Opinion | The Organic-Industrial Complex (2022)

Almost overnight, the amount and variety of organic food on offer in my local supermarket has mushroomed. Fresh produce, milk, eggs, cereal, frozen food, even junk food — all of it now has its own organic doppelganger, and more often than not these products wind up in my shopping cart.

I like buying organic, for the usual salad of rational and sentimental reasons. At a time when the whole food system feels somewhat precarious, I assume that a product labeled organic is more healthful and safer, more "wholesome," though if I stop to think about it, I'm not exactly sure what that means. I also like the fact that by buying organic, I'm casting a vote for a more environmentally friendly kind of agriculture: "Better Food for a Better Planet," in the slogan of Cascadian Farm, one of the older organic brands. Just look at the happy Vermont cow on that carton of milk, wreathed in wildflowers like a hippie at her wedding around 1973.

Look a little closer, though, and you begin to see cracks in the pastoral narrative. It took me more than a year to notice, but the label on that carton of Organic Cow has been rewritten recently. It doesn't talk about happy cows and Vermont family farmers quite so much anymore, probably because the Organic Cow has been bought out by Horizon, a Colorado company. Horizon is a $127 million public corporation that has become the Microsoft of organic milk, controlling 70 percent of the retail market. Notice, too, that the milk is now "ultrapasteurized."

When I asked a local dairyman about this (we still have one or two in town) he said that the chief reason to ultrapasteurize — a high-heat process that "kills the milk," destroying its enzymes and many of its vitamins — is so you can sell milk over long distances. Arguably, ultrapasteurized organic milk is less nutritious than conventionally pasteurized conventional milk. This dairyman also bent my ear about Horizon's "factory farms" in the West, where thousands of cows that never encounter a blade of grass spend their days confined to a fenced dry lot, eating (certified organic) grain and tethered to milking machines three times a day.

He made me wonder whether I really knew what organic meant anymore. I understood organic to mean — in addition to being produced without synthetic chemicals — less processed, more local, easier on the animals. So I started looking more closely at some of the other organic items in the store. One of them in the frozen-food case caught my eye: an organic TV dinner (now there are three words I never expected to string together) from Cascadian Farm.

When I looked at the ingredients list, I felt a small jolt of cognitive dissonance. It included such enigmas of modern food technology as natural chicken flavor, high-oleic safflower oil, guar and xanthan gum, soy lecithin, carrageenan and natural grill flavor, this last culinary breakthrough achieved with something called "tapioca maltodextrin." The label assured me that most of these additives are organic, which they no doubt are, and yet they seem about as jarring to my conception of organic food as, say, a cigarette boat on Walden Pond. But then, so too is the fact (mentioned nowhere on the label) that Cascadian Farm has recently become a subsidiary of General Mills, the third biggest food conglomerate in North America.

Clearly, my notion of supermarket pastoralism has fallen hopelessly out of date. The organic movement has become a $7.7 billion business: Call it Industrial Organic. Although that represents but a fraction of the $400 billion business of selling Americans food, organic is now the fastest-growing category in the supermarket. Perhaps inevitably, this sort of growth — sustained at a steady 20 percent a year for more than a decade — has attracted the attention of the very agribusiness corporations to which the organic movement once presented a radical alternative and an often scalding critique.

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. The question is, What will they do with it? Is the word "organic" being emptied of its meaning?

It turns out the Cascadian Farm pictured on my TV dinner is a real farm in Rockport, Wash., that grows real food. Originally called the New Cascadian Survival and Reclamation Project, the farm was started in 1971 by Gene Kahn with the idea of growing food for the collective of environmentally minded hippies. At the time, Kahn was a 24-year-old grad-school dropout from the South Side of Chicago who, after reading "Silent Spring" and "Diet for a Small Planet," determined to go back to the land, there to change "the food system." He went on to become a pioneer of the organic movement and did much to move organic food into the mainstream.

Today, Cascadian Farm's farm is a General Mills showcase — "a PR farm," as its founder freely acknowledges — and Kahn, erstwhile hippie farmer, is a General Mills vice president and a millionaire. He has become one of the most successful figures in the organic community and also perhaps one of the most polarizing; for to many organic farmers and activists, he has come to symbolize the takeover of the movement by agribusiness.

When the organic industry embarked on a period of double-digit annual growth and rapid consolidation in the early 1990s, mainstream food companies began to take organic — or at least, the organic market — seriously. Gerber's, Heinz, Dole, ConAgra and ADM all created or acquired organic brands. Cascadian Farm itself became a miniconglomerate, acquiring Muir Glen, the California organic tomato processors, and the combined company changed its name to Small Planet Foods.

In 1990, Congress had passed the Organic Food Production Act. The legislation instructed the Department of Agriculture — which historically had treated organic farming with undisguised contempt — to establish uniform national standards for organic food and farming, fixing the definition of a word that had always meant different things to different people.

Yet while the struggle with agribusiness over the meaning of the word "organic" made headlines, another, equally important struggle was under way at the USDA between Big and Little Organic, and this time the outcome was decidedly more ambiguous. Could a factory farm be organic? Was an organic cow entitled to dine on pasture? Did food additives and synthetic chemicals have a place in organic processed food? If the answers to these seem like no-brainers, then you, too, are stuck in an outdated pastoral view of organic. Big Organic won all three arguments. The final standards, which will take effect next year, are widely seen as favoring the industry's big players.

No farm I have ever visited before prepared me for the industrial organic farms I saw in California. When I think about organic farming, I think family farm, I think small scale, I think hedgerows and compost piles and battered pickup trucks. I don't think migrant laborers, combines, thousands of acres of broccoli reaching clear to the horizon. To the eye, these farms look exactly like any other industrial farm in California — and in fact the biggest organic operations in the state today are owned and operated by conventional mega-farms. The same farmer who is applying toxic fumigants to sterilize the soil in one field is in the next field applying compost to nurture the soil's natural fertility.

Is there something wrong with this picture? It all depends on where you stand. Gene Kahn makes the case that the scale of a farm has no bearing on its fidelity to organic principles and that unless organic "scales up" it will "never be anything more than yuppie food."

Today five giant farms control fully one-half of the $400 million organic produce market in California. Partly as a result, the price premium for organic crops is shrinking. This is all to the good for expanding organic's market beyond yuppies, but it is crushing many of the small farmers for whom organic has represented a profitable niche.

My journey through the changing world of organic food has cured me of my naive supermarket pastoralism, but it hasn't put me off my organic feed. I still fill my cart with the stuff. The science might still be sketchy, but common sense tells me organic is better food — better, anyway, than the kind grown with organophosphates, with antibiotics and growth hormones, with cadmium and lead and arsenic (the EPA permits the use of toxic waste in fertilizers), with sewage sludge and animal feed made from ground-up bits of other animals as well as their own manure. Very likely it's better for me and my family, and unquestionably it is better for the environment.

For even if only 1 percent of the chemical pesticides sprayed by American farmers end up as residue in our food, the other 99 percent are going into the environment — which is to say, into our drinking water, into our rivers, into the air that farmers and their neighbors breathe. By now it makes little sense to distinguish the health of the individual from that of the environment.

Still, while it surely represents real progress for agribusiness to be selling organic food rather than fighting it, I'm not sure I want to see industrialized organic become the only kind in the market. Organic is nothing if not a set of values (this is better than that), and to the extent that the future of those values is in the hands of companies that are finally indifferent to them, that future will be precarious.

If the word "organic" means anything, it means that the way we grow food is inseparable from the way we distribute food, which is inseparable from the way we eat food. The original premise that got Kahn started in 1971 was that the whole industrial food system — and not just chemical agriculture — was in some fundamental way unsustainable. It's impossible to read the papers these days without beginning to wonder if this insight wasn't prophetic. I'm thinking, of course, of mad cow disease, of the 76 million cases of food poisoning every year (a rate higher than in 1948), of StarLink corn contamination, of the 20-year-old farm crisis, of hoof-and-mouth disease and groundwater pollution, not to mention industrial food's dubious "solutions" to these problems: genetic engineering and antibiotics and irradiation. Buying food labeled organic protects me from some of these things, but not all; industrial organic may well be necessary to fix this system, but it won't be sufficient.

Many of the values that industrial organic has jettisoned in recent years I find compelling, so I've started to shop with them in mind. I happen to believe, for example, that farms produce more than food; they also produce a kind of landscape, and if I buy my organic milk from halfway across the country, the farms I like to drive by every day will eventually grow nothing but raised ranch houses. So instead of long-haul ultrapasteurized milk from Horizon, I've started buying my milk, unpasteurized, from a dairy right here in town, Local Farm.

I'm also trying to get away from the transcontinental strawberry (5 calories of food energy, I've read, that it takes 435 calories of fossil-fuel energy to deliver to my door) and the organic "home meal replacement" sold in a package that will take 500 years to decompose.

Not all of the farmers I'm buying from are certified organic. But I talk to them, see what they're up to, learn how they define the term. Sure, it's more trouble than buying organic food at the supermarket, but I'm resolved to do it anyway.

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