Organic goes down a slippery road
Here's the sad news: Even as the demand for organic food continues to explode, organic farmers in America are getting thrown under the very beet cart they helped build.
The Chinese are taking over market share, especially of vegetables and agricultural commodities like soy, thanks to several American-based multinational food corporations that have hijacked the organic bandwagon they only recently jumped onto.
When mega-corporation Dean Foods acquired Silk soy milk -- which I used to drink as if it were the staff of life -- the prospects looked good for American organic soy farmers. Silk had always been committed to supporting domestic organic farmers, and with the new might of Dean Foods behind it, I assumed that Silk would likely grow. Silk did grow, but it also dropped its commitment to domestic soy.
When Midwestern farmers and farmer cooperatives in the heart of American soy country were told by Silk they had to match the rock-bottom cost of Chinese organic soybeans, they found it was a price they simply could not meet. Organic agriculture is labor-intensive, and China's edge comes largely from its abundance of cheap labor.
"Dean Foods had the opportunity to push organic and sustainable agriculture to incredible heights of production by working with North American farmers and traders to get more land in organic production," says Merle Kramer, a marketer for the Midwestern Organic Farmers Cooperative, based in Michigan. "But what they did was pit cheap foreign soybeans against the U.S. organic farmer."
Few Silk products are certified organic anymore, and some are processed with hexane, a neurotoxin listed as an air pollutant by the EPA. Yet this country allows hexane-processed soymilk to be labeled "natural," and if it contains organic ingredients, the label "made with organic ingredients" can still be used. What's more, a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture report, "Emerging Issues in the U.S. Organic Industry," points out two trends in American food: Conventional food corporations are taking over successful independent organic companies, and the corporations are becoming increasingly dependent on imported ingredients.
While the retail price of imported produce remains the same as what consumers were paying for domestic organic, there's reason to believe the quality is lower. At Whole Foods, for example, labels that read "USDA inspected" are stuck to produce imported from abroad. According to "Behind the Bean," a recent study by Wisconsin's Cornucopia Institute, the USDA's record with food imported from China is fraught with irregularities.
"(USDA) found multiple non-compliances of the federal organic standards, (including) the failure of one certifying agent to hire Chinese inspectors that are adequately familiar with the USDA organic standards, and the failure by another organic certifying agent to provide a written and translated copy of the USDA organic standards to all clients applying for certification. This raises serious concerns about whether foods grown organically in China follow the same USDA organic standards with which we require American farmers to comply."
A stand at my local farmers' market has a sign that says "Boycott Chinese Garlic." China currently supplies 75 percent of the garlic sold in the United States, for an average price of 50 cents a pound. Two years ago, it was 25 cents a pound. Even with the price of garlic up from 25 to 50 cents a pound, garlic-growing regions like Gilroy, Calif., are hurting. Gilroy once was known as the nation's garlic capital. In addition to garlic cultivation, a retail empire was built on value-added products made with garlic. Now, Gilroy is just a garlic-processing capital, as most of its supply comes from China.
But one advantage local garlic producers have going for them is that most Chinese garlic is the soft-neck variety, which is inferior in terms of flavor, clove size and peelability to the hard-neck varieties favored by many American garlic growers. The problem is that -- even as farmers' markets spread like weeds and create opportunities for consumers to buy the good stuff directly from growers -- most Americans continue to reach for the netted bulbs of garlic within easy reach at the supermarket, or they buy jars of pre-peeled and pre-chopped garlic.
Consumers buy organic for several reasons: They are worried about the heavy environmental impacts of agribusiness; they want cleaner and safer working conditions for farmworkers; and they believe that organic food is simply healthier to eat – or at least less likely to be contaminated with toxic chemicals. Unfortunately, the import-fueled corporatization of so-called "organic" food is making it less likely that your food will have all of these attributes.
Silk's road to China is by now a well-worn trail; it's further evidence that organic as we knew it is just about dead, replaced by gigantic, Chi-ganic corporations that are in it for all the wrong reasons.
Ari LeVaux is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes about food in Missoula, Montana.