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The Times Union (Albany, New York)

Organic Vision Marred by TV Dinners

Brian Obach

This week marks the fifth anniversary of the implementation of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Organic Program. It was five years ago that the little green "USDA Organic" seal first appeared on organic product labels.

By most measures, the program has been an incredible success. Organic sales have soared and tens of thousands of pounds of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers have been kept off farmlands and food. But some organic advocates see a downside to the rapid growth in the organic market.

The federal government gave its official stamp of approval to organic after many years of controversy and struggle by organic advocates. For decades, organic practices were dismissed by political leaders and agriculture officials as impractical and unnecessary. They claimed that the mass production of food crops using synthetic pesticides and fertilizers was safe for human health and the environment. Big agribusiness felt threatened just by the suggestion that its chemical intensive practices were undesirable. But organic sales continued to climb throughout the 1970s and '80s as health-conscious consumers, motivated by a few high profile food scares, sought natural alternatives to conventional products.

As organic goods became more popular with consumers, states began to establish their own standards and certification systems. As organic achieved this kind of legitimacy, larger producers came to recognize the profit potential in the growing organic market. It was then that the federal government agreed to create uniform national standards and to oversee a system of organic certification.

That process took more than 10 years to complete. There were many controversies and fierce political battles along the way. The most significant of these took place when the initial USDA organic rule proposal allowed for practices that were anathema to traditional understandings of organic, such as allowing the use of genetically modified organisms and food irradiation. Organic advocates effectively blocked these measures and, by the end, the USDA had established a set of standards that were largely agreeable to all.

But there are other ramifications of the national system that some find objectionable. The standardization of organic practices and the opening of a single national organic market invited larger and larger enterprises to enter.

Big producers, processors and retailers such as Conagra, Kraft and Wal-Mart started to get in on the organic action. Organic businesses, founded by committed advocates, were bought up by multinational corporations seeking to cash in on the high profits to be made in this growing sector.

Organic sales have expanded dramatically since the start of the national program and topped $14 billion in 2005. But most of the growth is to be found among large conventional businesses that have added organic products to their traditional lines. This has left small organic farmers struggling to survive in the face of low-price competition from organic agribusiness.

In some ways, the mainstreaming of organic is cause for celebration. Organic products are more available and more affordable than ever, and that trend will likely continue.

But the original vision of organic embodies more than pesticide-free food. It is a vision of an alternative agriculture system; one in which small local farmers provide consumers with healthy fresh food produced in ways that protect the environment and the communities in which they live. No one envisioned an organic frozen TV dinner trucked in from California on sale at a big box supermarket.

There is a movement under way to recapture the soul of organic. Local food advocates have regenerated interest in small-scale local organic production. Alongside the growth in corporate organic has been an increase in farmers' markets and community-supported agriculture programs, where members purchase an annual share in a local farm and pick up a portion of the weekly harvest. There are many such opportunities to buy local in the Capital Region and elsewhere throughout New York.

The environmental, health and community benefits of eating fresh foods bought directly from a local farmer are significant. If those foods happen to be certified organic, all the better.

But the soul of organic cannot be found in the USDA seal. For that, you have to talk to your farmer.

Brian Obach is an associate professor of sociology at the State University at New Paltz. He is writing a book on the organic agriculture movement.

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