"We may be looking at the dumbing down of organic standards, the watering down of standards to produce food on that scale...." Robin Seydel, of La Montanita Co-op.
Tucked between two houses on a back road in Bosque Farms, sits an organic oasis consisting of little more than an acre of farmland. Chickens cluck and strut in large areas fenced off by wire. Orange winter squash vibrate with color in uneven rows. Stands of brilliant yellow sunflowers spring unbidden to face the sun. Jesse Daves bends to lift a white sheet that shades green peppers from sunburn. When asked about Wal-Mart's much-touted announcement about selling more organic produce in its stores, Daves says, ""Organic' is just a word attached to a piece of paper. It doesn't have any intrinsic meaning to it."
Yet, organic is fast becoming a retailing abracadabra. According to a recent report prepared for Plant Management Network, retail sales of organic products increased from $3.6 billion to $10.4 billion from 1997 to 2003. The 190 percent gain translates to an average annual growth rate of 24 percent with the largest selling category being fruits and vegetables.
"It makes perfect sense that big corporations would want a piece of the pie," says Robin Seydel, membership coordinator for La Montanita Food Co-op in Albuquerque. She, and others who have been committed to the organic movement for decades, express ambivalence about Wal-Mart's decision.
In 2002, the national organic program, which defined and created a uniform standard for organic agriculture, went into effect throughout the United States. Underlying all the rules about herbicides and pesticides, about humane treatment of animals and food processing, lay a philosophy of sustainability.
"With traditional agriculture, society pays more for subsidies, pollution of water, loss of soil, and negative health effects," says Joan Quinn, education and marketing coordinator for the New Mexico Organic Commodity Commission. There's also the cost of transportation, of long-term storage, and the chemicals necessary to keep and make produce look good. So, that bargain batch of lettuce is far more expensive than you'd think.
"Organic agriculture reflects the true cost of food," says Quinn. Price is based on the work and time a grower has to spend bringing that vine-ripened tomato to you.
Jesse Daves' observation about the word organic is useful because it can mean so many different things to different people. The national organic program encouraged clean, minimally-processed food and earth-healthy growing practices. Yet natural food stores and conventional groceries are filled with organic products that challenge these original goals. Organic chocolate truffles, instant soups, and hybrid apples shipped from New Zealand can all delight, but they're a far cry from the small-is-beautiful philosophy that powered the movement in its infancy.
It's this humble viewpoint that still resonates and impassions people who've been involved in this way of viewing the world for years. Organic to them means more. They readily speak about community and how small actions translate into much larger effects. For example, Jesse Daves doesn't just think of himself as a "grower." He's on a mission.
"After college, I thought about going to graduate school in planning. I wanted to bring society to a more sustainable way of being," says the young man, his eyes shadowed by a cap. "More school would have been sitting around talking about how to change the world," he says. Instead, he decided to farm his family's land, to save it from development, and to provide a refuge for native plants, animals and insects.
"Fresh, fair and local," says Robin Seydel. "In order to have a positive future, we have to be fair to people who grow our food, fair to the environment, fair to the consumer and fair to the worker," she explains. "Everything along the line-production, distribution and consumption, needs to be done in a just and equitable way."
Is Wal-Mart's business model based on the same ideas? This reporter attempted to get a telephone interview with the spokeswoman responsible for the corporation's organic product line. However, my queries were met with an email response that parroted the generalities found on Wal-Mart's website. This large retailer's priority is to bring low-cost products to masses of consumers. One can only wonder how that will mesh with the ideas in the organic movement about equitable pay for product and community sustainability.
"Any time big business gets involved in any industry, what they are trying to do, and what Wal-Mart is successful at doing, is cutting away things that increase costs. What Wal-Mart is going to be looking to do is to bring all the pressure it can bring to bear to lower costs of organic products," says Quinn.
One of the main reasons the people interviewed for this article greet Wal-Mart's intent with skepticism is based on current trends in other sectors of the market. Joan Quinn cites an example in the livestock industry. Right now, organic livestock is required to eat only organic feed. There have already been attempts to change these obligations, but they were "beaten back by people who support organic agriculture-both farmers and consumers," she says.
Quinn worries that there will be greater pressure to relax standards such as the requirements that land go without any synthetic chemicals for three years before it can be certified organic. This is a realistic concern since a relaxing of this standard could bring more conventional farmland into "organic" production sooner.
Wal-Mart's massive customer base will require far more organic produce than ever before. Production will have to increase. Seydel worries there will be a push to include genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) under the organic rubric. "That's the challenge," she says. "We're already seeing it in the dairy industry." Can herds of 10,000 cows really be called "organic?" Where do you draw the line? "We may be looking at the dumbing down of organic standards, the watering down of standards to produce food on that scale," says Seydel.
There's also the push-pull of big vs. small, global vs. local. When you go to a growers' market, it's a personal experience. You get to know the people who grow your food. You can ask questions and get immediate answers about how they farm their land. You can see first-hand how your dollars affect these people's lives.
Buying produce at a large store brings many unknowns. Though our country has well-defined requirements for organic products, what assurance is there that these same standards are honored in China or other international agricultural powerhouses? How much of your money is going to your own community and how much is traveling far beyond view?
Though many question Wal-Mart's motives and practices, they also point out that its strong entry into the organic produce sector has potential for great good. Imagine a world where most of the farmland is truly organic. Consider the tons of unused pesticides and other poisons that would be absent from our water. Imagine people eating healthier, more nutritious food.
It's a beautiful idea.
There's also the possibility that local growers, even the very small scale ones such as Jesse Daves, could truly benefit from this market redirection. As demand increases for fresh, organic products, people will become accustomed to better tasting food. A niche market, one that emphasizes quality over quantity, will blossom. Essentially, these growers might be viewed as fine craftsmen, artisans. It could really be a win-win for everyone.
However, given the history of assaults against the current organic standards, experts in the movement caution that this rosy future will only come about with our vigilance and commitment. In order to ensure a positive outcome, consumers who want good quality food will have to do more than vote with their pocketbooks. They'll have to get involved actively.
"Pressure from consumers and farmers to keep the organic standards robust is going to be the countervailing force to withstand the influence from big agribusiness and retailers to water the standards down," says Quinn.
Vigilance will be necessary. Informing oneself will be critical. Quinn suggests the Union of Concerned Scientists website as a good place to get current, rational information (www.ucsusa.org/food_and_environment).
Speaking out, informing others, and expressing concern can all have a tremendous effect. Be aware. Keep informed. Write letters and emails. Call members of Congress and employees of the USDA. These efforts have proven powerful in the past. They've directly contributed to maintaining much of the integrity of the current standards to date. Concerned consumers must ready their pens, cell phones and computers to make sure no more compromises are made to these important benchmarks for healthy food that also benefits local communities, local economies and our planet.