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Issue: 32 Section: Agriculture Geography: Canada Topics: social movements, gmos, food security, corporate

November 24, 2005


Is corporate organic changing the organic landscape in Canada?

by Hillary Bain Lindsay

Is organic agriculture mirroring the global industrial agriculture system it was created to combat?
"Would you like an Organic Fair TradeTM coffee with your Egg McMuffin, Ma'am?"

Fantasy? Not if you wander into any one of 658 McDonalds scattered across the Northeastern United States. Transfair USA and Oxfam America have welcomed the fast food giant's decision to serve Newman's Own Organic Coffee. "We are excited about this regional launch, and we hope to see it spread across the country," said Seth Petchers, coffee program manager for Oxfam America. But is having a 100% Organic Fair TradeTM coffee with your Big Mac really a sign of victory for the organic movement?

Rebecca Kneen, co-owner of Crannóg Ales, a certified organic farm and micro-brewery in BC's Okanagan Valley, concedes that if organic and fair trade standards are being met, there will be some benefit to farmers but hastens to add that "this is a tiny action in a company that pollutes massively, has obscene hiring practices and labour relations and devalues food."

The Big Boxes of the new suburban landscape are going organic. "We are particularly excited about organic food, the fastest-growing category in all of food," said Walmart's CEO Lee Scott at a recent shareholders meeting, according to The New York Times. Loblaws' President's Choice Organics line has expanded beyond organic produce to include organic chicken noodle soup, frozen entrees and cookies.

Even products that look so wholesome that one imagines they were made in a local hippie's kitchen often carry a multinational logo. Phil Howard, a postdoctoral researcher at the Centre for Agro-ecology and Sustainable Food Systems, notes that according to one estimate, 40% of the packaged organic foods on the shelves of natural food stores are produced by some of the biggest companies in the world.

Kellogg owns Kashi, a supplier of organic whole grain cereals. Kraft has bought out Boca, a maker of organic soy burgers. The corporate interest in organics goes beyond food to include things like organic cotton and organic seeds. Select Walmart stores now sell a limited line of organic cotton supplies for yoga, bath and baby. M&M/Mars has bought Seeds of Change, an organic seed company. "Many organic seed varieties are now available only through a giant seed company called Seminis, which earlier this year was acquired by Monsanto," reports Howard.

The corporate takeover of organics can be seen as both a success and a failure for the organic movement, believes Howard. "On the one hand, the acreage devoted to organic production, without synthetic pesticides, increases every year to meet the market demand. On the other hand, some of the ideals of the organic movement, which was in a large part a response to industrial agriculture, have fallen by the wayside." Organic agriculture increasingly resembles the global, industrial agriculture system it was created to combat, says Howard.

Kneen agrees, "Even though a 50-acre field of broccoli may not be sprayed with noxious chemicals, it is still mono-cropped, mechanically harvested and transported thousands of miles before it is eaten." Kneen argues that organic or not, industrial agriculture negatively impacts the environment through the loss of crop and seed diversity and fossil fuels required for large machinery and long-distance shipping,

Organic produce - even vegetables that could be grown locally, like garlic, potatoes, carrots and apples - is regularly trucked thousands of miles to arrive on supermarket shelves. In fact, 85% of organic food in Canada is now imported. Howard describes why supermarket chains (like Whole Foods in the US) rarely stock local organic produce. "Whole Foods has centralized their distribution of produce, and it's easier for them to buy from a large-scale grower in Mexico than a small-scale farmer next door," he explains. "The price premiums that small-scale farmers once relied on to stay in business have been declining as they are forced to compete with massive farms that grow only a single crop. These mega-farms have economies of scale but externalize more costs to society and to ecosystems in comparison."

Peter Johnston, a garlic farmer on Lasqueti Island in British Columbia, has noticed that the niche market for small organic farmers has quickly disappeared. "Before supermarkets began [stocking organic produce], it was bought either directly from the growers or from health food stores. We sold to a couple of them on Vancouver Island. These either no longer exist or don't carry produce anymore. The chains aren't interested in buying from small, local, seasonal producers."

Sea Spray Atlantic Growers Cooperative was formed three years ago partly in response to the Atlantic Superstores interest in selling organic produce. But Norbert Kungl, whose organic farm Selwood Green is part of the cooperative, reports that sales to the Superstores have shrunk significantly. "When we have local production, they will order, but the orders are discouragingly small," said Kungl. One member of the cooperative began growing large quantities of baby spinach and salad mix because the Superstore had indicated interest in purchasing it, but by the time it came to sell, Superstore was no longer interested. "They would not take those items because they had a deal or were in the process of a deal with PC Organics and some large companies in California," explains Kungl. Kungl has learned to expect this from the Atlantic Superstore. "We know that if they can get anything as a PC Organic Product they will not have competing local produce in the store."

Crannog Ales strives for a zero waste operation. Spent grain is fed to pigs on the organic farm where the brewery is located. Photo Credit: Rebecca Kneen, Crannog Ales
According to Johnston, most consumers do not distinguish between local and corporate organic foods. Johnston describes the frustrating attitudes of many shoppers, "If it's organic, it's good, even if it is shipped from Mexico or Europe. The lowest possible price is important."

Low prices are coming at a high cost, says Kneen, including weakening local economies, causing the disappearance of mixed farms with diverse crops and damaging "the entire rural fabric of Canada, which is based on small farms and the culture and skills developed by farmers and ranchers."

Large companies are often able to sell one organic product at a low price by subsidizing it with a line-up of non-organic products, thus undercutting the small organic producer. But according to Kneen, small organic producers, like Crannóg Ale's Micro-brewery, offer the customer and the community far more than a cheap product. "What we do is focused on high quality products, locally sourced ingredients, supporting the local economy and creating as little environmental impact as possible throughout our entire process," explains Kneen. "Corporate beer is focused on the bottom line."

Small farmers are frustrated by an organic certification process that fails to differentiate between the organic potato grown by a small mixed farm next door and the organic potato shipped from an industrial monoculture farm in Mexico. "Some of us would like to include fossil fuel audits in the certification process," explains Johnston. "Not a hope with the corporations involved though. [With corporations], there is and will be constant pressure to produce enough product at the lowest possible price."

"Constant vigilance will be required to resist attempts to weaken the USDA standards in ways that benefit corporations at the expense of everyone else," warns Howard referring to organic standards in the US. "Some [small farmers] have already given up on the term "organic" to describe their values. They would rather explain exactly how they grew the food, or even invite customers to see their farm, than pay hundreds of dollars for a certification that they see as a sort of lowest common denominator."

For the bewildered conscientious food shopper, Kneen's advice is unequivocal: "Buy local!! Ignore corporate organic, and buy locally produced food directly from the farmer or through a food co-op."

Sea Spray Atlantic Growers Cooperative is hoping customers will follow advice like Kneen's. The cooperative is refocusing its energy away from Atlantic Superstores towards selling produce directly to customers. This kind of exchange can happen at farmers markets and through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) boxes, which deliver boxes of fresh produce from the farm directly to consumers' doors.

Johnston agrees with the emphasis on local. He adds, "I'd also like customers to buy basic, wholesome food rather than processed convenience foods. But supermarket chains and food corporations won't encourage this. It isn't profitable." When food shopping, Johnston asks customers to stay smart. "Are organic twinkies really a good idea?"

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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