thursday, April 5, 2007


Flipping through the Hanover Co-op Food Stores annual report today, I ran across Michigan State professor Phil Howard's work and the following chart detailing some of the current, key players in the organic foods industry:

In his bio, it says that Howard earned a PhD from University of Missouri and conducted post-doc research at UC-Santa Cruz's Centre for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems. He is also the founder of the Santa Cruz County Food Systems Network, a non profit organization working for a just, sustainable, and local food system.

Looking over Howard's chart, it becomes clear that the organic foods industry of 2007, resembles the organic foods industry of the 1970s in name only. Bye-bye hippie commune potluck, hello Fortune 500.

"According to one estimate, 40% of the packaged organic foods on the shelves of natural food stores are produced by some of the biggest companies in the world."
The globalization of the organic food industry has caught conscious consumers in a conundrum, forcing them oftentimes to choose between local and organic. While, reducing pesticides is unequivocally a positive step in the right direction for both people and the planet, the corporatization of organics provides it's own set of problems. To many longtime organic supporters, this Wall Streetification of a hippie ideal has ripped the heart out of the movement. Many argue, and have been arguing for some time now, that a large scale, corporate grown, mono-cropped, prepackaged, transcontinental, tasteless, beefsteak organic tomato is just slightly less bad than it's conventionally grown cousin. A chorus of Croc-clad, internet-savy critics have sprung up in tight-knit communities like Santa Cruz and Boulder imploring conscious shoppers to buy local at all cost, either directly from a farmer or through non profit co-ops and the like.

While I've agreed with this intellectual food throng, in practice I still end up buying my winter/spring produce from these organic multinationals; as The Hanover Co-op, for all its consciousness, offers little in the way of local produce from December to June. And with Molly and I down to one car (a Jetta TDI that runs mostly on biodiesel) now (another eco/cost saving effort on our part), we find ourselves shopping for corporate organics more than ever at Hanafords, even closer to home.

Imperfect personal practice aside, I have to wonder if supporting small to medium-sized, non-organic farmers is akin to putting dinosaurs on life support just after a meteor strike. Please correct me if I am wrong, but shouldn't we differentiate between conscious farming and backward farming. I know that a few small farmers in specific niche markets have begun to forgo organic certification because they view it as "the lowest common denominator." However, it strikes me that anyone not in one of these specific niche circumstances and not selling out to a multinational would be crazy not to go the value-added, organic route. In other words, as a farmer in the year 2007, you have to make a choice: either sell out or sell high quality. If we're talking about high quality, local produce (or honey or bakery items or knitted hats) shouldn't consumers still ask for and demand organic, even in these corporate organic times? The idea that we would blithely purchase conventional carrots from farmer Dan who can't get his act together and still sprays toxic pesticides all over his fields, seems ridiculous. In my book, I'd say, buy farmer Dan's damn carrots, but give him hell in the process!

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