Thursday, September 6, 2007

Big Business Organic

While browsing another local-foodie blog, Dirt to Dish (written by Katherine Gray, who has posted comments here) , I came across a reference to an enlightening chart showing the huge multi-nationals that own some of our most familiar organic brands. Santa Cruz Organics? Owned by J.M. Smucker. Stonyfield Farm and Brown Cow yogurts? Owned by Dannon. Nantucket Nectars? Cadbury-Schweppes.

Organic has gone mainstream, finding its way into Wal-Mart, Target, and just about every other major grocery outlet. We read that supply is having a hard time keeping up with demand for organics (see my blog post from July, "Helping farmers make the switch to organic"). Is this good? Is it a great victory? Or is it a sell-out? Does it inevitably mean a deterioration of what organic really means if it's being supplied by big business?

Well, no... and yes. I have to think that on balance it means, at the very least, that more soil is being enriched and fewer pesticides are being used on our one and only planet than would be the case if organic hadn't gone mainstream. I think many of the supporters of organic farming always hoped it would become mainstream -- "the way food is grown," not just a tiny subculture.

And yet. There is a fear that when organic farming becomes big business, it loses something -- perhaps not the essentials (returning organic matter to the soil, avoiding chemical fertilizers and pesticides), but the sense -- perhaps an overly romantic one -- that organic gardening by its very nature should involve a commitment to place, to a particular soil, to a particular location, to a particular ecosystem and a particular community. When it's run, or at least owned, by billion-dollar corporations and its fruits are transported by carbon-and-particulate-matter-spewing trucks all over the nation, hemisphere or world... when production involves thousands of ill-paid farm laborers... when it's commodified on a global scale, that doesn't feel organic anymore. It's Big Food Conglomerate, not Hard-working Local Farmer committed to the health of his or her own patch of earth.

And yet. Big business is here to stay. Big business is vital to national economies. Big business can take, and I think should be praised for taking, steps toward improving its green credentials. Just because it's big business, it doesn't mean every action is cynical and heartless. It might in fact be, but if the results are a step in the right direction, that's still worth something.

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