Corporate Organic and Organic Lite
Corporate Organic and Organic Lite

Corporate Organic and Organic Lite

6 min read
Written by Theresa Schumilas

Organic disrupts. Its very existence makes us ask ourselves lots of questions about our food. How was this produced? Who grew it? What was applied to it when I wasn’t looking? These questions lead us to spiral down into a world of fear and distrust. Ironically, it is fear and distrust of the dominant food system that led us to ask these questions about organic in the first place. So it all becomes a vicious cycle of questions for which we either don’t have or don’t like the answers.

So we create myths.

I started to dispel some of these myths in a previous blog, but here, given it is organic week, I want to respond to two prevalent organic myths — the Organic is Corporate Myth and the Organic-Lite Myth.

The Organic is Corporate Myth

Think back to the world that spawned the organic movement. It was the era of DDT and Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”. (Really — even if you are someone who doesn’t click through all the hyperlinks in a blog — you have to check out the DDT one. This was a real advertisement of the day.) Into this world came a group of farmers who thought to disrupt what was going on around them. Their idea of producing food with greater respect for nature caught on quickly throughout the global North where industrialized agriculture was setting down its synthetic fertilizer and fossil fuel driven roots. These organic pioneers were (and still are) bucking a serious trend that governments, industry, academics, popular press and most farmers were totally behind.

Organic food systems were barely out of this starting gate when the “conventionalization thesis” emerged from academics studying food systems in California (see for example, Agrarian Dreams by Julie Guthman). It was quickly taken and accelerated by the popular press, who saw organic pioneers as a bit flaky anyway. Basically the hypothesis was that when organic systems increase in scale, they lose their ‘alternativeness’ and what began as a values based movement ends up being motivated increasingly by economic value in the marketplace.

A lot of research on organic systems around the world since that time has moved beyond this early idea. But the newer research has not caught on in the popular press so the myths that organic systems are conventionalized and corporatized prevail. Indeed research pretty much everywhere but the US these days is suggesting that strong foundational values continue to drive organic systems. While there are large scaled and even corporate organic actors in the organic sector, there are also more small scaled and decidedly not corporate actors and the corporate and non-corporate systems are integrated in interesting ways.

This past summer, I had the opportunity of traveling around the province interviewing farmers, processors, handlers and retailers as part of a larger project to characterize Ontario’s organic sector for the Organic Council of Ontario. Results are being published in a series of factsheets that will be released throughout the next few weeks. I found that while there are some large corporate style operators in the province, Ontario’s organic system continues to be guided by the alternative ideology that began the movement decades ago. Organic farmers for example, see on-farm practices as inseparable from social issues such as rebuilding rural communities, and they often deliberately avoid competition with other organic producers and look instead for mutually beneficial collaborations.

I found a commitment among organic producers to helping and mentoring new entrants, sometimes by letting young farmers use part of their land to get started, and offering them training, access to equipment, inputs, on farm facilities and markets. Almost every single interviewee referred to the need to find ways to make organic food affordable for the people who need it the most. Firms and farms in Ontario’s organic sector are actively involved with fundraisers and “Grow a Row” programs in partnership with food-related social justice organizations. They regularly offer barter or other programs where people can exchange food for labour so they can access high quality local organic food with dignity. I also found progressive labour practices throughout the sector such as assisting workers with training or even assisting them with accessing capital and making down payments on their own farms.

It isn’t that there are not corporate interests in the organic sector. With historic growth of 20% a year how could there not be? The point is — the small number of corporate oriented players in the sector is counterbalanced by a strong and vibrant group of social businesses operating under a different logic and frequently through co-operative business structures. One example is a newLocal Organic Food Co-ops Network with members across the province who are growing, processing, distributing, retailing, cooking, and supporting local, organic, and fairly-traded food. In fact, one of Canada’s most successful organic companies — Organic Meadow — is structured around a cooperative that returns profits back to farmers not corporate executives. Their CEO and staff sing songs and post them on-line. Can you imagine CEOs from North America’s top 100 food corporations doing that? Organic is not corporate.

The Organic Lite Myth

The term “organic lite” was coined in reference to watering down organic standards in the US, in response to corporate lobbying. However Canada’s organic sector had the benefit of watching that experience of corporate influence when it established its own regulation. To avoid the same problem, the Canadian organic sector remained firm that, while the regulation and its enforcement teeth would be a responsibility of government, the actual details of the standard — would be decided in a national democratic process.

Depending on your perspective, either the devil or god lies in the details of organic and other standards. But I suspect not many consumers read them. (If you have trouble sleeping tonight you can find the Canadian organic standard posted here.) We ask if something is organic without really knowing what we are asking about, so we have no way of knowing if the answer makes sense or not. Our ignorance makes it quite easy for a marketer to position their product in a way that takes advantage of the growing consumer interest in health and organics. So it is our ignorance as consumers coupled with the inaction of governments that invites confusing claims such as “natural”, “free-range”, “local”, “sustainably grown” and more. We need to think critically about food standards and the important question, as Dr. Harriet Friedmann has noted is — Whose rules rule?

Eggs are a good example.

There is a lot of confusion about regular eggs, free-range eggs and organic eggs. An estimated 98% of our eggs are from hens kept in “battery cages” where they can’t nest, perch or take dust baths as hens like to do. These practices are sanctioned in the “National Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Pullets, Layers and Spent Fowl”. These are industry-written, voluntary, best practices. The code specifies that laying hens in cages need to have about the size of a piece of letterhead in space (432 square cm). They never stretch their wings; never go outside, never peck on the ground (in fact their beaks are removed to prevent pecking in such confined quarters). Their feed is not specified so it could be anything. For this you pay about $4.00/dozen.

But consumers — perhaps like us — want to eat eggs that are produced more ethically. Many consumers are choosing to eat “free- range” eggs and they believe they are basically the same things as organic eggs, since those standards are watered down by corporate interest anyway. Consumers have been led to believe that “free-range” eggs are worth more — $5.00 a dozen, because the chickens are treated so much better. Indeed, the industry code of practice for “free range” eggs does suggest that the hens should have more space — about the size of a folded newspaper. But — there are no specifications about what they are scratching at or what they are fed or how sickness should be handled. Producers are not required to provide nesting boxes, perches or litter for dust baths, and there are no audits of the farms to ensure compliance. So basically for that bit of extra space — you pay another $1/dozen.

In comparison, the Canadian organic standards specify that chickens must have about 5 times the space as that pathetic caged bird, plus nesting boxes, perches and litter for those much-desired dust baths. Their feed has to also be organic so can’t be produced with synthetic fertilizers, chemical soil fumigation, pesticides or GMO inputs of any kind. The birds cannot be treated with antibiotics or hormones and those ladies can go outside whenever they like! Plus a third party inspector acts as your eyes and ears on the farm and verifies compliance with the standards. On my farm, these “organic-lite” eggs sell for $5.50/dozen — so you get all this for an additional 50 cents.

Which standards seem lite to you?