Major food companies are embracing organic products. That trend smacks of opportunism and elicits criticism among the pioneers who consider the small-scale philosophy vital to the organic dream. But large-scale organic production is a good thing too. Ode’s founder makes the argument for progress
Every Saturday morning from the age of 8 on, I rode my bike to get the organic bread my mother ordered each week from the local health-food store. The loaves were baked by the biodynamic company Loverendale in the southwestern Dutch province of Zeeland.
I remember my Saturday-morning experience in that shop: the rake-thin woman at the cash register who looked quite unhealthy to me; the “fresh produce” that mainly consisted of a crate of small, shrivelled apples with the odd brown wormhole; the severe-looking German book about living a healthier lifestyle on a shelf. At that time, organic food production was a hobby practised by a few odd idealists and zealots with roots in the German food-reform movement. The bread was good, but the shop certainly didn’t give me the feeling that it held the key to the future of healthy food.
Nearly 40 years later, I regularly shop at Whole Foods Market, the U.S.-based, stock exchange-listed, biggest and fastest-growing organic supermarket in the world. The contrast to the health-food store of my youth is stark. Whole Foods is a spectacular success in economic, ecological, social and culinary terms. Shopping there is an attractive and inspiring experience—and the world is a better place for it. Whole Foods is largely responsible for the transformation of “health food” from those unattractive, shrivelled apples to a future in which appetizing, nutritious organic ingredients grace every plate.
The trend is unmistakable. The share of the organic market in overall food production and consumption remains small—some three percent in Western countries. But the sector is growing by at least 20 percent a year, with total sales at $14 billion U.S. (11 billion euros) in the U.S. alone. That development is poised to accelerate dramatically now that Wal-Mart, the largest company in the world, is introducing a large selection of organic foods in all its U.S. stores, with prices at most 10 percent above its usual offerings.
Other striking indications of change are surfacing at the major supermarket chains. This summer, Kellogg introduced organic Rice Krispies in the United States, for example, and Heinz has had an organic ketchup on the market for some time. Organic has arrived.
Good news, one might say. After all, isn’t it progress when food is cultivated and produced without the use of chemicals that pollute the environment and are linked to health problems? Yet many who would be expected to be popping the tops of some organic champagne have been found muttering under their breath.
The New Yorker recently reported one such comment, uttered to Michael Pollan, journalist and author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (2005): “Organic is becoming what we hoped it would be an alternative to.”
In other words, the organic ideology went hand in hand with food production on a human scale. During the 1960s and 1970s, small companies and local production offered a counterweight to the advance of industrial agriculture inspired by the deceptively named Green Revolution of the 1960s, which introduced large-scale chemical pesticide use around the world. Small idealistic organic farms—like Loverendale in Zeeland—sold their goods in small shops or, preferably, at farmers’ markets.
Pollan is not the only one who sees in the current developments a paradise lost. Numerous others don’t support a link between wholesome food and supersized production. Big businesses like Kellogg and A.J. Heinz may meet organic standards, they say, but don’t operate in the spirit of organic production.
Some critics go even further. Referring to multinationals’ increased interest in organic food, Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University, recently told The New York Times: “It is a ploy to charge more for junk food.”
There is, of course, a big difference between the opportunism of companies listed on the stock exchange and THE PASSION of a small-scale family farm that aims to serve people and nature. Indeed, the big corporations see an opportunity to sell more to organic shoppers, including items like convenience food. They add value and that pushes up prices.
For instance, I can buy a bag of prewashed lettuce at Whole Foods. I realize this is an excessive luxury; I’m perfectly capable of washing my own lettuce. Yet the fact that those bags of lettuce are being sold shows that organic food has become a thriving mainstream business. It tells me we’ve left behind that terribly sensible natural-food shop of my youth that didn’t stand a chance. And that gives me hope.
The accelerated advance of organic production means less and less poison is used to produce our food—poison that damages the planet and threatens our health. It also means that the use of genetic manipulation—the effects of which are unclear—is declining, since organic production prohibits it. And it means food will be less often irradiated to extend its shelf life.
The potential fallout of this goes beyond the wealthy developed world, where demand for organic originated, and touches production in developing countries. For example: Ten percent of the organic food consumed in America is imported from developing countries. Wal-Mart’s plans will further stimulate imports so more of the world will become cleaner and healthier.
Then there’s the promising fact that these economies of scale—resulting from the fast growth of Wal-Mart and Whole Foods—will increase people’s access to organic foods. The yield of the small-scale production of the past was mainly destined for the elite consumer while studies show that currently, two-thirds of Americans occasionally buy organic goods.
By comparison, the alleged loss of small-scale production and friendly farmers’ markets would seem to be a minor sacrifice.
And another thing: Who would we expect to grow all that food on a small scale?
According to figures from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), more than 60 percent of the world’s population worked the land back in 1960. By 2002, that percentage had fallen to 23 percent, and the rate of decline is increasing sharply. In the wealthier countries, the numbers dove from 23 percent in 1960 to seven percent in 2002. In countries like the Netherlands, Germany, France, the United Kingdom and the United States, the number of farmers as a percentage of the population is even smaller, a maximum of three percent. How could a transition to organic food production be realized on a small scale? That would require a massive return to the land, which is completely at odds with the major economic and demographic developments in the world.
But here again, the news is good: Large-scale growth is not occurring at the expense of small-scale cultivation. Over the past 40 years, the organic sector has been supported by demand. Price elasticity (whereby increased supply leads to lower prices) never played a role and no indications suggest this will change in the near future. It is therefore consumer demand that determines growth and that fact enables the small-scale farmer to continue producing alongside the food giants, and the farmers’ markets alongside the supermarkets.
It also means the multinationals cannot drive prices down. According to Mark Retzloff, founder and managing director of Aurora Organics, an American dairy company that pays its farmers nearly twice the conventional sector’s price for a litre of milk; compensates its energy consumption with wind-energy credits (units of wind energy you can use to balance fossil-fuel consumption); purifies its waste water and composts its manure: “If Wal-Mart comes to us and says it wants to buy milk for a lower price, we’ll say ‘no.’ And I’m sure Wal-Mart won’t be able to get milk elsewhere any cheaper.”
Retzloff—who previously co-founded and -owned Horizon Organics, one of America’s largest organic dairy companies—predicts that Wal-Mart’s decision to enter the organic market will actually push up prices for farmers. “Greater demand will lead to higher prices,” he explains.
Given that, how can Wal-Mart make good on its promise that prices for organic items will be no more than 10 percent above the rest of its range? Spokespeople from the retail giant say Wal-Mart’s large-scale, extremely efficient distribution-and-storage system guarantees it.
By comparison, local production can’t help but fall short. “Buying local” would mean that good like oranges, tea and tomatoes would only be available in season and certain areas would never have access. Mark Retzloff says: “The benefits of oranges outweigh the fact of whether they are local or not.”
So is there nothing wrong with increasing the scale of organic production? That’s the wrong question. Instead of criticizing current developments, the organic pioneers must now focus on strengthening the sector and the harmonious ideals that form its foundation. Four action steps spring to mind:
Tightening organic certification standards. Higher standards will further promote the health of people, animals and the environment. In the United States, for example, organic milk can be produced by cows in that graze on soybeans in stalls in the desert and seldom see a field. Opportunistic producers are even lobbying to relax the current rules. That trend should be fiercely challenged as it’s a slippery slope indeed.
Including more information on labels. Labels already bear a lot of information. But in this case, the more transparency, the better. If consumers are aware of where their food comes from and how it is made, they can make more responsible, better-informed choices. This policy would also benefit local production.
Adopting fair-trade policies. Organic production assumes respect for humans and nature. Fair trade and fair prices for producers in developing countries should be part of this. At the same time, fair-trade production should be organic.
>Maintaining realistic energy prices. Oil is too cheap, which encourages transportation that pollutes and large-scale economies in which the human element suffers. In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, journalist Michael Pollan quotes a scientist from Cornell University who calculated that for every calorie of prewashed, packaged arugula leaves transported from the West Coast to the East Coast of the United States, a whopping 57 calories are spent on fossil fuels. This is, of course, absurd—just as it is absurd to import bottles of water from the French Alps to sell in North America. Such scenarios are only possible when energy prices are too low; in Europe, where gas prices peak at more than twice their level in the United States, local products have a distinct edge.
That last comment reflects a degree of realism that should serve as a signpost for everyone who wants to help the world progress. We have Whole Foods thanks to the pioneers of the 1960s. And thanks to those same pioneers, Wal-Mart and Safeway are now filling shelves with organic products. All of this remains a work in progress. There is a lot of room and need for improvement. But when I think back to those Saturday mornings at the health-food store 40 years ago, I can only conclude one thing: A dream has come true.