What We Need to Know About the Corporate Takeover of the "Organic" Food Market

Carole Resnick

"… corporate globalization is really about an aggressive privatization of the water, biodiversity, and food systems of the Earth…" Vandana Shiva, in an interview with YES Magazine (Winter '03 issue).

Organic food has been the refuge of many consumers who have become aware of the dangers of pesticides and other chemicals in the growing and processing practices of the commercial food industry. Many of us have come to trust the word "organic" as the indicator of safety and healthfulness in the foods we choose. We tend to make an implicit assumption that organic food producers are still small farmers who combine ecologically sound farming practices with a political agenda to promote and develop food systems which are local, sustainable, and able to survive independent of corporate agribusiness. More often than we realize, all that remains of this image is an illusion of advertising and marketing. Far too many of the local small farmers who brought the value of organic farming practices to public attention have been unable to survive the onslaught of corporate competition, as organic food has been "developed" in the corporate food arena.

What we call "organic" plant or animal food is, in fact, just plain food that has not been adulterated by chemicals in the process of doing what it does naturally _ growing. Organic does not necessarily mean humane treatment for animals (as in the case of dairy products or meat), nor does it mean regionally grown or fresh. The Northeast Organic Farming Association, the regional organization representing organic growers in the northeast, urges us to choose locally grown food which is not certified organic over organic food which is corporately marketed and travels long distances. Why? The environmental impact of long distance trucking, energy for refrigeration, etc., is extremely damaging. Food which travels far arrives as old food, trading in nutritional value for organic status. For example, the New York Times Sunday Magazine (5/13/01) reports that a strawberry traveling across the continent potentially provides 5 calories of food energy and takes 435 calories of fossilfuel energy to deliver.

The same New York Times article also reports that five giant farms control fully onehalf of the $400 million organic produce market in California. It should come as no surprise that capitalism has extended it's efforts into this piece of the economy. Corporately owned organic brands now take up the majority of space in the organic section of your favorite grocery store. Organic food is seen for its profit making potential and treated as a "market niche," resulting in corporate farms setting aside "organic" fields right alongside fields using conventional practices, including genetically modified seed. As part of its policies in support of large business interests, the US government has established federal standards for organic certification which favor corporations, and are too expensive for the average small farmer to meet.

Growth for capitalist economies demands ever increasing profit, based on expansion. Family owned and "small" businesses give way to larger and larger enterprises, until Walmart finally replaces the local variety stores, and Wegmans replaces the neighborhood food markets. The same principal has affected farming, and as a consequence we are in danger of losing our local farmers. Already, due to the global industrialization of corporate agribusiness, "farmer" no longer appears on the US census as a job category. This means that less that 2% of the population in our country farms for a living.

The January-February '03 issue of the Cooperative Grocer describes a similar pattern that has occurred among the wholesale food distributors serving the consumer owned coops which sell organic foods. In 1982 there were 28 such wholesale distributors in the US. In 1987 that number had declined to 14, in 2002 there were 6 distributors surviving, and in 2003 there are only 3 wholesale distributors of this kind remaining in the US. This process touched us locally this year, when Northeast Cooperative, the wholesale distributor serving the Syracuse Real Food Coop, declared bankruptcy and was bought out by United Foods, Inc.

The Hall of Mirrors

It takes more time and effort to bring organically grown food to market. It is prey to the natural forces of variation in season and weather, and it does not easily garner a large profit margin. That is, not until agribusiness figured out how to industrialize "organic" growing.

When the research is done to uncover the chain of corporate connections related to ownership of organic food brands, the results are similar to what is revealed in any other area of economic production touched by the "global economy." Corporate connections are invisible to the shopper, and the marketing image of safe and healthy "organics" is used to maintain consumer trust. Some cases in point are what follows.*

A familiar brand name to organic shoppers is Hain. This company now owns many other organic brands, which continue to appear to be independent. Some examples include: Bearitos (chips), Bread Shop (granola), Celestial Seasonings (tea), Garden of Eatin', Health Valley, Imagine Foods (Rice Dream), Terra Chips, and Westbrae (canned vegetables, soy drinks, pastas, and more). And who owns Hain? The prime investors in the Hain Food Group are mutual funds and holding companies. Their principal stockholders are Phillip Morris (tobacco), Monsanto (genetically modified food), Citigroup (responsible for rainforest destruction), Exxon/Mobil, Wal-Mart, Entergy Nuclear, and Lockheed Martin (weapons manufacturer). In 9/99 the H.J. Heinz Co. acquired ownership of nearly 20% of Hain. And, no surprises here, Heinz is principally owned by the same mutual funds and principal stockholders as is Hain.

Cascadian Farms (the brand offering much of the organic frozen food on the market) and Muir Glen (tomato products) are owned by Small Planet Foods, which is the organic marketing "niche"owned by General Mills, the third biggest food conglomerate in North America. Agribusiness is guilty enough for negative impacts on the global environment, local economies, and the nutritional quality of the food most of us have little choice but to consume. But look who "owns" General Mills. Their principal investors are Philip Morris, Exxon/Mobil, General Electric, Chevron, Nike, McDonald's, Target Stores, Starbucks, Monsanto, Dupont (weapons & pesticides), Dow Chemical (Agent Orange, breast implants, napalm), Pepsico, Alcoa Aluminium, Disney, and Texas Instruments (weapons producer and one of G.W. Bush's top contributors).

Fresh Samantha, a popular organic juice brand regionally produced in Maine, merged with Odwalla in 5/00. Little do health conscious consumers suspect that Odwalla Juice is owned by CocaCola, as part of their Minute Maid unit. Boca Burgers is owned by Kraft Foods, which is owned by Philip Morris. Stoned Wheat Thins is made with GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and is owned by Nabisco, which was acquired by Philip Morris in December, 2000. Arrowhead Water and Poland Spring Water are owned by Nestle (which is being boycotted because its "breast milk substitute" causes the deaths of millions of babies). Silk Soy Drink is owned by White Wave, which is owned by Dean Foods, whose main shareholders are Microsoft, General Electric, Philip Morris, Citigroup, Pfizer, Exxon/Mobil, Coca Cola, WalMart, PepsiCo, and Home Depot.

Writing for the New York Times Sunday Magazine (5/13/01), Michael Pollan reported that Organic Cow, previously represented to consumers as an organic dairy based in the Northeast and consisting of a network of small farms, was bought out by Horizon. Another source of organic dairy products, Horizon is a $127 million public corporation that has become the Microsoft of organic milk, controlling 70 percent of the retail market. The milk is now "ultrapasteurized" using a highheat process that "kills the milk," destroying its enzymes and many of its vitamins so it can be sold over long distances. Arguably, ultrapasteurized organic milk is actually less nutritious than conventionally pasteurized non-organic milk. Horizon's "factory farms" in the West are described as a clear example of the certifiability of inhumane practices through the emerging corporate organics system. Pollan writes: "On Horizon's dairy farms in the west, thousands of cows that never encounter a blade of grass spend their days confined to a fenced dry lot, eating (certified organic) grain and tethered to milking machines three times a day."

Now That We Know

Like the greed to control oil resources that is driving the US war making agenda, the greed to control food and water betrays the ultimate capitalist goal of controlling the very basic resources needed for life. There is much analysis available suggesting that water wars will be next. Corporate intrusion into the very nature of nature through genetic engineering, patenting and "free trade" policies makes it imperative that we politicize our view of organic food production. Organic food is just plain food. It is what our bodies are made to receive, and what human beings need to survive within the ecology of our planet. It is corporate marketing that creates organic products as "boutique" food for the privileged. In fact, clean food is as much our right as clean air and water.

* Appreciation goes to Paul Glover for research on corporate connections in the organic industry as a member of the Ithaca Greenstar Food Coop Education Committee. Details at www.ithacanews. org/greenstarstock.html

Consider the Alternatives

• Buy food at a consumer-owned store (locally, the Syracuse Real Food Coop), or a locally owned supermarket (Peters, rather than Wegmans or Price Chopper).

• Select regionally grown produce, and non-corporate owned brands. Tell store management your preference.

• Support local organic farmers by buying a share in Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Grindstone Farm (315-298-4139; [email protected]), Frosty Morning Farm (607-842-6799; [email protected]), and Wake Robin Farm (315-689-0034; [email protected]) are local growers who provide weekly shares of vegetables through the harvest season. Cobblestone Farm (607-749-4032; [email protected]) provides seasonal shares of poultry and occasional beef, as well as u-pick strawberries.

• Use the "Local Organic Source" published by the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York, to locate farms in your area that do not provide CSA's but who have good food available, (519-734-5495; www.nofany.org).

• Support local farmers at the Regional Market in season. Some are not certified "organic" producers, but make conscious choices in their practices.

• Grow what you can in your own garden.

• Take advantage of reasonable prices and bountiful quantities available in season, and put up foods by cold storage, drying, freezing, and canning.

Carole believes that the work it takes to gather and put up our own food is worth it. She has a vision of community that shares this labor, so that everyone can eat well. Corporganics List