by Heba Saleh
“It’s not just a fad – organic food is better for you, say scientists” is the title of an article that summarizes the sentiments of growing numbers of people in North America, Europe, and other developed nations in recent years. British writer Ian Herbert writes the following introductory paragraph in his article: “New evidence has emerged showing that organic food does contain nutrients that deliver health benefits, contrary to the view put forward earlier this year by David Miliband, who said it was only a ‘lifestyle choice’.” British Environment Secretary David Miliband presented a different opinion on the matter. His stance was that organic food is simply a lifestyle choice—a wealthy consumer’s fantasy come true—and he thought it farcical to “say that 96% of our farm produce is inferior because it is not organic” (BBC News). Back-and-forth bickering between experts and politicians from each side of the debate on the legitimacy of organic food leaves consumers hungry for the truth. Debates aside, it is evident from recent trends in agribusiness that there is significant growth in the organic products industry. The ultimate question that this growth spurs is that of sustainability: Will it contribute to progressive social and environmental change which is so needed in our world today? Well, it depends…
Using the burgeoning organic market as a propeller for this change is possible because it promotes greater consciousness of human health and natural environment as well as social responsibility between both producers and consumers. In spite of this, there are currently incongruities between organic ideals and practice that materialize through the processes and exchanges of the capitalist market —namely, the limitations of current organic certification, the unavailability of government subsidies for the sustenance of local organic farmers, and primarily, the fetishization of organic commodities, obscuring their methods of production. Therefore, as the industrial market sector for organic commodities grows, these contradictions will most likely demoralize the very environmental advantages that are the basis of organic farming. Positive change is not probable to happen through the present industrialized market as it exists.
However, another more authentic organic movement can bud out of the current industrial one—one that defetishizes the organic commodity and celebrates it for its use value, much more than its exchange value. According to Karl Marx’s review of the capitalist economy in Capital, commodity fetishism can be described as the inclination of people in capitalist societies “to see the product of their labor in terms of relationships between things, rather than social relationships between people” (Hudson 413). The purpose of this paper is to discuss if and how the organic movement can address the problem of commodity fetishism and to understand the obstacles it encounters as it faces industrialization. In doing so, I will specifically discuss the incredible fantasy that organic consumers are currently buying into, and will address how this fantasy can be defetishized to produce a promising future for the movement as it changes its course to really make a difference.
“The Farm as an Organism”: The Origins of Organic
All food grown prior to the 20th century had no other choice but to be organic. Industrial advances started affecting agriculture during the first forty years in the 20th century, when tractors had become widespread in all farming techniques, and synthesized nitrogen fertilizer became affordable and abundant. This trend in farming was undoubtedly profitable, and therefore, very appealing to agriculturalists and farmers in industrialized nations worldwide. An almost immediate response to the new non-organic methods of farming came from the British botanist Sir Albert Howard in 1924 who worked as an agriculturalist in India. His research, compiled in his 1940 book An Agricultural Testament, concluded that the simpler, age-old Indian farming practice was indeed superior to the newer, synthesized version. Also in 1924, Austrian philosopher and social thinker Rudolf Steiner spoke of the importance of health-oriented farming; his claim was centered on the idea that the process was a closed interdependent cycle: “Healthy animals depended upon healthy plants for their food, healthy plants upon healthy soil; healthy soil upon healthy animals for the manure” (“History of Organic Farming”).
However, the term “organic” was not used to describe natural farming practices until 1940, when agronomist Lord Northbourne referred to the farm as an “organism” in his book Look to the Land, where he envisioned farming as a holistic process. Around the same time, the first scientific study comparing conventional and organic farming (named the Haughley Experiment) was conducted in England by Lady Eve Balfour; she published the results in The Living Soil, which later led to the formation of the Soil Association, a pioneering organic advocacy group. But it is important to note that the first shoots of the organic movement “sought to establish not just an alternative mode of production (the chemical-free farms), but an alternative system of distribution (the anti-capitalist food co-ops), and even an alternative mode of consumption (the ‘countercuisine’)” (Pollan 143).
After World War II, advances in large-scale agriculture were attributed to the use of machinery for large-scale irrigation, synthetic fertilization, and pesticides. The overwhelming incentive to make more money propelled American farmers to use chemicals like ammonium nitrate (originally used for warfare), and the pesticide DDT to grow more food with significantly lower labor costs. Growing concerns about the safety of these chemicals spurred scientist Rachel Carson to publish Silent Spring, which documented the harmful effects of DDT and other synthetic pesticides; and as a result, the US government banned its use in 1972. During the 1970s, media made the distinction between conventionally-grown versus organically-grown food clearer, growing the roots of the organic movement, which had the primary goal of influencing consumers to buy locally grown food with slogans like: “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food.” The movement was a global one, producing organizations such as the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (or IFOAM) founded in France in 1972 (“History of Organic Farming”).
Various other awareness groups were founded in the 1980s, mainly pressuring government to standardize methods of organic production. The government eventually responded by passing new certification standards beginning in the 1990s and continuing to the present day. Since then, growing interest in organic consumption has led the market to grow about 20% annually and about 30% in 2006 alone—amounting to $1.6 billion, according to the Soil Association (Herbert).
Consumers of organic products are considered the life force of this exponentially growing movement. Because the movement has recently become embossed on the existing capitalist frame of increased commodity production and consumption, consumers still inevitably apply Marx’s commodity fetishism in their purchases of organic products (Hudson 416). However, no matter how well-intentioned, consumers cannot make the decision to purchase an organic product without information ensuring that it is indeed organically produced. Unfortunately, as evident historically, consumers are seldom given any information about a product’s production process, and even less about its environmental or social bearings. In recent years, there has been a rising demand for this kind of production information; one of the leading books, The Green Consumer Guide, published by Elkington and Hailes in 1988, became a bestseller soon after its release. Another important source of information—although somewhat reductive and fantasy-dependent, as will be discussed later in the paper—is evident through product labeling and certification. However, in keeping with the original vision for organic agriculture and lifestyle, it is important to understand that “the very definition of organic products entails preserving, and even improving, the environmental conditions upon which production depends” (Allen and Kovach 222). This is how the National Organic Standards Board defines organic practices:
Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony (Allen and Kovach 222).
With farmers and consumers’ recent popular support of this holistic approach to agriculture, they have “built an $11 billion dollar industry that is now the fastest growing sector of the food economy” (Pollan 136).
The Dilemma of “Industrial Organic”: Recent Developments
Consumers’ heightened concern for the quality and safety of their food as well as the scientifically-proven dangers of conventional agriculture on the environment have been the leading reasons attributed to the rapidly growing organic market. Due to overwhelming demand for government regulation and standardization, the U.S. Department of Agriculture launched its National Organic Program in 2002, which required companies to put the “USDA Organic” seal on any product they claimed to be more than 95% organic (www.ota.com). Whether or not the campaign has been a complete success is debatable. Sales of organic products have soared in the past five years, and tons of pounds of synthetic fertilizers and chemical pesticides have been removed from farming practices nationwide and globally (Obach). On the other hand, because organic certifications (like the USDA seal, and others) focus principally on “allowable inputs,” the labels promote the fantasy that involves the fetishization of organic products; in other words, the value of the commodity becomes reduced down to its organic constituents rather than the entire labor process of its production (Allen and Kovach 228).
Capitalist societies like our own only consider the high fiscal yield of the organic sector as indicative of its success in the agribusiness economy. Big producers and retailers including Kraft and Wal-Mart have started to get involved in the organic action: “organic businesses, founded by committed advocates, were bought up by multinational corporations seeking to cash in on the high profits to be made in this growing sector” (Obach). Nevertheless, no one can argue that the mainstreaming of organic has had some positive implications in the American market, since the increasingly popular trend of carrying organic products in supermarkets nationwide (not just Whole Foods, but also conventional grocery stores like Safeway, and even wholesale warehouses like Costco) has made organic products more available and more affordable to a wider social circle than before.
However, investigative journalists and others have spotted loopholes in the system, and made note of the not-so-righteous practices of large organic farms and grocery stores nationwide. For example, Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, calls the prevalent organic farming and marketing techniques “industrial organic,” because companies like Whole Foods have “adopted the grocery industry’s standard regional distribution system, which makes supporting small farms impractical. Tremendous warehouses buy produce for dozens of stores at a time, which forces them to deal exclusively with tremendous farms” (Pollan 138). Pollan and others have brought attention to the original definition of organic—one which includes more than just chemical-free food. The initial vision for organic involved a completely different agriculture system, one in which local farmers can “provide consumers with healthy fresh food produced in ways that protect the environment and the communities in which they live […] No one envisioned an organic frozen TV dinner trucked in from California on sale at a big box supermarket” (Obach). While some would say that this mainstreaming is a positive development because organic food is now more accessible to more individuals, others can see this as an obvious downfall, with an even scarier problem of deception involved.
The industry’s appetite for capital accumulation has driven some organic farmers to manage farms that have become increasingly similar to the farms they were supposed to replace. “So while the posters [in Whole Foods] still depict family farmers and their philosophies, the produce on sale below them comes primarily from the two big corporate organic growers in California,” writes Pollan (138). The drive to expand their capital has driven large organic farms to do some considerably non-organic things, like house thousands of supposedly “free-range” chickens in a cramped pen, with absolutely no room to roam anywhere—the only difference between them and conventional chickens being the certified organic feed they consume (140). But organic consumers are rarely aware of this inconsistency between what the USDA label promises and the existing realities of organic agriculture:
Yet the organic label itself—like every other label in the supermarket—is really just an imperfect substitute for direct observation of how food is produced, a concession to the reality that most people in an industrial society haven’t the time or the inclination to follow their food back to the farm, a farm which today is apt to be, on average, fifteen hundred miles away. So to bridge that space we rely on certifiers and label writers and, to a considerable extent, our imagination of what the farms that are producing our food really look like (Pollan 137).
Based on Marx, this exploitation of consumers’ fantasies of organic can be attributed to the absence of a direct, social relationship between the farmer and the organic food buyer. The industrialized organic farmer is only concerned with the exchange-value of his organic product, not with the consumer’s well-being or even his satisfaction with the product (use-value). It is hardly shocking then to see why the opposite is also true—that organic shoppers pay little attention to the way in which the organic products they consume are produced. And the industrialization of organic has caused a sad cycle: “farmers who get the message that consumers care only about price will themselves care only about yield. This is how a cheap food economy reinforces itself” (136).
When satisfying consumer demand for organic goods is done through the market, the process of production becomes completely obscured. The producers and their relations to their labor and to nature become immaterial, no matter how different their methods of production as well as the final quality (Hudson 416). For instance, potatoes grown by a small, local farmer using only a few pesticides and no synthetic fertilizers and working on his or her own soil are put into the same market category as potatoes grown by a corporation-run agribusiness using unfair labor and massive amounts of chemicals. In the process of exchange, the potatoes, produced through very different processes, will be assessed by the consumer only on the basis of their observable characteristics and their price.
Pastoral Fantasies of the Conscious Consumer
“The ‘conscientious consumer’ could also be named the conscious consumer” (Siegle). These consumers rely on information that indicates whether or not organic products have been produced with environmental and social justice in mind. Nonetheless, no matter now conscious the consumer, he or she has to depend on the availability of such information to make purchasing decisions. As discussed earlier, even informed consumers have been misled to have an unrealistic ideal of the sustainability of the current organic market. Not surprisingly, in turn, the market is heavily dependent on the fantasies of its consumers in order to sell more organic products, thereby increasing sales. The more consumers buy into the promise of the organic commodity’s ability to enhance their health, add to their sense of wholesomeness, and improve the environment, the more likely they will be willing to pay the premium for it. An even more compelling notion is that consumers of industrialized organic products are essentially buying into the idea that they can really make a difference without really changing their habits. Specifically, Pollan has called this a fantasy of “pastoral utopia,” which has been fed to health-minded consumers everywhere who shop at organic-centered grocery stores, most notably Whole Foods. With most grocery store locations being in the center of industrialized cities, consumers are completely deprived and removed from the bucolic, natural environment they probably crave. Therefore, their fantasies of organic products are entirely guided by the impression organic marketers choose to relay and advertise.
A marketing study conducted in Cambridge University in 2005 has identified several categories of organic consumers, namely “environmentalists, food phobics, healthy eaters, humanists and welfare enthusiasts, and hedonists” who consistently shop for organic products (Yiridoe). The study found that “organic food consumers tend to perceive such products as having particular intrinsic (quality and safety) characteristics” (Yiridoe). In effect, a consumer’s decision in favor of buying organic is made based on distinguishing a number of observable and unobservable characteristics that make the product more intellectually superior. Pollan blames this perception of superiority on the literature provided in what he calls “supermarket pastoral” environments: “it’s the evocative prose that makes this food really special, elevating an egg or chicken breast or bag of arugula from the realm of ordinary protein and carbohydrates into a much headier experience, one with complex aesthetic, emotional, and even political dimensions.” Thus, although consumers may not detect the presence or absence of organic characteristics during purchase (and often even after purchase and use), the slogans, ingredients, product “stories,” and so on, elevate the product and make the entire grocery shopping experience more intellectually stimulating, and therefore, more legitimate.
It is central to my thesis to note that consumers can only discern if a product is organic when they are somehow informed. In the case of grocery shopping for organic products in stores like Whole Foods, consumers completely rely on quality signals (most significantly the USDA label) and product “stories” to help infuse credence into the products, thereby influencing them to assess product quality: “Wordy labels, point-of-purchase brochures, and certification schemas are supposed to make an obscure and complicated food chain more legible to the consumer” (Pollan 136). Since organic marketers are usually big box supermarkets that have no apparent link to the rural environment that the consumer desires, the stores completely rely on quality markers on products and convincing literature to cash in on the consumer’s fantasy: “More accurately, organic food labels help transform the credence characteristics of such products into search attributes, thereby allowing the consumer to better evaluate quality before deciding to buy the product” (Yiridoe). The abovementioned marketing study has therefore labeled organic products as “credence goods” because consumers (unlike producers who are aware whether or not their products are organic) are never aware whether a sold product is produced using organic or conventional methods—not even after repeated purchase and consumption—unless they are directly informed (Yiridoe).
Although consumers usually understand some obvious issues related to organic agriculture, most do not understand the intricacies and details of current organic methods, and the associated quality deficiencies associated with the industrialization of these practices. And since organic commodities are often disassociated from production and labor, it should not come as a surprise that most “consumers do not distinguish between local and corporate organic foods” (Lindsay). As a result, most consumers are unaware that their current purchasing practices often promote industrial agriculture; and whether organic or not, this negatively impacts the environment because of the lack of crop and seed diversity in farming methods and the large amounts of fossil fuels needed to operate large machinery and for long-distance transportation of goods (Lindsay).
As mentioned earlier, supermarket chains, like Whole Foods, seldom supply local organic produce. After they centralized their distribution of products, it is more profitable for them to buy from a large farm in Mexico than from a small farmer a few miles away. On top of that, large corporations are usually able to sell one organic product at a lower price by subsidizing it with profits from their other non-organic products, thereby disadvantaging the small organic producer: “The price premiums that small-scale farmers once relied on to stay in business have been declining as they are forced to compete with massive farms that grow only a single crop. These mega-farms have economies of scale but externalize more costs to society and to ecosystems in comparison.” (Lindsay). If the system continues in its present condition, what will happen to committed local farmers when price premiums are removed? Either these farmers will fall under the pressures of competitive marketing to entry for large corporations and will start divorcing themselves from original organic ideals at the risk of environmental safety, or they will go out of business.
The Silver Lining
The current system then seems to imply that there is no hope; but as the saying goes, every cloud has a silver lining. The aforementioned Cambridge University marketing study shed some light on a positive aspect of consumer behavior: “What seems clear, and consistent across studies, is that consumers across all regions tend to prefer locally grown organic produce, compared to shipments from other places” (Yiridoe). Additionally, US consumers may be willing to pay price premiums to support local organic producers—unless these premiums are higher than about 10-20% (Yiridoe). To encourage a shift, government is being pressured to subsidize local farms as well. What this suggests is that there is hope. According to Gary Hirshburg, president of Stonyfield Farm, although organics are still considered food for the wealthy—essentially, a status symbol—the availability of private labels and the accessibility of local farms can transform organics to become more of a norm in the marketplace (Severson). This small but increasing trend of desiring to support local organic endeavors characterizes a preliminary effort to counteract the pervasiveness of commodity fetishism, by making the social relations that render production and exchange possible a more visible process (Hudson 420).
Amidst our capitalized society, a counter-hegemonic movement is building to revive the soul of organic. Advocates of local food have stimulated an interest in neighboring organic production, leading to an increase in farmers’ markets and community-sponsored agriculture events—even encouraging consumers to buy a yearly share in a local farm and getting the fresh harvest for their dinners every week. The environmental, health and community benefits of eating fresh foods bought directly from a local farmer abound; and the advantages double if those foods happen to be certified organic (Obach). Although it may seem a lot more expensive on the surface, studies have shown that almost a third of US consumers could afford to purchase organic products at today’s prices if they chose to do so because are already paying that much—and more—for purportedly cheaper conventional food (Harrison). According to the USDA: “When we make the argument that low-income people can’t afford organics, we’re assuming that the prices of conventionals are the prices we should be paying […] but those prices externalize a lot of costs, like pollution and higher energy inputs.” (Harrison).
The End of the Rainbow: Talking to Your Farmer
Perhaps the greatest potential of the new local organics movement lies less in the promise of environmental sustainability, and more in its power to defetishize the organic food commodity. While the Whole Foods consumer fetishizes the fantasy of organic products because the relationship between commodities and social relationships remain obscured, the production process of a local farm is more distinguishable—thus, defetishized—and the social relations between the producer (farmer) and the consumer are maintained. As Allen and Kovach points out, “green consumer movements have done much to counter this objectification of relations of production in capitalism, encouraging us to look beneath the superficial appearance of commodities as mere depersonalized things” (226).
By bringing production methods upfront, local farms can work in a community to bridge the distance between consumption and production, thereby undermining the fetishism of organic commodities. In addition to the obvious benefits of localizing organic production— reducing the international transportation of goods as well as the detrimental reliance on fossil fuels—close proximity of production and consumption creates “a feedback loop in place that forces people to live with the environmental consequences of their production and consumption decisions” (Hudson 418). More significantly, as stated above, the social relations of production are more apt to be visible. Those that live next to the local farm owned by Joe Smith are much more likely to have some idea about the way he manages his farm, and the crops he yields each season as opposed to individuals who buy their groceries from a supermarket chain that is involved in the current mass-production network, where corporations subcontract production to myriad unknown companies miles and miles away from their home, and then ship them back internationally to the local supermarket.
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