Organic community debates growth

As the market expands, some within the organic community question the direction it's taking.

Your June 20 editorial, “Organic niche attracts large-scale players,” describes accurately the considerable tensions in the organic community over the announcements by Walmart, HEB, Costco and other major companies that are dramatically expanding their offerings of lower-priced organic foods. Clearly, these companies realize demand is likely to continue growing much faster for organic brands than conventional ones. The market speaks, companies respond, but not everyone is happy about it.

I am baffled by the level of anxiety within the organic community over these seemingly positive developments. The fear that big companies will waltz into USDA and water down the National Organic Program rule is baseless. In reality, the rule is almost impossible to change in any meaningful way, even when there is compelling evidence for the need for a change and no credible reason to believe the change will impair the integrity or undermine the reputation of organic food.

Plus, big companies have something extremely valuable to protect — their good name and brand equity. They are well aware that any and all of their actions in the organic space will be carefully scrutinized. It would be beyond foolish for them to sacrifice trust with all their consumers in an effort to gain a foothold in the organic market.

The editorial does not mention what I think is the most important, underlying source of tension within the organic community. Many proponents of organic food and farming have adopted the cause with the hope that organic farming, and an alternative, smaller scale organic food value chain, will provide a viable economic niche for small and moderate-scale family farms and food businesses. Their dominant motivation is grounded in social justice issues.

Beginning in the mid-1990s, the organic tent began to expand rapidly, as a host of other constituencies and stakeholders came to view organic farming as the most viable solution to the agricultural sector problems they cared most about — environmental and consumer groups worried about the impacts of pesticides on childhood development, public health groups concerned about hormone and sub-therapeutic antibiotic use in livestock production and soil, water and wildlife conservation groups. Those concerned about genetically modified organisms and/or the impact of nicotinyl insecticides on pollinators, have markedly expanded the organic tent in just the last few years.

For those motivated primarily by social justice issues, it has always been more important to assure that only “true believer” farms and businesses thrive than for the organic industry to grow. For the environmental, consumer and conservation advocates, it was and remains essential for organic farming practices to gain acceptance on a significant portion of the land base, in order to have a meaningful impact on the nation’s public health, natural resources and environment. These proponents care more about the ability to make the benefits of organic food and farming widely accessible for all Americans than whether this happens by the proliferation of several million new, small-scale farms or conversion to organic by established conventional farmers and food businesses (including some big ones).

The underlying and fundamental tension between these groups has hurt the organic community and led to what is commonly called the “circular firing squad” whenever, and wherever, the organic community debates the best path forward and who is welcomed to join in the journey.

Chuck Benbrook

Washington State University

Troy, Ore.



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