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November 23-29, 2005

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Live Feed - Stett Holbrook

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Organic Is Dead, Long Live Organic


By Stett Holbrook

IT WAS ONLY a matter of time. Once agribusiness got wind of the rapid growth being enjoyed by the small-fry organic food industry, they wanted a piece of the pie. With sales now at $12 billion and annual growth at 20 percent, the organic market is a lucrative niche in the food industry, too lucrative for big business to ignore.

Now, some of the best-known organic brands are owned by large corporations with less than wholesome reputations. General Mills markets organic standard-bearers Cascadian Farms and Muir Glen, while dairy giant Dean Foods owns Horizon Organic, the largest organic milk producer in the United States. And if you need more evidence that the once crunchy organic industry is being co-opted by big business, Wal-Mart has declared its intent to enter the growing organic market in a big way.

At the same time that big business is getting into the act and putting price pressure on small, regionally based producers, corporate lackeys at the Department of Agriculture are doing their part to water down federal organic standards and make things easier for agribusiness to get into the organic market.

In characteristic venality, Republicans slipped in an amendment to the agricultural spending bill last month without significant debate. If approved, the legislation will overturn a prohibition on synthetic substances in organic foods. The stealth amendment will also allow the agriculture secretary to approve synthetic substances if no organic substitute is commercially available. That means innocuous substances like baking powder and ascorbic acid could be used, but critics say it could open the door to less savory chemicals far removed from the pure roots of organic food. While the amendment has the support of some organic advocates who say it will help the industry grow, I think it's another sign that the term "organic" has jumped the shark.

Some organic farmers such as Brentwood's (Contra Costa County) Knoll Farm have already given up on the organic label because the term doesn't mean what it once did for them. These renegades are counting on the relationships they've created with customers who are familiar with their farming methods to keep them in business instead of the organic label.

Increasingly, "sustainable" is becoming the word of choice among farmers who practice chemical-free, locally based, environmentally sensitive agriculture. Of course, sustainable is just another label and isn't regulated. Any one can declare themselves sustainable, but it's up to consumers to ferret out the truth. That means becoming a more educated consumer and getting to know where your food comes from. Shop at farmers markets. Talk to farmers. Become a member of a farm's community-supported agriculture (CSA) program. Doing the right thing takes a little work, but living in Northern California's cornucopia of small farms gives us a tremendous advantage.

While the demise of organic is lamentable, and probably inevitable, here's hoping the appropriation of the term spurs those who believe in the spirit and intent of the movement to continue to seek out farmers who are doing the right thing.


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