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Pundit’s Mailbag — Anti-Organic Article Raises Legitimate Questions

Our piece, Anti-organic Article Raises Points About Animal Cruelty And Efficiency, brought a torrent of surprising responses. Surprising because the responses indicate that interest in organic, on a cultural level, is waning. That what 10 years ago was a catch-word for “whole earth” attitudes has now come to be seen increasingly as a captive of large business interests.

This letter is from a wholesaler in Ithaca, New York, a university town where, among much else, United Fresh holds its Executive Development Program at Cornell University.

One might expect a correspondent from Ithaca to write in fury at someone’s speaking ill of organic produce, but that is not what we find:

Thanks for sharing this article as it raises legitimate questions about the organic movement.

Clearly federal organic standards have been watered down with a national certification program and what is now organic is not the same as it was 20 years ago as the writer stated but did not explore in the article.

The problem is not so much organic vs conventional farming but instead large farm vs small farm production. Large farms are efficient in terms of product produced but leave other costs out of the equation (mainly environmental). With increased size comes increased complexity resulting in potentially not thought of system failures (spinach E coli).

By the way, I don’t buy Horizon organic milk or Stonyfield yogurt because it is not even a real dairy product anymore, just as the writer alluded. I buy local conventionally grown and processed milk and yogurt. It has only traveled 10 miles and is often only a couple of days old when I get it.

Talk about fresh and wholesome!

— Brent Maynard
Director of Purchasing and Sales
Ithaca Produce Co
Ithaca, New York

We thank Brent for this letter because what his note illustrates perfectly is that the coalition that built organic is fracturing. For many, apparently Brent included, some use of synthetic pesticide is a small price to pay for small scale and local production.

As Wal-Mart has learned and as Whole Foods is starting to experience, it may be problematic for any large chain to appeal to the segment of the population that was presumed to be interested in organic production.

As we discussed here, it turns out that many who fought for national organic standards didn’t care so much about the standards themselves as they desired to use the standards as a kind of proxy for other values that were never written into law or regulation.

There is no way that Stonyfield, Horizon or Earthbound can operate while both sustaining their scale and satisfying this audience.

We saw this at PMA’s foodservice conference as well, where many chefs were interested in local, in flavor, in sustainable — but few expressed much interest in organic.

There is a big movement to convert acreage to organic, because it has been more profitable. Yet, if the zeitgeist is shifting, we may have reason to believe that demand for organic will not be unlimited.

Many thanks to Brent for his thought-provoking letter.

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