Wednesday, February 01, 2006

When Organic Goes Corporate...

Here's a discussion that I clearly can't get enough of: what's the price we pay for the "big boxing" of organic foods? Canada's Rabble News has published an article detailing the big problems that underlie the corporatization of organics:
The Big Boxes of the new suburban landscape are going organic. “We are particularly excited about organic food, the fastest-growing category in all of food,” said Wal-Mart’s CEO Lee Scott at a recent shareholders meeting, according to The New York Times. Loblaws' President's Choice Organics line has expanded beyond organic produce to include organic chicken noodle soup, frozen entrees and cookies.

Even products that look so wholesome that one imagines they were made in a local hippie's kitchen often carry a multinational logo. Phil Howard, a postdoctoral researcher at the Centre for Agro-ecology and Sustainable Food Systems, notes that according to one estimate, 40 per cent of the packaged organic foods on the shelves of natural food stores are produced by some of the biggest companies in the world.

Kellogg owns Kashi, a supplier of organic whole grain cereals. Kraft has bought out Boca, a maker of organic soy burgers. The corporate interest in organics goes beyond food to include things like organic cotton and organic seeds. Select Wal-Mart stores now sell a limited line of organic cotton supplies for yoga, bath and baby.

M&M/Mars has bought Seeds of Change, an organic seed company. “Many organic seed varieties are now available only through a giant seed company called Seminis, which earlier this year was acquired by Monsanto,” reports Howard.

The corporate takeover of organics can be seen as both a success and a failure for the organic movement, believes Howard. “On the one hand, the acreage devoted to organic production, without synthetic pesticides, increases every year to meet the market demand. On the other hand, some of the ideals of the organic movement, which was in a large part a response to industrial agriculture, have fallen by the wayside.” Organic agriculture increasingly resembles the global, industrial agriculture system it was created to combat, says Howard.

Kneen agrees. “Even though a 50-acre field of broccoli may not be sprayed with noxious chemicals, it is still mono-cropped, mechanically harvested and transported thousands of miles before it is eaten.” Kneen argues that organic or not, industrial agriculture negatively impacts the environment through the loss of crop and seed diversity and fossil fuels required for large machinery and long-distance shipping.
That's the rub, isn't it? Ultimately, the popularity of organic foods may be turning it into one of the most successful greenwashing tools ever, because the food is still organic, even if it comes from monocropped fields thousands of miles away. We're falling victim (once again) to the "single answer" problem -- organic is good, but becomes a problem if we look at outside of the whole system of agricultural production. I'm not sure what the answer is... farmer's markets and CSAs are certainly starting points, but unless we can make major changes in the food that appears on the grocery store shelves, they're only drops in the bucket...

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