Food is not always something that you put in your mouth and eat!

Posts tagged ‘National Organic Standrds Board’

“Walmarting of Organics” Sparks Thoughts

My post last week about the “Walmarting of Organics” brought me gobs of email. The pot was stirred! But, that is a good thing and what “Food for Thought” is all about.

Every subject or issue has many viewpoints and I for one like hearing them, kind of like playing devil’s advocate with myself.

One particular comment from a share on Facebook got me thinking……..

“Yeah, but when when Walmart is making more of an effort at making organic products accessible to lower income folks than the existing organic/small foods institutions that make small farms possible, I don’t think we should be pointing our fingers just at Walmart. I hate Walmart just as much as any other greeny, but let’s talk about the food system as a [w]hole, about capitalism, about someone’s hunger and nutritional needs being a market to sell your goods when we really should be collectivizing in a way that INCLUDES rather than excludes our society’s most vulnerable people.”

Well said!

Looking at our food system as a whole is a daunting task and needs to be peeled away in layers like an onion. Not wanting to go into a detailed description of economic theories or by any means think that I can conduct a lesson on those theories; it is, however, well worth looking at.

Our main-stream food system is designed by corporate entities having a responsibility to shareholders, investors, and/or private owner. The bottom line is the almighty (or not so almighty) dollar. This system supposedly operates on the “free market or free enterprise” theory better known as capitalism.

Capitalism – in short definition is an economic system in which most of the means of production are privately owned, and production is guided and income distributed largely through the operation of markets. (merriam-webster) In print this definition looks good and fairly simple.

To further insure that the free market/enterprise operates fairly on the capitalistic system, laws and regulations as well as government oversight are in place. This is where it gets sticky!

There was a time in our country’s history where the laws and regulations were enforced. Anti-trust and monopoly come to mind. I don’t know about anyone else however I was raised by the belief that if you work hard you will do well, America is the land of opportunity, and so on!

Having lived in industrial contract chicken production and having heard comments such as it’s a free market from corporate types I can say that in the chicken industry there is no such thing. The chicken industry is owned and controlled by a handful of companies and it’s an exclusive club controlling the market.

Controlling the production (placement of chicken numbers on contract farms) determines the availability of the product for sale on the market and in turn controls what the market price will be. Furthering that control through flooding the market and driving prices down, squeeze competition out, we end up with a handful. Becoming fully integrated, whereby all aspects of the operation are owned and controlled by the same handful of corporations furthers a monopoly on the market and anti-competition.

Large-scale, integrated operations that increase efficiency and reduce production costs confer a benefit on firms that adopt them and may confer a benefit on consumers if the lower costs lead to lower product prices. In many cases the barrier is a result of anticompetitive behavior on the part of the firm –. (merriam-webster – relating to monopoly)

The chicken industry has been so successful that the majority of our food production system has adopted this model leading to a highly controlled mainstream food supply.

Industrialized food production is claimed to be the best method for feeding the masses including society’s most vulnerable people and in stamping out hunger and nutritional needs. This might be true, although I beg to differ. In adopting this model we have to consider the societal consequences created to maintain this method.

Industrial food production cannot sustain itself and is highly subsidized by the taxpayer – cheap grain prices for feed (farm subsidies); tax abatements (not paying a fair share of tax liability); public health (such as antibiotic resistance); environmental degradation (cleanup of industrial waste/manure). These are only a few of the ways we subsidize industrial food production which enables the handful of corporations to control the free market and reap the profits from the system.

Other types of food production such as organic, sustainable family farms, etc. are not subsidized. Production cost is actual therefore making prices higher in the marketplace.

In theory, one method of food production is supported and apparently favored by the government while other types of food production aren’t. Thusly, a skewed market exists.

Walmart’s adoption of an organic program is the first step toward creating an industrialized organic food production system. Relaxed (bastardized) organic standards have opened the doors for corporate agriculture to step in and produce maybe not so great food. You can bet your bottom dollar the industrialized organic food production system will follow the model of the industrialized chicken industry.

In addition, the Walmart organic move is for the purpose of drawing new high end customers. Economic indicators reveal that Walmart sales are stagnant. The company’s present customer base is society’s most vulnerable people and to spur company sales growth new customers need to be sought.

As an aside, the SNAP (food stamps) program is accepted in all grocery stores and most Farmer’s Markets. The availability of nutritious farm fresh, and/or organic food is inclusive of all through the program. The crinkle is that choice of food dollars spent leans toward not so great foods. Educational programs are lacking in providing society’s most vulnerable people information about wholesome and nutritious food availability and how to spend food dollars on better choices. Quite frankly, I don’t believe that anyone in this country should go hungry. There is no excuse for it and we as a society should be ashamed for allowing it to exist!

Back to the main point – Industrialized organic food production will become something that is no better than industrialized mainstream food production. It’s impossible to survive producing above cost therefore cost efficiencies of production will demand the need to cut corners. Industrialized food production does not sustain its environment and mass production creates uniformity with lack of care. Organic will mean nothing but will demand a premium at Walmart.

Yes, availability of organic will be inclusive of all. When all is said and done, I question what it will be that sits on the shelves of Walmart.

The “Walmarting” of Organics

Grocery giant, Walmart, has set its sights on organics planning to drive the market prices down nationwide announcing an exclusive partnership with Wild Oats. Walmart claims that they will sell a line of 100 organic products at 25 percent less than 26 national brand competitors.

“We’re removing the premium associated with organic groceries” says Jack Sinclair, Walmart executive vice president of grocery. Need I say more?

I believe that most of us are familiar with the Walmart plan and how they have operated in the past. Driving competitors out of business until it’s the only game in town and then having prices creep up hasn’t been in keeping with the mantra go to Walmart and watch prices falling!

From a farmer perspective the new Wild Oats deal tells me that it’s about capturing a rapidly growing organic market, 10 – 20 percent a year by most estimates, and driving the small sustainable organic family farmers out of business. In keeping with its history, Walmart tells the producer what it will pay for your product and you can take it or leave it. Walmart buys in large volume and to acquire the volume the company will need huge organic suppliers.

By the same token, Walmart customers are traditionally either/or from poor areas, low income, rural, or food stamp recipients. I do believe in food equality meaning that everyone should have access to affordable healthy food choices.

What I don’t believe in is driving the food prices paid to the farmer down to the point of the small scale family farmer becoming listed on the endangered species list!

Open the door for industrial corporate organic food production – I’ve written in the past about the “bastardization of organics” and as I’ve said before, it is not about the real organic food producers it’s about the “posers”. With ever increasing relaxed National Organic Standards occurring, the road is being paved by government regulations for anyone to claim organic. Obviously, history is repeating itself as it did when corporate agriculture took over mainstream food production ushering in vertically integrated food systems, contract farming, and the theory of get big or get out!

It remains to be seen if the new Walmart – Wild Oats plan will be successful. If my local Walmart is any example, I don’t believe that the store will capture new higher end customers. In finding a decent grocery chain, I drive 30 miles. To find a really exceptional grocer it’s 120 miles.

My local Wamart is disgustingly filthy, rotten produce is offered for sale, the employees are rude to the point if you ask a question they behave as if you’ve bothered them, and empty spaces on shelves abound. It has all of the qualities of “if you don’t like it, tough”!

Walmart’s increased sales have remained stagnant. The company sees a rapidly increasing organic market and the sound of cha- ching! The entire deal surrounds the almighty dollar. It’s definitely not based on any warm fuzzy feeling of doing the right thing or providing access to healthy food choices for the masses. I’ve not heard or read one word related to this deal about any claims of corporate social responsibility or being a good citizen in local communities.

Speaking to the local economy, the deal will not provide a boost. Walmart won’t be buying from local farmers they will be buying from centralized mass producers. Efficiency will be the name of the game which translates to cutting corners.

What I find humorous about the deal is that corporations, such as Walmart, have in the past viewed organics as a niche market equating those farmers to left over hippies. Corporate agriculture types snidely snickered over organics as not being technologically advanced in food production. I say, hop on the bus, Gus – be a poser!

Land of Confusion – Part III Is It Organic?

The summer has been busy on the farm and has kept me from my favorite pastime – writing! As I’ve been outside working I’ve conjured up all kinds of topics of discussion in our land of confusion called farming. I know, I keep intending to bring the subject of genetics into my next discussion but there are things that keep leading me astray.

A recent article in the New York Times, “Has Organic’ Been Oversized” written by Stephanie Strom on July 7th captured my attention and I’ve been thinking of little else.

What disturbed me the most was the admission by Alexis Baden-Mayer, political director at the Organic Consumers Association saying “I understand that there are very few 100 percent organic businesses left…”. If a consumers association readily admits what has been whispered among us farmers out here trying to the right thing I have to ask myself what’s the point in trying to produce under a label that has been bastardized like the rest of our food system. Is it any wonder that farmers and consumers are confused?

Becoming organic certified is an expensive and time consuming prospect for a farmer. In doing so, farmer’s intention is to produce food for consumers that is free of GMO’s, additives, chemicals, and the list goes on. Traditionally organic has had the implied meaning of food in its purist form.

In 1990 our government set into motion the Organics Food Production Act requiring the U.S Department of Agriculture to develop national standards for organically produced products and to assure consumers that agricultural products sold as organic meet consistent, uniform standards. A National Organic Standards Board was created to make recommendations in the development of organic standards and certification. The 15 member board was to be representative of interested parties: farmer/grower; handler/processor; retailer; consumer/public interest; environmentalist; scientist; and certifying agent. Okay, that sounds easy enough!

At the time organic products were a niche market being produced by farmers labeled as left over hippies and the production and sales didn’t put a dent into the mainstream food market. I distinctly remember in the mid 90’s meeting many of these so called “hippie farmers”. Being part of the industrialized food production world my mindset was not in the same mode as theirs and I wondered why in the world they would create so much more work for their selves on the farm when chemicals could take care of most of the work.

The organic markets began to develop and grow. By 2011 organic products demanded premium prices, consumers had become more aware of where their food was coming from and how it was being produced, and organic food was a $30 billion dollar industry. Consumers wanted better food without all of the junk.

Enter the “big boys” and let the bastardization party begin! Like Mr. Potter in the NY Times article I believe that the “so called organic food” needs to be challenged. I want to know where the protection is for the farmers who are doing all of the right things to be truly organic and where the protection is for the consumer to be totally assured that they are getting the real deal. According to the NY Times story – “Pure, locally produced ingredients from small family farms? Not so much anymore.”

Some believe that the organic standards are being watered down; green washed, and corrupted by corporate agribusiness giants who have entered the organic markets and are industrializing it. When I hear comments from the big boys saying that the demand is greater than the supply and that the demand requires the scale that only they can provide I say “look out”! Faux organics are here and confusion abounds.

This past year, I had reason to question organic and its relationship to raising chickens. I became aware of the fact that if I were to put 10,000 chickens into one of my chicken houses, feed certified organic feed, and allow them access to the outdoors, I could have an organic farm. I didn’t need to worry about the land around the chicken houses because no chemicals had been used over the past 3 years and I could easily fence in a “sun porch” for outside allowance and nothing said that the chickens actually had to go out.

In my mind organic was about much more than just what was fed to the chickens. 10,000 chickens crammed into a confinement house conjured up memories of the days of industrial production. What type of product would I be producing from animals living a miserable existence having only a look at the outdoors but never really experiencing it? The waste created from that many chickens would have to go somewhere.

A friend laughed at my irate comments over this and told me to go to the meeting of the National Organics Standards Board and express my thoughts. Then told me “come back and tell me if they heard you or if they even cared”. Something like – let me know how far you get. I knew it would be a waste of time. After reading the NY Times article and Mr. Potter saying he had done exactly as my friend suggested I do and got nothing but being allowed to speak for 3 minutes and then a “thank you”, I realize that this issue is much bigger. Assuring the integrity of organic food won’t come through government process it will only come from consumers knowing their farmer and seeing how their food is produced.

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