Originally a backlash against conventional agriculture, the organic movement once represented an alternative to industrial farming practices. Organics provided consumers with reassurance that the foods they were consuming were not only produced in an environmentally sound manner, but were free of carcinogenic chemicals found in inorganic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. However, the popularity and value-added prices that organic food commanded did not go ignored by large food companies for long. Over the past decade, companies such as Coca-Cola, Cargill, ConAgra, General Mills, and Kraft have absorbed most of the organic food industry. Once indicative of small scale agriculture, large food companies have taken organic standards to scale.
Even as the differences between conventional and organic products become increasingly small, many (including myself) continue to pay the price premium for organics, believing they still represent a safer and more environmentally friendly product. For many consumers, this trust comes from the knowledge that the product is “certified organic.”
According to a recent New York Times piece, the consolidation of the organic market has also enhanced the influence of large food corporations in setting organic food standards.
As corporate membership on the board has increased, so, too, has the number of nonorganic materials approved for organic foods on what is called the National List. At first, the list was largely made up of things like baking soda, which is nonorganic but essential to making things like organic bread. Today, more than 250 nonorganic substances are on the list, up from 77 in 2002.
This raises the question, if organic standards are increasingly bent to accommodate large agribusiness, why buy organic?