Aurora Organic, a company ostensibly specializing in large-scale organic farming has turned out to have put more emphasis on the large-scale part. Reports Time:
On Wednesday, the USDA announced its investigators had found that Aurora failed to keep proper records about how its cows were raised, and mixed regular cows with organic cows. The government and the company reached an agreement under which the company will be allowed to keep its organic certification if it makes adjustments that include reducing the number of its cows — from about 2,200 to 1,200. The farm also plans to expand its grassland to about 400 acres from 325. Clark Driftmier, a spokesman for Aurora, said these plans had been in the works for at least two years and that its customers — whom he declined to name — have expressed support.
Says Bruce Knight, undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs at the USDA: “We’ll be looking over their shoulder for the next year, and if they fail to come into full compliance, we’ll be taking serious action.”
This is all bad (except that Aurora was caught), but I’m not buying the argument from some more extreme organic-food advocates that large-scale farming is necessarily incompatible with organic practices.
Marc Gunther of Fortune puts the problem down to a conflict of values:
Behind the dispute are more fundamental questions about the future of the organic food industry, which generated about $16.7 billion in revenues in 2006. Can the small-scale, family farmers who got the organic movement going years ago compete with bigger, well-capitalized companies like Aurora that are moving in? As Wal-Mart and Costco sell more organics, will standards be diluted?
Certainly the little guys won’t be able to compete if the big guys cut corners to cut costs, which appears to be the case here.
This isn’t his central point so Gunther doesn’t develop it in detail, but I think his logic is flawed. The consequences for Aurora from this little incident are massive. Marc Gunther doesn’t write about it when Organic Dairy Farmer Dan gets caught spiking the silage (assuming Farmer Dan gets caught, which he might not). The rewards for a big business that breaks the rules might be great, but the consequences of getting caught are proportionately high, too.
Point is, it’s a mistake to use “organic” as code for “small and independent.” The word can usefully describe a process, not the mentality attached to the people carrying it out.
And frankly, if we’re going to feed the world without destroying the plant, large-scale agriculture is the only way it’s going to work.