The Organic Monopoly and the Myth of 'Natural' Foods: How Industry Giants Are Undermining the Organic Movement

The Organic
Alternative: A Matter of Survival

The Organic
Alternative: A Matter of Survival

After four decades of hard
work, the organic community has built up a $25 billion "certified
organic" food, farming, and green products sector. This consumer-driven
movement, under steady attack by the biotech and Big Food lobby, with
little or no help from government, has managed to create a healthy and
sustainable alternative to America's disastrous, chemical and energy-intensive
system of industrial agriculture. Conscious of the health hazards of
Big Food Inc., and the mortal threat of climate change and Peak Oil,
a critical mass of organic consumers are now demanding food and other
products that are certified organic, as well as locally or regionally
produced, minimally processed, and packaged.

The Organic Alternative, in
turn, is bolstered by an additional $50 billion in annual spending by
consumers on products marketed as "natural," or "sustainable."
This rapidly expanding organic/green products sector--organic (4% of
total retail sales) and natural (8%)--now constitutes more than 12%
of total retail grocery sales, with an annual growth rate of 10-15%.
Even taking into account what appears to be a permanent economic recession
and a lower rate of growth than that seen over the past 20 years, the
organic and natural market will likely constitute 31-56% of grocery
sales in 2020. If the Organic Alternative continues to grow, and
if consumers demand that all so-called "natural" products move in
a genuine, third party-certified "transition to organic" direction,
the U.S. will be well on its way to solving three of the nation's
most pressing problems: climate change, deteriorating public health,
and Peak Oil.

Sales statistics and polls
underline the positive fact that a vast army of organic consumers, more
than 75 million Americans, despite an economic recession, are willing
to pay a premium price for organic and green products. These consumers
are willing to pay a premium because they firmly believe that organic
and natural products are healthier, climate stabilizing, environmentally
sustainable, humane for animals, and well as more equitable for family
farmers, farmworkers, and workers throughout the supply chain.

Many of the most committed
organic consumers are conscious of the fact that organic food and other
products are actually "cheaper" in real terms than conventional
food and other items-since industrial agriculture's so-called "cheap"
products carry hidden costs, including billions of dollars in annual
tax subsidies, and hundreds of billions of dollars in damage to our
health, the environment, and climate. Strengthening the argument for
organic food and farming, scientists now tell us that it will take a
massive conversion to organic agriculture (as well as renewable energy,
sustainable housing and transportation) to drastically reduce climate-destabilizing
greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million and to cope
with the advent of "Peak Oil," the impending decline in petroleum
and natural gas supplies.

Organic food and a healthy
diet and lifestyle are obviously key factors in preventing chronic disease,
restoring public health, and reducing out-of-control health care costs.
While in 1970, U.S. health care spending appeared somewhat sustainable,
totaling $75 billion, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services
project that by 2016, health care spending will soar to over $4.1 trillion,
or $12,782 per resident.

Millions of health-minded Americans,
especially parents of young children, now understand that cheap, non-organic,
industrial food is hazardous. Not only does chemical and energy-intensive
factory farming destroy the environment, impoverish rural communities,
exploit farm workers, inflict unnecessary cruelty on farm animals, and
contaminate the water supply; but the end product itself is inevitably
contaminated. Routinely contained in nearly every bite or swallow of
non-organic industrial food are pesticides, antibiotics and other animal
drug residues, pathogens, feces, hormone disrupting chemicals, toxic
sludge, slaughterhouse waste, genetically modified organisms, chemical
additives and preservatives, irradiation-derived radiolytic chemical
by-products, and a host of other hazardous allergens and toxins. Eighty
million cases of food poisoning every year in the US, an impending swine/bird
flu pandemic (directly attributable to factory farms), and an epidemic
of food-related cancers, heart attacks, and obesity make for a compelling
case for the Organic Alternative.

Likewise millions of green-minded
consumers understand that industrial agriculture poses a terminal threat
to the environment and climate stability. A highly conscious and passionate
segment of the population are beginning to understand that converting
to non-chemical, energy-efficient, carbon-sequestering organic farming
practices, and drastically reducing food miles by relocalizing the food
chain, are essential preconditions for stabilizing our out-of-control
climate and preparing our families and communities for Peak Oil and
future energy shortages.

Decades of research confirm
that organic agriculture produces crop yields that are comparable (under
normal weather conditions) or even 50-70% superior (during droughts
or excessive rain) to chemical farming. Nutritional studies show that
organic crops are qualitatively higher in vitamin content and trace
minerals, and that fresh unprocessed organic foods boost the immune
system and reduce cancer risks. And, of course climate scientists emphasize
that organic agriculture substantially reduces greenhouse pollution.
Organic farms use, on the average, 50% or less petroleum inputs than
chemical farms, while generating drastically less greenhouse gases such
as methane and nitrous oxide. Moreover diverse, multi-crop organic farms
sequester enormous amounts of CO2 in the soil. Agronomists point out
that a return to traditional organic farming practices across the globe
could reduce greenhouse gas pollution by 40%. In other words, America
and the world desperately need an Organic Revolution in food and farming,
not only to salvage public health and improve nutrition, but also in
order to literally survive in the onrushing era of Peak Oil and climate

Scientists, as well as common
sense, warn us that a public health Doomsday Clock is ticking. Within
a decade, diet and environment-related diseases, including obesity,
diabetes, heart disease, and cancer-heavily subsidized under our Big
Pharma/chemical/genetically engineered/factory farm system-will likely
bankrupt Medicare and the entire U.S. health care system.

Likewise, climate chaos and
oil shortages, unless we act quickly, will soon severely disrupt industrial
agriculture and long-distance food transportation, leading to massive
crop failures, food shortages, famine, war, and pestilence. Even more
alarming, accelerating levels of greenhouse gases (especially from cars,
coal, cattle, and related rainforest and wetlands destruction) will
soon push global warming to a tipping point that will melt the polar
icecaps and unleash a cataclysmic discharge of climate-destabilizing
methane, fragilely sequestered in the frozen arctic tundra.

If we care about our children
and the future generations, we obviously must reverse global warming,
stabilize the climate, and prepare for petroleum shortages and vastly
higher oil prices. The only way to do this is to reduce greenhouse gas
pollution by 90% by 2050, by shifting away from petroleum and coal-based
energy to radical energy conservation and making a transition to renewable
solar and wind power-not only in transportation, housing, and industry,
but in farming, food processing, and food distribution as well.

In the food sector, we cannot
continue to hand over 88% of our consumer dollars to out-of-control,
chemical-intensive, energy-intensive, greenhouse gas polluting corporations
and "profit at any cost" retail chains such as Wal-Mart. The growth
of the Organic Alternative is literally a matter of survival. The question
then becomes how (and how quickly) can we move healthy, organic, and
"natural" products from a 12% market share, to becoming the dominant
force in American food and farming. This is a major undertaking, one
that will require a major transformation in public consciousness and
policy, but it is doable, and absolutely necessary.

But before we overthrow Monsanto,
Wal-Mart, and Food Inc., we need to put our own house in order. Before
we set our sights on making organic and "transition to organic"
the norm, rather than the alternative, we need to take a closer, more
critical look at the $50 billion annual natural food and products industry.
How natural is the so-called natural food in our local Whole Foods Market,
coop, or grocery store? Is the "natural" sector moving our nation
toward an organic future, or has it degenerated into a "green washed"
marketing tool, disguising unhealthy and unsustainable food and farming
practices as alternatives. Is "natural" just a marketing ploy to
sell conventional-unhealthy, energy-intensive, and non-sustainable
food and products at a premium price?

The Myth
of Natural Food, Farming, and Products

Walk down the aisles of any
Whole Foods Market (WFM) or browse the wholesale catalogue of industry
giant United Natural Foods (UNFI) and look closely. What do you see?
Row after row of attractively displayed, but mostly non-organic "natural"
(i.e. conventional) foods and products. By marketing sleight of hand,
these conventional foods, vitamins, private label "365" items, and
personal care products become "natural" or "almost organic"
(and overpriced) in the Whole Foods setting. The overwhelming majority
of WFM products, even their best-selling private label, "365" house
brand, are not organic, but rather the products of chemical-intensive
and energy-intensive farm and food production factories. Test these
so-called natural products in a lab and what will you find: pesticide
residues, Genetically Modified Organisms, and a long list of problematic
and/or carcinogenic synthetic chemicals and additives. Trace these products
back to the farm or factory and what will you find: climate destabilizing
chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, and sewage
sludge-not to mention exploited farm workers and workers in the food
processing industry. Of course there are many products in WFM (and in
UNFI's catalogue} that bear the label "USDA Organic." But the
overwhelming majority of their products, even their best selling private
label, "365," are not.

What does certified organic
or "USDA Organic" mean? This means these products are certified
95-100% organic. Certified organic means the farmer or producer has
undergone a regular inspection of its farm, facilities, ingredients,
and practices by an independent Third Party certifier, accredited by
the USDA National Organic Program (NOP). The producer has followed strict
NOP regulations and maintained detailed records. Synthetic pesticides,
animal drugs, sewage sludge, GMOs, irradiation, and chemical fertilizers
are prohibited. Farm animals, soil, and crops have been managed organically;
food can only be processed with certain methods; only allowed ingredients
can be used.

On the other hand, what does
"natural" really mean, in terms of farming practices, ingredients,
and its impact on the environment and climate?

To put it bluntly, "natural,"
in the overwhelming majority of cases is meaningless, even though most
consumers do not fully understand this. Natural, in other words, means
conventional, with a green veneer. Natural products are routinely produced
using pesticides, chemical fertilizer, hormones, genetic engineering,
and sewage sludge. Natural or conventional products-whether produce,
dairy, or canned or frozen goods are typically produced on large industrial
farms or in processing plants that are highly polluting, chemical-intensive
and energy-intensive. "Natural," "all-natural," and "sustainable,"
products in most cases are neither backed up by rules and regulations,
nor a Third Party certifier. Natural and sustainable are typically label
claims that are neither policed nor monitored. (For an evaluation of
eco-labels see the Consumers Union website). The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection
Service provides loose, non-enforced guidelines for the use of the term
"natural" on meat--basically the products cannot contain artificial
flavors, coloring, or preservatives and cannot be more than minimally

On non-meat products, the term
natural is typically pure propaganda. Companies (like Whole Foods Market
or UNFI) are simply telling us what we want to hear, so that we pay
an organic or premium price for a conventional product. Perhaps this
wouldn't matter that much if we were living in normal times, with
a relatively healthy population, environment, and climate. Conventional
products sold as natural or "nearly organic" would be a simple matter
of chicanery or consumer fraud. But we are not living in normal times.
Pressuring natural and conventional products and producers to make the
transition to organic is a matter of life or death. And standing in
the way of making this great transition are not only Fortune 500 food
and beverage corporations, Monsanto, and corporate agribusiness, as
we would expect, but the wholesale and retail giants in the organic
and natural products sector, UNFI (United Natural Foods) and Whole Foods
Market (WFM).

UNFI & Whole
Foods: Profits at Any Cost

UNFI and Whole Foods Market
are the acknowledged market and wholesale distribution leaders in the
$70 billion organic and natural foods and products sector. Companies
or brands that want to distribute their products on more than just a
local or regional basis must deal with the near-monopoly wholesaler,
UNFI, and giant retailer WFM. Meanwhile retailers in markets dominated
by Whole Foods have little choice but to emulate the business practices
of WFM-i.e. sell as many conventional foods, green washed as "natural,"
as possible. Unfortunately neither UNFI and Whole Foods are putting
out the essential message to their millions of customers that expanding
organics is literally a matter of life or death for public health, climate,
and the environment. Neither are leading the charge to double or triple
organic food and farming sales by exposing the myth of natural foods,
giving preference to organic producers and products, and pressuring
natural brands and companies to make the transition to organic. Neither
are the industry giants lobbying the government to stop nickel and dime-ing
organics and get serious about making a societal transition to organic
food and farming. The reason for this is simple: it is far easier and
profitable for UNFI and WFM to sell conventional or so-called natural
foods at a premium price, than it is to pay a premium price for organics
and educate consumers as to why "cheap" conventional/natural food
is really more expensive than organic, given the astronomical hidden
costs (health, pollution, climate destabilization) of conventional agriculture
and food processing.

UNFI has cemented this "WFM/Conventional
as Natural" paradigm by emulating conventional grocery store practices:
giving WFM preferential prices over smaller stores and coops-many
of whom are trying their best to sell as many certified organic and
local organic products as possible. Compounding this undermining of
organics is the increasing practice among large organic companies of
dropping organic ingredients in favor of conventional ingredients, while
maintaining their preferential shelf space in WFM or UNFI-supplied stores.
In other words the most ethical and organic (often smaller) grocers
and producers are being discriminated against. WFM also demands, and
in most cases receives, a large quantity of free products from producers
in exchange for being distributed in WFM markets.

The unfortunate consequence
of all this is that it's very difficult for an independently-owned
grocer or a coop trying to sell mostly organic products to compete with,
or even survive in the same market as WFM, given the natural products
"Sweetheart Deal" between UNFI and WFM. As a consequence more and
more independently owned "natural" grocery stores and coops are
emulating the WFM model, while a number of brand name, formerly organic,
companies are moving away from organic ingredients (Silk soy milk, Horizon,
Hain, and Peace Cereal for example) or organic practices (the infamous
intensive confinement dairy feedlots of Horizon and Aurora) altogether,
while maintaining a misleading green profile in the UNFI/WFM marketplace.
Other companies, in the multi-billion dollar body care sector for example,
are simply labeling their conventional/natural products as "organic"
or trade-marking the word "organic" or "organics" as part of
their brand name.

The bottom line is that we
must put our money and our principles where our values lie. Buy Certified
Organic, not so-called natural products, today and everyday. And tell
your retail grocer or coop how you feel. Please join thousands of other
Organic Consumers and send a message to Whole Foods and UNFI today.

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