Published in the Spring 2006 issue • Stir it Up
The Dirt on Corporate Organics
What comes to mind when you think of organic food? Fruit pocked with holes and wormy veggies? Food grown on small farms in a way that’s closer to the earth? Though this may have been the reality at one point, it’s now only partially true.
Nearly half of the products stocking the shelves of your average natural food store are now produced by large American-owned corporations. It’s their new niche market. Organic foods are being mass produced and sold at stores like Wal-Mart and Costco. Many Canadian grocery stores, such as the Loblaws-Provigo chain, feature wide aisles of these products. And now, just as the word “organic” is becoming mainstream, some purists are claiming that the meaning of the word has been subverted and weakened.
Think of the organic or natural food brands you know. Boca Foods burgers are produced by Kraft Foods. Imagine soy products, Earth’s Best and Yves Veggie Cuisine products are made by the Hain Celestial Group, which is partially owned by Heinz. General Mills, Kellogg’s, Dole, Pepsi, Campbell Soup Company and Unilever all produce and sell popular organic food products. But you wouldn’t know it because the products’ packaging doesn’t reveal their corporate sources. While plenty of organic food companies started off as independent businesses, they’ve been bought out by large corporations that are changing what it means to be organic.
Many consumers are being duped into thinking they’re living in accordance with the organic philosophy—producing food in a way that’s sustainable and in harmony with nature—when, in reality, they’re padding the pockets of the food industry’s CEOs. Unfortunately, the drive for profit doesn’t mesh with the organic ethos. In fact, modern organic agriculture developed in response to large-scale farming and corporate food production.
In North America, organics represents a sliver of the food industry’s annual sales—only about two percent. But the growth of sales is skyrocketing at the rate of 20 percent every year, a statistic that’s mind-boggling to businesspeople. As Michael Pollan wrote on progressive news site Common Dreams back in 2001, “Now that organic food has established itself as a viable alternative food chain, agribusiness has decided that the best way to deal with that alternative is simply to own it.”
Consumer advocacy groups fear that the popularization of organic foods is making the term meaningless. Traditionally, organic food is produced without the use of chemical fertilizers, antibiotics, growth stimulants, pesticides or genetic modification. Organic meat comes from animals that are fed only grass and aren’t given antibiotics. However, a country’s government defines what can be sold as organic in stores, meaning definitions vary from place to place and may not meet all the aforementioned specifications. Industry lobby groups are pushing to weaken the standards so that it’s easier to produce foods that can be labelled organic by law.
For example, the U.S.-based Organic Trade Association, a food industry lobby group, has been campaigning to allow the use of certain artificial ingredients in organic foods, claiming this will ensure the continued growth of the organic food industry. Groups such as these are especially powerful in the U.S., where politicians and big business are often strong allies. As Canadians, we should be wary of this trend because our southern neighbour produces about 90 percent of the organic foods found in our grocery stores.
If this is the slippery slope down which we’re going, will “organic” completely lose its meaning? Is the new flock of organic food buyers missing the point of eating organic?