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Column: Putting organic agriculture into perspective

“Green giants tip scales as organic goes mainstream” read the headline in a recent edition of the San Francisco Chronicle.

The article was about how “the organic food movement plunges headlong into the American mainstream.” It detailed how the largest organic produce company in the country, Earthbound Farm in San Juan Baptista, Calif., and other major food retailers like Safeway, Wal-Mart, Coca Cola, General Mills, Smuckers and others are now offering massive quantities of organic products to meet a growing niche consumer demand. At the same time, the earth muffin organic crowd that has been ballyhooing organics in a protest against conventional agriculture is now crying foul, according to the article. Those who claim credit for growing consumer demand for organic admit these food giants are following the law, but lack the “soul “ of the organic producers.

My response to that is you enviors have palmed off the falsehood that organics are safer than conventionally produced ag-products long enough that you actually have created a large profitable marketplace. Conventional agriculture and mainstream corporate food suppliers are filling this demand. The so-called organic purists don’t like large corporations getting into the game. To people like my friends at the Organic Consumers Association in Minnesota and the Organic Farming Research Foundation in Santa Cruz, I say tough. You created markets the small organic farmer cannot serve. Don’t cry over what you created with your half-truths.

According to the Chronicle article, organics are the fastest growing segment of the food chain. However, it still represents only about 2 percent of the U.S. food supply. Sales are about $15 billion. Peanuts in the total U.S. food industry are something in the range of $2.5 trillion.

The largest organic movement is in vegetables. Many California vegetable shippers have organic labels along with their conventional labels. However, organics remain a tiny portion of the vegetable business. The latest Monterey County agricultural statistics (2004) show that organics represent just 4 percent of the $3.4 billion Monterey agriculture industry, dominated by Salinas Valley vegetables.

Commercial agriculture is also trying to capitalize on it with other consumer marketing gimmicks like “sustainable” agriculture. The California wine grape business has made a big push in recent years to give the industry a positive industry image by promoting sustainable ag practices for conventional grape growers.

Some wineries have gone all the way to pure organics. North Coast wineries are putting “produced from organically grown grapes” on wine labels, and consumers are buying it, even though much or the wine from the organic grown grapes are made with sulfites. Sulfites are absolutely necessary to stabilize wine. Sulfites in wine apparently are not an issue with wine enthusiasts. Organically grown grapes are. Makes sense to me.

Cotton is the latest U.S. crop to find itself facing the organic/sustainable issue. Demand for organically grown cotton is absurd. Even it is certified organic cotton lint, it must be processed with chemicals to produce textiles. Fortunately, the U.S. cotton industry has a good sustainability story to tell manufacturers and retailers. Maybe that will stymie any mass consumer organic trend.

To put organics in perspective, organics will never feed the world. Organics will never be more than a niche in commercial agriculture, and then only if it turns a profit. I have yet to find a commercial farmer would grows organic buying organic at retail instead of the traditionally-grown crop. It’s too expensive, plus, they know there is nothing unhealthy or dangerous with the conventional crop they grow.

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