Since the 1990s, we've seen an explosion in the availability of organic produce in grocery stores across North America. The question is, obviously, just how organic is this food?
Profit margins in the food business have been flat for decades in the grocery biz, with profit growth coming from squeezing growers and upping prices rather than from increased sales. The one bright spot has been in organic food sales. Organics have been posting growth rates of twenty to thirty percent yearly since the 1970s. Impressive, but still too small a market share to be noticeable until the 90s.
One of the reasons for this is that organic could mean different things in different places. Standards for the organic label varied from state to state and province to province. As Sally Miller details in her book Edible Action: Food Activism and Alternative Economics, "organic" was a dialogue between growers and customers, often mediated by distributor co-operatives. This is borne out by my experience as a grower; we marketed directly to the end consumer, and quickly found that we weren't selling vegetables as much as we were establishing relationships with consumers. People came to our stall not only for fresh and pesticide-free food, but for contact with the growers, for narratives about the food, and generally for a sense of community.
An example; our zucchini were often not perfectly formed, having a surface flaw and being kinked or bent instead of straight. When asked about it, we could relate the narrative about how our pesticide walked about on two legs and cackled. The flaws were frequently where a chicken had pecked a bug off the zucchini and left a spot of damage behind. This narrative offered our customers a chance to relate to the production of the food they were buying; to the fact that there were free-range chickens wandering about the farm, that more traditional farm practices were observed, and that food was not actually perfect in appearance, but should be modified by its environment. Zucchini that were imperfect in appearance would still fetch a premium price because the narrative added value that a surface flaw would normally have removed.
We also heard from our customers what they wanted and what they needed from us. When we couldn't supply a variety or a product, we would cheerfully point them at a grower we trusted who did carry what they needed. Viewed strictly from a marketing point of view, this actually served to connect us to customers rather than send them away. We formed a sense of community, so even though we were competing on one level, we were also all trying to get to the same place--high-quality fresh food in the hands of the people who were going to eat it. Even when we didn't have product that customers wanted, they would still stop by our stall to talk with us. The relationship was more important than the commerce. And more than once we would make a trip from the farm to town on a non-market day to deliver a small amount of fresh produce to a customer for a special occasion. The volume we delivered was never enough to pay for our effort, but the relationships forged meant that their lives mattered to us, just as ours mattered to them.
So the organic food movement has always been about more than mere product replacement; an Alar®-free apple for a treated one, or a non-GMO tomato for a GMO one. Organic has always been about local, about relationships, about sustainability (Miller writes about customers offering to pay more than the requested price in order to ensure a grower's long-term viability), with holistic production. Organic standards have difficulty with most of these concepts, as it is difficult to quantify them. Standards can state that a farm must produce to standard for (typically) three years before being granted organic certification. But that doesn't guarantee ecological sensitivity, or best practices, or even sustainability. Organic regulations allow for organically-fed and hormone free cattle to be raised under feedlot conditions, for example. That is because organic certification standards set minimum requirements, and pay no attention to aspirational goals.
When the USDA got into the act of setting national standards in the 1990s, proposed regulation would have allowed GMOs, irradiated food, and CAFOs (Confined Animal Feedlot Operations) to all be considered part of an "organic" farm's operations. it took a quarter-million letters to convince the USDA to raise their standards. But the goal wasn't to improve the production of food, but rather to allow conventional food producers to appropriate the most lucrative aspects of organic food provision, and to ignore the agronomic and marketing aspects of sustainable agriculture. In other words, to make an alternative economic structure safe for capitalism.
So current organic foods, while perhaps better than their conventional counterparts, don't really measure up to the aspirational goals of the organic food movement. An example of this would be the explosion of the 100 Mile food movement. Local was always a part of the organic food movement. But the concept has been hived off from the organic standards, replacing local community-building food production with independent third-party certification. So the industrial scale food system has successfully co-opted the organic food movement, converting it into a profit centre instead. So we have seen the use of the phrase "organic food" fall off, and the use of "sustainable agriculture" take its place. "Sustainable" too will be quickly co-opted, this is part of the evolutionary aspect of modern capitalism. But it is the aspirational goals of the local, sustainable food movement that cannot be successfully co-opted by industrial food producers. As long as consumers and producers pursue dialogue and community-building, we'll continue to get better, fresher, sustainable food.
Sally Miller. Edible Action: Food Activism and Alternative Economics. Fernwood Publishing. 2008.