The Organic Farming Movement

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The current organic craze has mutated into a consumer alternative to conventional food and forgone opposition to the economic and political structures upon which the food system relies.

Food Justice Now (University of Minnesota Press, 2018) by Joshua Sbicca focuses on three California based movements including the carceral, labor, and the immigration crisis. Sbicca argues that the food people consume and have access to defines their economic status.  Find out more about consumers and the effects of the food system in chapter 1, “Inequality and Resistance: The Legacy of Food and Justice Movements.”

After World War II, there was a diffusion of chemicals into industrial agriculture, such as nitrate for bombs repurposed into the peacetime industry of nitrogen-fertilizer production. In response, environmentalists were concerned with impacts on public health, which set off another major agrarian-based shift in the 1960s, but this time with the added support of an urban upwardly mobile consumer base. The American public started to value sustainably managing natural resources. There was a growing recognition of the harmful environmental and social outcomes of scientific and industrial technology, and a desire among urbanites for closer communion with nature. In Rachel Carson’s epochal Silent Spring, she wrote, “The earth’s vegetation is part of a web of life in which there are intimate and essential relations between plants and animals. Sometimes we have no choice but to disturb these relationships, but we should do so thoughtfully, with full awareness that what we do may have consequences remote in time and place.” She was reflecting on how chemicals such as DDT—used during World War II to control typhus-carrying lice and malaria and then released to farmers as an insecticide to support industrial agriculture and to douse Mexicans entering the United States under the Bracero Program as farmworkers—were dangerous to all forms of life.

The sentiments, that the human and nonhuman environments are inseparable and that ethical questions imbricate survival questions, spread rapidly in the popular imagination and materialized in environmental social movements, lifestyle modifications, public policy, and economic practices. In California, activism addressed a range of topics: land conservation, both for recreational and aesthetic reasons; healthy eating, which included non-processed “natural” foods and vegetarianism; pesticide reduction in the name of protecting farmworkers, animals, and eaters; organic gardening and small-scale farming; and back-to-the-land communes. Underlying many of these ideals was a distrust of industrial mass society pushed by government and business interests. The anti-capitalist counter cultural currents of the 1960s and 1970s pushed the emerging organic farming movement to link its sustainable production methods to a range of social concerns. For example, organic farming practices resisted the corporately controlled fertilizer and pesticide industries. These converging and interrelated countercultural practices have continued to diffuse into contemporary food politics. 

Chief among these contemporary shifts is the emergence of California’s organic farming industry, which is the largest in the United States. California was the first state to have an organic labeling system, which California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) started in 1973. The founders of this certifying agency and trade association identified with the countercultural trends at the time. Many of them hoped organic agriculture would begin as an interstitial practice that eventually corroded the foundations of industrial agriculture. Toward such ends, CCOF devised standards to valorize organic produce and help people navigate the food consumer marketplace. The idealism of CCOF and organic farming was short-lived, as other certification schemes and laws vied for legitimacy. Huge growers soon dominated the sector, which over time weakened organic standards and enforcement; perpetuated a lack of commitment to social standards; increased costs for small farmers, such as the price of land; and set up a pricing system that excludes many eaters. Now, there are also some activists and growers in the organic industry resisting labor regulations that protect farmworkers, which obstructs any kind of food politics broadly committed to economic justice. The original populist appeal and agrarian ideal of organic agriculture now about the industry’s capitalist composition. Although organic agriculture is ecologically and nutritionally superior and reduces harmful pesticide exposure for farmworkers, it falls short of an oppositional movement of small-family farms using agro ecological practices that sells affordable produce and adequately pays farmworkers.

Since the 1980s, many organic farming activists have continued to move away from some of the founding radical ideals. The current organic craze has mutated into a consumer alternative to conventional food and forgone opposition to the economic and political structures upon which the food system relies. Epitomizing this trend is Earthbound Farm, the largest grower of organic produce in the United States, most recognized for their packaged salads. Beginning on 2.5 acres in Carmel Valley, Cali fornia, the company now boasts over fifty-three thousand acres under organic production, much of it contracted to a network of growers. Earthbound Farm sells its produce to over 75 percent of all American supermarkets. In 2012, the company had over $460 million in revenue and $75 million in earnings.  After the leveraged buyout specialists HM Capital Partners purchased a 70 percent controlling share in the company, HM Capital morphed into a new private equity firm, Kainos Capital, whose specialty is the food sector. White Wave, a division of the dairy giant Dean Foods, then bought Earthbound Farm for $600 million in 2013. In addition to the influence of finance capital in the organic sector, multinational food corporations increasingly buy organic food processing companies. This consolidation includes major California organic companies. Examples include Kashi (Kellogg), Odwalla (Coca-Cola), Naked Juice (Pepsi), Muir Glen Organic (General Mills), Santa Cruz Organic (Smucker’s), and Sweet Leaf Tea (Nestlé). In addition, organic and natural food retailers Whole Foods (Amazon) and Trader Joe’s (Aldi) and distributors United Natural Foods and Tree of Life cornered most of their respective markets.

The history of the organic farming movement in the United States illustrates that ideals do not always translate into expected outcomes. In this instance, the neoliberal logic of the prevailing political economy infiltrated the movement through initiatives like organic labeling. Some proponents were concerned with this state of affairs, but the privileged social position of most others made it easier to let go of oppositional principles in the name of greater profit. The history of the organic farming movement reveals that powerful corporations have capitalized on the new growth market in “green” products. Nevertheless, some of the same pre-figurative politics that animated the original movement live on in those starting urban farms or community gardens, running small and midsized family farms, and leading organic advocacy organizations such as the Cornucopia Institute.  What is less clear is the degree to which some activists integrate concerns with structural inequality with organic methods of food production. The legacy of the “market as movement” permeates how organic farmers create social boundaries between themselves and immigrant farmworkers. This post political tendency to prioritize market-based strategies can impede a confrontational food politics that fights for food justice. The trajectory of the organic farming movement suggests activists face historical choices of whether to adopt the structural analyses driving progressive movements or accept widespread neoliberal notions that ignore underlying inequalities.

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Reprinted with Permission from Food Justice Now and Published by University of Minnesota Press.

Copyright 2018 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota. 

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