The Creeping Corporate Threat to Organics

December 27, 2013 by Frontline Copy

by Faith Attaguile

corporate takeover of organics and organic farming

Broadly, organic farming involves two things. First, the organic content of produce and animal feed. Second, the holistic values of organic management. Without these holistic values, organic farmers say, the emperor has no clothes.

Eager to jump on the organic bandwagon and make a quick profit, corporate agribusinesses often follow the first but violate the second.

The result is a diminishment of the integrity of the Certified Organic label. And it puts corporate agribusinesses at an advantage over smaller-scale organic farmers who’s operations embrace the holistic values of organic management.

Is this development something that should concern everyone?

Deceitful Reverses

Big Food and Big Ag haven’t missed the fact that organic food is the fastest growing sector of the U.S. food industry. They’re getting in on the action and are transforming organic food and animal production into something it was never meant to be. For instance:

  • Gigantic dairy CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) sell “organic milk” from cows that may eat organic feed but never experience the freedom of a grassy pasture
  • Huge poultry CAFO’s raise “Free-range organic” chickens that may eat organic feed but never see the light of day
  • Companies source “organic” produce from places like China, a country riddled with food production scandals and where organic certification is iffy at best
  • Corporations make CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) deliveries using food from regular produce distributors, not certified organic farmers
  • Companies transport local organic food long distances to markets far away from its origin, contrary to organic best practices

The list goes on. The problem is that corporate agribusinesses — with profit as their first mantra — realize that many consumers now place a high value on the organic label. That translates into elevated prices at the supermarket. Such corporations see nothing wrong with sacrificing ethical management for higher profit margins.

By violating the holistic, ethical approach to organics and bending the rules, such corporations are able to sell their products cheaper than those of organic farmers whose production costs are higher because they refuse to bend these rules.

What happened? To answer that question, some background on the origins of organic farming is needed.


local foodThe Origins of Organics

It’s interesting to note that before WWII, most farmers in the United States practiced organic management.

Among other things, they recycled and successfully used the best organic fertilizer available: Animal and poultry manure.

The post-WWII world changed all that.

With huge leftover stocks of ammonium nitrate munitions laying about, the idea took hold to repurpose them as fertilizers to sell to farmers. In this way, widespread use of synthetic fertilizers in agriculture became the norm.

Once synthetic fertilizer madness gripped conventional agriculture, it didn’t take long before the development and use of other toxic chemicals in the form of pesticides and herbicides spread throughout conventional agricultural production as well.

Organics were out. Chemicals were in.

By the 1980s, however, the pendulum began swinging in the other direction. Interest in organic products and organic farming began to make something of a comeback.


certified organicOrganic Farmers Raise a Red Flag

Until 1990, the organic movement was pretty loose and included varying definitions of “organic.” Because of that, people weren’t altogether sure of exactly what they were getting when they bought something with that label.

The term could be used in different instances meaning something quite apart from what organic farmers were practicing during that time.

For example, think of municipal sewage sludge. This is what treatment plants remove from sewage coming into the plant. It’s basically a toxic soup of heavy metals, carcinogens, pharmaceutical drugs and many other very unhealthy and dangerous chemicals. This soup is “organic” according to the current definition, which includes anything containing carbon compounds.

Yet this is a far cry from the original definition of “organic,” which meant anything derived directly from living organisms. This change worried organic farmers and others concerned with how their food was grown.

So, in a desire to create a firm organic standard everyone must follow, caring farmers and citizens lobbied Congress hard to pass legislation to create a clear industry standard.

The result was the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA). This legislation:

  • Established a process for stakeholders in the industry to create an industry standard for “organic.” (It’s important that those who pay organic farmers a higher price for organic food can be sure about the quality of the food.)
  • Charged the USDA with enforcement power of the organic standard. (It’s imperative that those farmers who follow the law are not disadvantaged by those who bend the rules.)

Part of OFPA mandated a citizen’s advisory panel called the National Organics Standards Board (NOSB). This Board had the authority to:

  • Review and approve any synthetic ingredient before it could be used in organic production. (This was to assure, among other things, that these ingredients posed no threat to human health or the environment before they were used.)
  • Oversee and make recommendations regarding organic agriculture and food processing procedures. (This was to put a citizen’s board in control of these areas.)

Is the Organic Food Production Act of 1990 a good law?

Yes. It provides a good legal foundation for establishing standards for organics. The trouble comes from the USDA which has failed and is failing when it comes to enforcement responsibilities. As The Cornucopia Institute’s Mark Kastel said, “Let’s be clear. With a complacent, agribusiness-friendly bias permeating the USDA, the corporatization of organics is almost complete.”

Is the National Organic Standards Board a good panel to have in place?

Again, yes. In the beginning, the NOSB provided exactly the kind of oversight needed to keep the organics standard on course. But now the Board is stacked with agribusiness-friendly representatives who weigh in on the side of agribusiness interests. This has greatly diminished the integrity of Board recommendations. (See a full and fascinating discussion of this in Cornucopia’s Organic Watergate White Paper.)

Where Some Organics Have Gone

When interest in organic products began to rejuvenate in the 1980s, the only places where people would find them were the 300 or so co-op grocers spread throughout the entire country.

No so today, however, where the organics sector is a $30 billion industry. Even Walmart has an organics section now. And most of the major players in the food industry own organic brands.

The story of three well-known dairies is illustrative of how, today, agribusiness is diluting the OFPA’s organic standards. Here they are:

CAFO cows

Horizon & Dean Foods

“When you look at Horizon’s packaging, it’s all a bunch of happy cows grazing on grass. Not exactly what’s happening…”

— Mark Kester, The Cornucopia Institute

In 2004, Dean Foods (a $12 billion company) bought Horizon, then a publicly-owned company with an organic label.

At the time, Horizon was already on the factory farm road with a 4,000-cow CAFO in Idaho and another one in Maryland.

And although Horizon called these CAFOs “organic,” they looked more conventional than organic, with confined feedlots and no grazing for cows in their lactation cycle.

Horizon was an investment rock star in 2004. As a public company, it was making millions for investors. Not by selling organic milk, but (as The Cornucopia Institute notes) by selling stock on Wall Street.

And when Dean Foods purchased Horizon that year, Horizon joined the ranks of a giant in the conventional dairy industry.

While it’s true that today Horizon sources at least half of its milk from family-scale organic farmers, the rest comes from their “organic” CAFOs, now including a mega 10,000-cow CAFO dairy in California.

What’s more, Dean Foods/Horizon has partnered with Walmart to sell Horizon milk at prices that are undercutting smaller retailers.

Why is that important?

Because the questionable “organic” CAFO arm of Horizon (providing their cows with organic feed but ignoring organic management practices) allows the company to control an increasing percentage of the organic milk market. This contributes to decreasing organic milk prices, thus pushing out smaller, family-scale organic farmers.

Aurora Dairy

Based in Colorado and owned by the principals who sold Horizon to Dean Foods, this company poses another threat to organics in the form of private label products. It is now one of the largest “organic” dairy operations in the U.S.

Aurora’s factory farm model allows it to produce milk cheaper than other reputable brands. And their private label supplies milk — anonymously — to corporations like Safeway, Giant and Costco.

Why is anonymity important?

When customers buy private label milk from these big retailers, they’ll see no mention of Aurora. They won’t know that the private label organic milk they’re buying is 100% sourced from Aurora’s giant, factory-farm “organic” CAFOs where miserable cows stand in knee-deep manure.

But they will see milk carton pictures of happy cows frolicking in green pastures next to little red barns – or variations thereof.

From the beginning, one of Aurora’s goals was to make organic milk more affordable with “organic” dairy CAFO production. This directly violates organic management best practices. For organic farmers, “organic” and “CAFO” are a contradiction in terms.

Where Organics must goWhere Organics Must Go

"I’ve spent 35 years as an evangelist for good food. I’ll be damned if I’ll hand this over to corporations to exploit people who get their hands dirty for a living, who crack a sweat, work the land, and have a heart connection to their communities."

                             — Mark Kester, The Cornucopia Institute

With this background, it’s clear that maintaining the integrity of the Certified Organic label won’t be easy. But there is a way to begin, and Mark Kester’s 3-step, all-hands-on-deck approach can help jump-start and fuel the process.

To win hearts and minds, he says, organic farmers and concerned citizens should take action in the following areas. The first two concern marketplace communications and messaging. The third covers infrastructure:

  • Tell the story right: Constantly emphasize the importance of locally-produced food.

Local food production is a three-way positive: It lowers the fossil fuel footprint of food production and distribution. It greatly strengthens local food security. And it maintains transparency in food production, letting people get to know who’s producing their food and how it’s produced.

Knowing this, consumers are increasingly choosing locally-produced food. It’s much harder for Walmart, for instance, to talk “local” when its milk is sourced from all over the world. And Whole Foods falls flat when it claims “local” is anything a semi can transport in eight hours. The local food movement gives important support to local organic farmers. Big Food violators of “local” give organic farmers a competitive edge because they can tell their marketing story in a way that makes clear why the choice to eat local must rest with their products.

  • Tell the story right: Always talk about the holistic value of organics.

There’s a holistic aspect to the“life-story” of organics that makes it not just about food but also, on the management end, about respect for the cycle of life. This includes environmental stewardship, humane animal husbandry practices, and economic justice for the people who preserve, manufacture, and grow organic food.

For instance, Walmart likes to tout its organic credentials. But what does that mean when it pays its workers so little they must use food stamps? What does that mean when it sells CAFO produced “organic” milk from abused animals?

Increasingly, this ethical aspect of organic management is striking a responsive chord in people who are looking for that in the food their families eat. It’s precisely what sets organic farmers apart from the rest of the food producing world, and why it must be a key part of all their marketing messages and communications.

  • Develop supportive infrastructure: Provide more viable local marketplace alternatives for consumers who want safe and nutrient-dense food.

This involves the necessary hard work of developing creative and innovative programs linking together organic farmers and surrounding urban areas. Many communities are already on this path but more work needs to be done. In the process, this should not be forgotten: Forging links between local organic farmers, community groups, town/city councils, senior centers, local businesses, and schools is good for everyone. Local organic farmers profit from much-needed community support. Local communities gain greater food security, decrease their fossil fuel footprints, and learn not only how food is produced but also what it takes to produce it.

Taking back ownership of the Certified Organic Label by organic farmers and caring citizens will require focus and perseverance. It challenges everyone involved to forge new connections between communities and local farmers.

And the process demands watchdogging both the USDA and the agribusiness world.

But by walking this “take-back-the-label” path — whether slow or fast, or with fits and starts — communities will be stronger, people will be healthier, and organic farmers will be able to grow nutritious food and make a good living.

That’s a win-win situation for all.


What do you think about the corporatization of organics and the USDA’s role in that process? Take a minute and add your thoughts in the comment box below. We’d love to hear from you!

For a interesting discussion of these issues, check this out:

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