The organic food industry is experiencing growing pains as it attempts to gain market share and assume a more prominent place among U.S. food growers, processors, and consumers.
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Explore This IssueFebruary/March 2012
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U.S. organic food sales exceeded $26.7 billion in 2010. While this represents only 4% of the $673 billion combined market for all food, organic sales increased by nearly 8% over 2009, compared with a less-than-1% growth rate for all foods, according to the Organic Trade Association (OTA). Over the past decade, organic food sales have grown at an average annual rate approaching 20%.
As dramatic as that growth is, industry experts say it will take a concerted effort for organic food to make additional gains. Part of the difficulty lies in consumer confusion, with many believing that foods labeled “natural” or “locally grown”—designations with no specific requirements—have as much value as those labeled “organic,” foods that are grown and processed according to USDA standards and certified by state agencies and USDA-accredited organizations (see Food Quality magazine, November/December 2010).
Another challenge, especially during periods of prolonged economic downturn, is the price premium commanded by organic food. Nevertheless, many consumers believe organic food is safer and more nutritious than conventionally produced products. Two-thirds of U.S. consumers buy organic foods at least occasionally, and nearly one-third purchase some organic products weekly.
But as the organic industry continues to mature, long-simmering internal tensions are beginning to bubble to the surface. Some experts believe these differences, unless resolved, may hinder industry efforts to expand.
Purists and Pragmatists
Generalizations can be misleading, but analysts speak of two main camps in the organic food movement: purists and pragmatists. Purists tend to be passionate about the superiority of organic food for human and animal health as well as for the sustainability of farming and protection of the environment. To purists, organic is more than a food choice; it is also a philosophy and a cause.
“They feel it is more important to keep organic farming pure,” said Charles Benbrook, PhD, chief scientist at The Organic Center, a nonprofit research institute in Boulder, Colo. “They want to promote all sorts of social, cultural, and economic justice issues.” For instance, purists tend to believe that organic farms should remain small in acreage and not contract with agribusiness. They reject the notion that organic crops should “coexist” with transgenic or genetically engineered (GE) crops, such as alfalfa, sugar beets, or corn. “This demand for purity is one of the things holding back the growth of organic food and farming,” Dr. Benbrook told Food Quality magazine. “It denies the benefits of organic food to the vast majority of Americans.”
In the other camp are the organic pragmatists. They also believe in the health and environmental benefits of organic farming and food, but they argue that meaningful agricultural change is more likely to come about through compromise and cooperation with government and agribusiness than through unconditional opposition. Many pragmatists acknowledge that trace amounts of GE contamination can be present in organic crops but argue that those are unlikely to harm people, livestock, or the environment. Pragmatists are more interested in promoting the growth of organic food than in waging war against big business and big government.
“This demand for purity is one of the things holding back the growth of organic food and farming. It denies the benefits of organic food to the vast majority of Americans.”
—Charles Benbrook, PhD, The Organic Center, Boulder, Colo.
“Should we avoid GM [genetically modified] contamination? Absolutely. Should we tell consumers that GE contamination threatens the future of organic food and farming? Not at all,” Dr. Benbrook said. He was referring to recent protests against Whole Foods Market, a nationwide chain of more than 300 natural and organic food stores, organized by the Organic Consumers Association, a nonprofit group that campaigns for “health, justice, and sustainability.” In May, the group urged consumers to boycott Whole Foods because it claimed the food chain was not strong enough in its opposition to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food. “It’s a classic case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater,” Dr. Benbrook said.
Whole Foods maintains it has always opposed the presence of GMOs in food but acknowledges that some non-organic foods it sells may contain GMOs. The chain supports mandatory product labeling, something not required under federal law but is being pursued by several states, including New York, California, Oregon, Vermont, and Alaska.
Ready for Roundup?
Whole Foods was one of several organizations and companies that last year urged the USDA to establish coexistence guidelines to help protect organic alfalfa from GE contamination. Suggestions included placing geographical restrictions on where GE alfalfa could be planted, requiring buffer zones between GE and non-GE crops, and forcing biotech companies to indemnify organic growers from economic losses should their crops become contaminated with transgenes. Other organizations involved in the talks included the National Cooperative Grocers Association, the National Organic Coalition, and the OTA. Their efforts, however, were not successful.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has spearheaded meetings between GE and non-GE stakeholders, including Whole Foods and other pragmatists, to discuss “feasible strategies for co-existence”
—one of several efforts the agency is making to build bridges.
One GE crop, Roundup Ready alfalfa, was developed by Monsanto Co. and Forage Genetics International and approved by the USDA for planting in 2005. GE alfalfa is genetically modified to resist the herbicide glycophosate, which is marketed by Monsanto as Roundup. Farmers who plant Roundup Ready alfalfa can more easily control weeds by blanket spraying their fields with the herbicide. In 2007, after several environmental and organic groups had sued the USDA, a federal court halted the planting of GE alfalfa until the USDA completed a full environmental impact statement (EIS). In December 2010, the USDA released its EIS and in January 2011 announced it would fully deregulate GE alfalfa, allowing the crop to be planted with no restrictions other than grower agreements with Forage Genetics to maintain minimum “isolation” distances between fields.
The decision shocked many in the organic community who believed they had gained some measure of influence over the biotech industry when judicial and regulatory challenges had successfully forestalled the planting of some GE crops. But the bad news was only beginning. About a week later, in February 2011, the USDA announced it would partially deregulate Roundup Ready sugar beets, allowing that crop to be planted this year as an interim measure after a different federal court in 2010 halted its use pending an EIS. As with GE alfalfa, growers of GE sugar beets must enter into and abide by a “compliance agreement” that outlines how the crop can be grown. The USDA plans to complete its EIS by June 2012 and issue a final decision sometime afterward.
But that wasn’t the end of it. In mid-February 2011, the USDA announced its decision to deregulate corn genetically engineered to produce alpha-amylase, an enzyme that helps break down starch into sugar, facilitating the production of ethanol for biofuel. Growers of the crop, developed by Syngenta and marketed as Enogen, must abide by a compliance agreement that specifies both the planting distance from food corn mills and details regarding harvest cleaning and transportation. Still, corn millers remain concerned about the potential for contamination.
Litigation involving Roundup Ready alfalfa and sugar beets is pending and likely to be brought in other jurisdictions. “Our only cause for optimism is in the courts,” said Mark Kastel, cofounder of the Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based farm policy research group. “I can’t tell you I hold out much hope from the executive or legislative branches of government,” Kastel told Food Quality magazine.
Efforts are under way to find common ground or, at least, peaceful coexistence. USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack has spearheaded meetings between GE and non-GE stakeholders, including Whole Foods and other pragmatists, to discuss “feasible strategies for coexistence,” as the agency put it. Additional efforts at bridge-building by the USDA will include in-house research into preserving the genetic integrity of alfalfa seeds; providing third-party audits and verification of industry-led stewardship initiatives; and re-establishing two USDA advisory committees to address an array of biotechnology and agriculture issues, including the possibility of creating an indemnity fund to compensate organic farmers for their losses.
In June, the USDA announced the appointments of 22 members to the reactivated Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture. Panel members include representatives from the biotech industry, farming communities, the seed industry, food manufacturers, consumer groups, and the organic food industry, including Dr. Benbrook.
Some organic advocates are not impressed. Re-establishing these advisory committees “appears to be window dressing,” said Jim Riddle, organic outreach coordinator of the University of Minnesota’s Southwest Research and Outreach Center in Winona. “Even if they are fully well-intentioned, if they come up with any substantive proposals that would cause the biotech industry to indemnify non-GM growers for losses incurred through genetic trespass, I don’t think it has a chance of seeing the light of day,” Riddle told Food Quality magazine. As Kastel puts it: “Coexistence is totally inadequate.”
The pragmatists continue to seek solutions. A number of coalitions and industry groups have been formed to discuss transgenes and other issues. The latest such policy group is called AGree, a bipartisan organization launched in May to tackle overarching issues involving nutrition, the economy, environment, and production. AGree is funded by the Ford Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, among others.
The influence of the pragmatics is also a function of the organic industry’s growth. Dozens of organic companies have been acquired by large conventional food processors. Nearly half of the 30 largest food processors have acquired or entered into a strategic alliance with an organic brand.
“Our current food system is broken for farmers, consumers, and the environment,” said Gary Hirshberg, president and chief executive of organic yogurt company Stonyfield Farm and one of AGree’s leaders. “We must move beyond the political knee-jerk defense of traditional agriculture and face the need for change armed with real-world, scientific facts and analysis that AGree can provide,” he said in a statement.
The influence of the pragmatics is also a function of the organic industry’s growth. Dozens of successful organic companies have been acquired by large conventional food processing companies. Dean Foods, for instance, owns Horizon Organic dairy and WhiteWave/Silk brand soy milk. The Coca-Cola Co. owns Odwalla juices. Nearly half of the 30 largest food processing companies have acquired or entered into a strategic alliance with an organic brand, says Philip H. Howard, PhD, assistant professor of community, food, and agriculture at Michigan State University in East Lansing.
This trend is to be expected as the organic industry grows. As for future acquisitions, most of the pioneering organic companies that had been available for acquisition have been snapped up, and many of the older, large companies that are still independent have decided to remain so as a matter of principle. “Most of the acquisitions now are of companies that started later and have been able to reach a size to make an attractive takeover target,” Dr. Howard told Food Quality magazine.
Ted Agres is a writer based in Laurel, Md. Reach him at email@example.com