“Big Organic” Organic Farming Faces New Larger Challenges


We’ve all seen it, whether your looking for it or not, those “USDA Organic” labels are showing up more, and in more places too.  It’s no longer pushed into a “special” corner or separated from the bunch, and it’s also available year round.  It’s now called “Big Organic”  and you can find non local organic foods in the grocery aisles year-round, thanks to organics’ meteoric expansion during the past three decades.

USDA Big OrganicIt’s at this intersection of supply and demand where some people question organics’ exponential growth wondering if the movement has lost its soul along the way.  Many longtime organic champions voice concerns about the implications of “Big Organic” and how it affects the true tenants of organic agriculture. Producers, retailers, and shoppers alike fret about increased environmental and economic impacts as organic expands.  Are the worries justified?  Or must organic farming scale up to compete in a global marketplace.



What Is Big Organic?


You may support your own small-scale organic favorites: local companies that make great, wholesome products, sell them at regional shops,and maintain a homemade, hometown vibe.  But you’ve undoubtedly seen ( and likely bought) Big Organic too: large-scale operations, such as Earthbound Farm or Horizon Organic, that supply enormous amounts of certified-organic products to national and international markets (think Costco and Walmart), often at lower prices.

Small towns are not the only parts of the U.S. that desperately need access to organics across socioeconomic lines.  Even large urban districts with sound infrastructure suffer from restricted access to affordable, organically grown produce and packaged goods.  Walmart recently released a statement that it intends to double its organic-produce offerings, but it didn’t mention accountability measures or specific time frames.  As the organic market grows to meet demand, the following challenges and compromises will grow too.


Local Challenges


Although small-scale organic farming & food makers are the movement’s roots, they sometimes struggle to produce enough, often because or forces outside their control (weather, commodity price fluctuation, sourcing difficulty) that can drive up prices.  In contrast, large companies are able to lean on a deep and wide supply network, which mitigates some of the variables all food producers face.

Organic Farming Big OrganicLet’s say, for example, that you make a fantastic granola with certified-organic ingredients in a small commercial kitchen.  You might order your oats from a nearby farmer you know personally and your nuts and dried fruit from in -state sources.  “But then you  decide to expand your business, so now you need to make a lot more granola.  That probably means connecting with suppliers you don’t know but who can provide larger quantities, perhaps from distant or even international farms.  In addition, now your ingredients travel from all over the world to reach you, and you must ship your finished products in all directions-using vastly more production resources and fossil fuels than before.  So more people get your organic granola, but it’s a trade-off.

“Scale has always been a challenge in organic food for the simple reason that conventional farming, organics’ antithesis uses herbicides, pesticides, and GMOs to maximize crop yield in the shortest time possible.  Large-scale organic operations also aim for healthy yields but subscribe to a broader ethical and sustainable farming approach.” say Danny Houghton, vice president of marketing and sales at One Degree Organic Foods in Abbotsford,,  British Colombia.  “Choosing to compete in this way with conventional farmers in not something that should be passed over lightly.  It’s a daunting task.”


Economic Challenges


Size also matters when it comes to making organic goods affordable form more consumers.  Large-scale companies can reach a larger pool of customers because of improved production and transportation efficiencies, say Houghton.

Earthbound Farm, suppliers of now-ubiquitous organic boxed lettuce, was among the earliest organic  players to go big.  “We’re Organic Earthbound Lettuce Organic Farmingproud to offer an organic alternative to conventionally product food where people do the majority of their shopping: at the supermarket,” says co founder Myra Goodman.  Because Earthbound Farm is able to achieve economies of scale by large production year-round in a suitable climate, it is able to make organic farming more affordable and reach a larger audience.  Another little-heralded economic benefit:  Organic farming is more labor-intensive and provides more long-term work for skilled farm workers, thus contributing to local economics.

But while availability goes up and prices go down, Goodman also acknowledges that something important gets lost.  “Small growers can offer consumers a much more intimate connection with their food.  It’s wonderful to be able to meet the people who are growing your food face-to-face, whether at a farmers’ market or while picking up your CSA box, and be able to ask questions and hear their unique stories about what’s going on in their fields or orchards,” she says.  Another often-overlooked consideration: In a time when many large-scale organics are owned by conglomerates, such as Unilever and PepsiCo, smaller ones tend to be independently owned and invested in their local communities.


Environmental Challenges


Because of USDA organic standards, which took effect in 2000, all verified-organic manufactures must comply with strict regulations and meet regular inspection requirements.  In as sense, these standards were written with organics’ soul in mind, to create a level playing field for anyone seeking to ear the trusted USDA Organic seal.

Organic Farming LettucesOne Primary function of these standards: to protect Earth.  Small organic farming producers are nimble enough to implement new strategies or change harvest practices if necessary when prices or weather patterns fluctuate, but the sheer size of large operations often force them to rely of gas and water sucking farm equipment to meet their supply goals.

Even so says Goodman, it’s worth it.  According to the USDA, there are nearly 5 million acres or organic farmland across the nation, representing less than 1 percent of total U.S. agricultural acreage.  “The more people buy organic food, the more land is farmed without dangerous synthetic chemicals.  Earthbound Farm alone avoids the use of more than 19 million pounds of synthetic agricultural chemicals every year; that’s a huge impact,” she says.

Organic benefits Earth’s inhabitants, too and not just the shoppers who eat clean, toxin-free foods.  Farm workers in organic fields are exposed to far fewer pesticides and herbicides compared with convention farms, many of which require no safety measures for laborers.


Vote With Your Dollars


So is small always beautiful?  That depends on your priorities.  “While all food companies are entitled to make a profit, you should do your homework and choose to reward companies that balance the pursuit of profit with tangible, sustainable business practices,” says Houghton.

Whether you find shelves of organic cereal in a big-box store or a single organic brand in a small town, Goodman’s personal approach may simplify your decisions.  “I think in this conversation about big and small organic, it’s really important not to pit one against the other and realize that all organic farming is a huge step in the direction of creating a healthy and sustainable food supply,” she says.  “People need to know that when the health of their family and the environment is a top concern, they need to choose organic first and foremost.  The questions of size an location are truly secondary.”

The thing I really like about this article is that it shows the incredible challenge this originally “Grass Roots” industry and the consumers who support it face.  It’s like any small high quality product or process that goes above and beyond for a social or moral impact, but then is faced with growth and expansion that will pull at the very core that holds it together.  I do believe that “Organic” is good overall, and will definitely be positive from an environmental standpoint.  But in a world where the big international companies could eventually run the majority of the market, I think is where you lose most of the economic value.  Will we follow the clothing & manufacturing trends and eventually import the majority of “Organics” because we want it cheaper & companies can make it cheaper elsewhere?  Lets hope not, but in the mean time, support your local co-op or farmers market, you won’t be able to beat that local organic farming “Freshness.”

Article Adapted From: -Delicious Living

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Lynne is a Certified Nutrition Consultant and Therapeutic Massage and Ethics Educator with extensive study in preventative nutrition and physiology. For over 35 years, Lynne has helped thousands of people through consulting, seminars and writing.

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