Large-scale organics aren’t oxymorons

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.

CoweatingThis 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.

Photo credit: Flickr/foxypar4

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2 responses to “Large-scale organics aren’t oxymorons

  1. And frankly, if we’re going to feed the world without destroying the planet, large-scale agriculture is the only way it’s going to work.

    Since this point isn’t central to your article, am hoping more research might change your assumption. Because apparently organic farming CAN feed the world. There was a fair amount of press about it over the summer. One example was published at http://www.scientistlive.com/18228/the-truth-about-organic-farming.thtml by http://www.scientistlive.com:

    “We were struck by how much food the organic farmers would produce,” Perfecto said. The researchers set about compiling data from published literature to investigate the two chief objections to organic farming: low yields and lack of organically acceptable nitrogen sources.

    Their findings refute those key arguments, Perfecto said, and confirm that organic farming is less environmentally harmful yet can potentially produce more than enough food. This is especially good news for developing countries, where it’s sometimes impossible to deliver food from outside, so farmers must supply their own. Yields in developing countries could increase dramatically by switching to organic farming, Perfecto said.

    Another article was published by Reuters here: http://www.reuters.com/article/domesticNews/idUSN1036065820070710

    Food security is a HUGE issue, but just barely on the public’s radar screen. In 2002 the UN weighed in with this report which you might find interesting: http://www.fao.org/DOCREP/005/Y4137E/Y4137E00.HTM

  2. No argument from me on anything you raise there. But it’s at cross-purposes to my point: that organic farming and large-scale farming aren’t necessarily incompatible, and “organic” can’t be used interchangeably with “small.” It’s not about productivity, per se.

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