The organic foods movement, born on the pesticide-free ideals of back-to-the-land farmers, marked a milestone with last week's launch of federal standards for labeling. Under the new rules, organic labels now assure consumers that meat or poultry comes from animals not given any growth hormones and that crops were grown on land not fertilized with sewage sludge or chemicals.
New USDA regulations have gone into effect regarding labeling of organic foods.
But the standards come as increasing numbers of the original small farms are being taken over by large food corporations tapping into a booming market.
That shift has sparked a debate in the industry.
Many organic farm pioneers complain that the corporate farmers are using big-business tactics on what was once an idealistic undertaking.
"When we said organic, we meant local. We meant healthful. We meant being true to the ecologies of regions. We meant mutually respectful growers and eaters. We meant social justice and equality," writes Joan Dye Gussow, professor emeritus of nutrition at Columbia University, in last month's issue of Organic Gardening.
Some in the organic community point to the economic fallout as companies buy up organic labels and lower the prices they pay to small farmers. Warren Weber of Star Route Farms, one of the first organic farmers in California, once got $11 a box for the popular mesclun salad mix. Now that mega-organic farms dwarf his 40 acres, he says he gets $6 to $7 a box. But, he notes, "if you look at the price of the vegetables, they haven't changed. The mesclun mixes are still $5.99 or $6.99 a pound."
Others say only corporate efficiency can meet the demand for the pesticide-free produce and grains Americans crave. Organics still account for 1% or less of the total food industry, with projected sales of $11 billion this year, but the market segment is racking up 20% growth for each year of the past decade. That's made the business attractive to bigger food corporations. As a result:
Organic stalwarts such as Cascadian Farm (cereals, frozen fruits, vegetables and entrees) and Muir Glen (canned tomatoes, pasta sauces and salsa) are now owned by General Mills.
Knudsen (fruit juices) is owned by Smuckers.
Kashi (cereals) belongs to Kellogg's.
For Gene Kahn, president and CEO of Small Planet Foods of Sedro-Woolley, Wash., and a vice president for General Mills, which bought Small Planet Foods in 1999, bigger can be better.
"We're farming either directly or through contracts about 5,000 acres of vegetable crops, and those farmers are not using toxic pesticides. We're changing, acre by acre, the way people farm, and that's something to celebrate."
Organic consumers are changing, too. In the beginning, organic meant fresh vegetables, grains and beans — and the time to cook them. The new crossover shopper wants convenience, with an organic label.
"Shoppers who are just discovering organics are relying on packaged and boxed foods rather than the fresh foods," says Trudy Bialic of PCC Natural Markets in the Seattle area.
"You can buy an organic TV dinner now. There are frozen organic pizzas, instant meals in a bag. It's a spectrum. People gradually arrive at buying more whole foods. But those packaged foods are really important bridge items."
But all those TV dinners and organic pizzas mean producers need a large, steady supply of raw materials, not "I've got tomatoes ripe this week but no zucchini" that is the reality of small-scale farming.
Some small farmers have found new venues for their goods. Star Route Farm's Weber says he used to be disturbed by the changes he's seen over the past 10 years, but he now sells directly to consumers at farmers' markets and through local stores and restaurants.
"I don't begrudge the change in the industry because it means more ground being converted from conventional agriculture, and that's good for the environment," he says
His sales are now almost entirely to local farmers' markets, area restaurants and high-end specialty-food markets, where signs or menu notes are likely to tell customers which farm the produce came from. Another trend is toward community-supported agriculture, known as CSA: Consumers contract directly with farmers to get weekly boxes of whatever crops are in season.
"We're building consciousness about food and the environment," Weber says. "The big guys have run away with the ball and they have another game going on, so we have to create another game for ourselves."
Written by: Elizabeth Weise
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