Organic Agriculture: Turning a Movement into an Industry

Organic agriculture finally has the chance to pass from a movement to an industry—if it can cope with its problems.

| September/October 1989

  • 119-084-01
    The "old" organic grower: market gardeners who toil so hard they can't stop weeding long enough to nurse.
  • 119-084-02
    The "new" organic grower: megafarmers who use $80,000 Salad Vacs to suck pests off eight rows at once.
  • Meryl Streep
    Meryl Streep got millions of Americans wondering about pesticides in food.
  • Organic Testing
    Everyone's on the lookout for Alar in apple products these days—but who tests for the 600 other food pesticides? 

  • 119-084-01
  • 119-084-02
  • Meryl Streep
  • Organic Testing

It's the first national conference on Organic/Sustainable Agriculture in Washington, D.C. Downstairs, a young-buck bureaucrat discusses the proposed 1990 farm bill. Several audience members ask detailed questions about multiyear setbacks and commodity cover-crop support. Meanwhile, one floor up, another speaker tells an old joke about two guys who read MOTHER EARTH NEWS, decided to become organic chicken farmers, then planted their chicks—upside down. Nobody laughs.

The different responses in the two conference rooms capture the spirit of the times. Organic is no longer the sole province of alternative back-to-the-landers and "health foodists." No, the O word has come out of the closet and into mainstream acceptability. Its growers are no longer just back-sore market gardeners who handpick every bean beetle, but also 700-acre strawberry producers who suck up pests with six-bed-wide monster vacuums.

Add in such newsworthy events as last spring's news blitz on apples with Alar, contaminated Chilean grapes, and Meryl Streep speaking out on pesticides, and organic food has become a hot media topic. A hot consumer topic as well: Demand now outstrips supply by 10 to one. A $3-billion-a-year industry, it's the fastest-growing specialty sector in agriculture. Major supermarket chains are rushing to get pesticide-free produce on their shelves. Bankers, venture capitalists, large food brokers and Japanese exporters are chasing the organic gold rush.

As a result, organic agriculture today has its greatest opportunity ever to have a positive impact on our nation's food-consuming and food-growing patterns. But opportunity carries risk: This budding industry may also fall flat on its face. Producer fraud, marketplace confusion and dilution of standards could all lead to disastrous setbacks. The term organic may wind up as meaningless a food label as "natural" (enjoyed any "natural" margarine lately?). These are organic's heydays—and the days of its most crucial testing.

Of all the questions facing the industry, the two biggest are, What is an organic food? and How does a shopper know that a so-called organic food item really is organic? The first question sounds deceptively simple. Most people know that an organic crop is one raised without any insecticides, herbicides, fungicides or synthetic fertilizers. But zoom in on the particulars and the image begins to blur. What if the land was treated with one of those "cide sisters" the year before, and some residues still remain in the soil? How about if a pesticide sprayed on an adjacent field drifts over onto the organic crops? Exactly which fertilizers are natural, and which chemical?

The second question stirs even murkier waters. An organic carrot looks like an inorganic carrot. The only obvious difference is the price: 15%, 30%, maybe even 100%o more. So how do shoppers know they are getting what they pay for—and nothing else? Won't some conventional growers be tempted to lie and pocket the extra income?

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