Organic food has gone large scale, global, and corporate. Yet the growing popularity of organic food with consumers is cold comfort to many small farmers who saw the organic label as their niche their way to survive in an increasingly corporate and globalized marketplace.
If factory farms can earn organic certification if organically labeled crops can be imported from countries with lower production standards and labor costs what will separate them from the local farmer's product on the grocery-store shelf? Growing food organically was a rejection of the use of chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers that had become the crutch of large-scale agriculture.
However, many family farmers also saw organic production as a way to compete with the big guys a way to get a better price than larger processors were willing to offer.
That strategy worked, and as demand for organic products increased, the industry created a set of standards spelling out just what it means to be "organic."
Yet, even as the US Department of Agriculture prepares to finalize the rules for products bearing the organic label, the advantages to family farmers in the marketplace are vanishing.
Moreover, many people cringe at the thought of big food conglomerates selling under the organic label. We've invested the term "organic" with more attributes than it literally contains.
The organic label describes only one part of how food is grown. Yet we associate the term with small, local producers because that's what the original back-to-the-land farmers were. It's hard to think of using "organic farmer" without the word "small" somehow attached.
The mainstreaming of organic foods is a good thing even at the corporate agriculture level. Corporate co-opting of organic agriculture is changing the norm offering healthier foods with less chemical pollution to a greater number of people than had access to these foods before.
The term "organic" may seem to mean a little less, but as its rarity fades and popularity with consumers grows, the assumptions of corporate agriculture could change for the better. Meanwhile, the more land in organic production, the fewer petrochemicals put into the soil, water, air, and of course our food.
However, none of this helps the family farmers who now have lost their niche in the marketplace. If organic no longer necessarily means grown on family farms, how is the small farmer going to survive in the marketplace?
The answer is already building around the country. It goes by different names but the basic premise is this: Food grown and processed locally is more sustainable for the global environment, as well as the local land, the farmer, and the community. It is also fresher and may be healthier as well.
In Portland, Ore. farmers are working with the local chapter of the Chefs Collaborative to ensure that chefs feature local and seasonal foods in their restaurants and promote them within the community thus giving the local farmer a higher price and profile for his product.
Chefs are important because a single chef's buying decision determines the foods served to thousands of people each month.
A farmer-chef directory in Portland provides a guide to local and seasonal products. The directory links supply and demand for local produce and strengthens connections between chefs and small-scale farmers. Chefs buy directly from the farmer, which gives producers a bigger part of the consumer's food dollar. In return, the chefs get better-tasting and fresher food all while helping to create local, seasonal, and sustainable food networks.
Additionally, farmers' markets are springing up all over the country, featuring a marketplace where farmers can sell directly to consumers usually for much better prices than offered by bulk processors. These markets offer an opportunity for consumers to get the freshest food possible as well as to see the faces of the people who grow the food they eat.
The next step is getting shelf space in local stores with signs that educate consumers on who the farmer is and where the product came from thus offering the choice between the local product over the corporate or imported.
The advantage small farmers can exploit and that corporate farms cannot is their relationship with the consumers. Building relationships is more important than labels in the long run. Even if a farmer can't get certified because of the costs, they can explain the practices they use to the people who buy their food.
These relationships are being built through food co-ops, regional food networks, farmer-chef connections, and community-supported agriculture programs where individual households invest in the farm's production.
The corporatization of organic food has made us realize none too soon that sustainable food is more than just the absence of pesticides. It has awakened us to the more complex relationship required if we are to pursue sustainable food production in our communities and around the world.
Ed Hunt is editor in chief of Tidepool.org.