Corporate Influence in Organic Food

Last Sunday, the New York Times ran an article asking whether the organic food industry has been oversized — whether corporate influence in the industry has changed the meaning of organic beyond its initial intent and purpose, both co-opting and corrupting the process of setting organic standards and of shaping the direction of the industry. The article points specifically to the declining number of independent organic companies remaining (many have been bought by big food corporations), to the role of big corporations and the profit motive in setting the standards that govern the organic food industry (more than 250 nonorganic substances are now allowed in organic food, up from 77 in 2002, when the national standards went into effect), and to the makeup of the USDA-appointed board that actually sets these standards (often the representatives have corporate ties).

The article references an important and enlightening report by the Cornucopia Institute called “The Organic Watergate,” which goes into detail about what it took for certain synthetic substances — Martek’s DHA algal oil and ARA fungal oil — to be approved last year for use in organic food. The report points to the money Martek spent to lobby the decision-makers, and to shortcomings in both the board and technical review processes. The report is worth reading, as it exposes the standards process as one heavily shaped by corporate influence, not sound science, and surely without much attention paid to environmental integrity or public health.

It should be no surprise that Big Food has become a big player in the organic industry. When there’s a profit to be made, profit-driven enterprises will find a way to get in the game, whether by buying up the independent organic companies or by creating organic products of their own. That’s simply how our economic system works. Big Food would argue that there are a lot of mouths to feed, and that they can spread the organic movement farther and wider than small, family farms can. In theory, the wider availability of organic food is a good thing, but what about when factoring in the cost of sacrificing many of the foundational ideals of the organic movement pioneers (small farms, polycultures, care for the earth, no synthetic substances)?

Purists are right to be dismayed. We surely wish that organic could be different than the typical industry, that it could represent something beyond profit, beyond the novelty factor of capitalism that values the new and space-age food-esque product over what works best for nature and for our bodies — simplicity, fruits and vegetables, minimally-processed foods. We certainly wish organic could take the health of the land and of people into account. Our lives and bodies depend on this, after all.

Although the standards have been watered down since 2002, the standards were somewhat incomplete from the beginning. They never said anything about workers’ rights, for instance. The Agricultural Justice Project has created a new label — Food Justice Certified — to spread the word about farms that are not only growing food in an ecologically sound way, but are also treating their workers in a humane way, not like interchangeable parts of a vast machine. The USDA Organic label still means something, but it is important to be cognizant of what the label encompasses and does not encompass. Increasingly, it encompasses synthetic materials that are anathema to purists. And it has never encompassed workers’ rights or more explicit support for small farms that cultivate polycultures.

To fill in the missing spaces, the best things we can do (beyond simply growing our own food) is support farmers markets, where we can connect to the people growing our food and find out for ourselves exactly how the food is grown and how the workers there are treated. Beyond that, we can always continue working to be knowledgable about these issues while helping spread this consciousness to others.

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