Volatility

July 29, 2018

Notes on the Industrial Organic Sector

 
 
1. A few years back there were some false rumors, which may have started as satire, that Monsanto was buying Whole Foods Market. This stemmed from the fact that Whole Foods Market, Stonyfield and others joined with Obama’s secretary of agriculture Tom Vilsack to try to make a “co-existence” deal with Monsanto over Roundup Ready alfalfa. This was a backdoor way to try to water down organic standards. The USDA always has wanted to include GMOs within the organic standards, and the industrial organic sector, reliant as it is on the “natural” label scam, has no objections. Lots of rhetoric followed which eventually led to the false rumors. The prosaic truth is that industrial organic is industrial first and organic a distant second. The sector is not committed to anything beyond what it sees as effective marketing and profiteering. WFM’s CEO at the time Jeff Mackey openly said that WFM touts “organic” and “natural” purely as a marketing gimmick, and he explicitly repudiated any ecological or public health philosophy beyond that. This mirrors the USDA’s appraisal of its own organic certification program: According to the agency organic food is no better or healthier than poison-based food, but is merely a kind of lifestyle ornament.
 
What’s not a rumor is the fact that BASF and Cargill are members of the Organic Trade Association. Nor is this a surprise, as the OTA represents the industrial sector and shares the USDA/WFM view of organic agriculture and food as merely a branding device. That’s why the OTA consistently has worked to water down NOSB standards, and that’s why it supported the 2016 DARK Act which put a stake in the heart of the GMO labeling movement by co-opting it in a sham fashion, as I predicted for years would happen.
 
2. Many system NGOs are dedicated to performing a pro-corporate, pro-globalization triangulator role. Some oppose pesticides and GMOs but want FDA control of produce, or of GMO labeling. Some oppose pesticides and GMOs but support expanded use of synthetic fertilizers, themselves a major pollutant, driver of climate change, and basis of pesticide monoculture. In reality it’s not possible to support synthetic fertilizers and not effectively support the entire apparatus of agribusiness and poison-based agriculture. Even the USDA organic certification acknowledges this.
 
In the guise of debunking some pro-GMO lies they reinforce others and in general reinforce the lies of corporate industrial agriculture, commodity farming, and globalization. In the course of it they implicitly attack Food First and other organizations truly dedicated to fighting hunger, and who document and publish the truths of food production and economics. Just like how industrial organic’s lobbying arm Just Label It stressed labeling but supported GMOs on other points, as well as supporting corporate agriculture and food as such, with the eventual result I predicted for years: In 2016 the labeling strategy reached its logical end with the passage of what I called DARK Act Plan B.
 
This reflects the industrial organic agenda. This globalized commodity sector: 1. Opposes food-based agriculture, just as much as the GM cartel and any other commodity sector does. 2. Joins hands with Monsanto in trying to suppress the facts and propagate lies about food production, the environment, and hunger. 3. It diverges from the GM/pesticide cartel on some specifics regarding GMOs. (But not on fertilizer.) These seem to be chosen cynically, with an eye toward continuing to receive some corporate funding. Thus EWG refutes the “feed the world” lie where it comes specifically to GMOs but supports this big lie in general, while Just Label It supported the lie that GMOs have been tested and found to be safe.
 
All this is intended to serve a gate-keeping function, since any real abolition movement would be a threat to: 1. Industrial organic’s leadership of the food movement, 2. The sector’s very existence, which after all is just as dependent on corporate welfare, the parasite paradigm, the whole globalization system.
 
As far as the official certification, organic is nothing more or less than what the USDA says it is, by definition. When the USDA issued its original proposal for an organic certification in the 1990s, this proposed rule would have allowed GMOs to be certified “organic”. Only massive pressure from farmers and consumers forced them to back down and rewrite the standard to exclude GMOs. But the agency has not changed its mind about thinking they should be allowed, just as it has never changed its official opinion that organic agricultural practices and food are no safer or healthier but just add up to a set of “lifestyle” products. The USDA’s basic position on GMOs is that they’re not only safe but normative, and that the environment and food system should maximally be contaminated and transformed. (They would say “improved” or something similar; they call GM seeds “improved seeds”.) They’ve not only approved every GMO application without exception but are doing all they can to declare whole classes of GMOs to be outside their jurisdiction and unregulatable. It’s not every day you see a bureaucracy voluntarily giving up vast swathes of its power. Only extreme ideology could drive such a thing.
 
So much for the USDA. As for industrial organic, the likes of Jeff Mackey openly say that they subscribe to no organic philosophy but view the whole thing as a marketing ploy. Gary Hirshberg never misses a chance to try to euthanize activism, like with his endorsement of the QR code as an allegedly acceptable labeling compromise*. And although the Fabers were unable to reach a deal with Vilsack and the GMA in January 2016, they rushed out to justify the basic paradigm of secret elite conclaves toward some “compromise” which then can be handed down to the people. So there’s the basic attitude of the economic and cultural elites of the movement. As for standard practice, just look at the “natural” scam which is near-universal among them. If they’re willing to surreptitiously sell you GMOs and Roundup in your food (at a premium, no less!) while calling it “natural”, they’d certainly love to do the same by calling it “organic”. They’ve already slipped such poisons as gut-busting carrageenan into the certification standards.
 
Their most clear-cut political ploy was the attempted “co-existence” deal over GM alfalfa which Vilsack tried to broker between the industrial organic sector and Monsanto. The USDA itself in its Environmental Impact Review admitted that over the long run GM alfalfa cannot co-exist with non-GM. This means that legalizing the GM product is tantamount to rendering much of certified organic meat and dairy untenable – unless the standard is changed to allow some level of GM presence in the hay. Obviously Vilsack, WFM, Stonyfield, etc. knew this when they tried to make the deal. So unless one thinks they want certified organic meat and dairy to cease to exist, the only alternative is that they want to see the organic certification standard changed to allow GMOs.
 
Why would industrial organic do such things? In their perfect world, they could sell the same industrial junk but slap the “organic” brand on it and charge a premium. They already do exactly that with the term “natural” (which is why they’re hostile toward any labeling policy like Vermont’s which would end this terminological scam). They cherish the same desire as that of the USDA, to allow GMOs under the “organic” name. That’s why they always felt dissonance and ambivalence toward the idea of GMO labeling. They got involved only as a PR campaign. But as we saw with the history of JLI, AGree, etc., what they really wanted was to control and manage the labeling campaign, in the same way EPA “manages” Roundup and dioxins, and mainstream environmental groups help the corporations manage ecological destruction. They want to control it in such a way that they get the PR benefit while forestalling any reality of a strong, honest labeling policy. JLI, Hirshberg and the GMA are Roundup-burnt peas in a pod.
 
We’ve seen how in response to the Steve Marsh lawsuit there was a major propaganda campaign to the effect that Australia’s organic standards are too strict and need to be relaxed to allow some level of “adventitious presence”. The OTA and the industrial organic sector are leading same campaign in the US. Anywhere this relaxation is enacted, the level of contamination allowed under the standard then will begin a mechanical upward creep, in exactly the same way that pesticide “tolerances” are mechanically raised by regulators as more pesticides are used.
 
That exact same mechanical raising of the allowed level of GM presence also will occur with any labeling policy which is ever enacted, which is one of the reasons why labeling was the wrong idea in the first place. In Europe the 0.9% standard is under strong pressure from the industry to be raised.
 
*The whole attitude that “compromise” is possible and desirable is the same as to say that “co-existence” with Monsanto and GMOs is desirable, and that it’s physically possible at all.
 
3. Some people are more interested in premium niche marketing than in the food sovereignty and abolition imperatives. In many cases it’s obvious, as in the long and ongoing history of small organic companies selling out to big conglomerates. No doubt they’d often claim they were under financial duress and had no choice, and maybe once in awhile that’s true. The system is heavily stacked against healthy, ecological farming and food.
 
But far more often it’s simply taken for granted on an ideological level that a successful entrepreneur sells out at some point to a big corporation. Most entrepreneurs seem to regard this as a “natural” part of some kind of business life cycle, in the same way we physically go from childhood to adolescence to adulthood. But this conventional capitalist mindset cannot coexist with the ecological philosophy and imperative, any more than non-GM crops can coexist with GM for long in the most physical sense.
 
4. Is the USDA organic certification a decadence?** People with money are willing to pay more for what’s good (or at least better) while tolerating the general deterioration, rather than resolving to put an end to what’s bad so we can all have what’s good? I’m fighting to abolish poison-based agriculture and build food sovereignty. I regard the place of organics only from a strategic and tactical point of view. But I’m certain that the goal itself isn’t to expand organics alongside the poison system. That’s impossible anyway. Coexistence is impossible, and if the poison system continues, the organic sector must eventually cease to exist in all but name, if that.
 
Foodies and corporate executives and shareholders alike (often the same people) think humanity (at least moneyed humans) can co-exist with GMOs, pesticides, climate change, etc. For them organic food, electric cars, etc. add up to an island. Monsanto’s CEO thinks he and his people eat separate food, drink separate water, breathe separate air, inhabit a separate ecology. But Certified Organic is not an island, it cannot co-exist (physically or politically) with poison-based agriculture and a poisoned environment, steadily it will be eroded, degraded, corrupted, and soon will cease to exist except in name only, if things keep going the way they are.
 
**There are several attempts underway to promulgate non-governmental organic standards which improve upon the USDA certification. These include the Real Organic Project (designed to overcome many of the abusive features of the USDA standards) and Certified Naturally Grown (designed to be more affordable for small direct retail organic farmers; the USDA system is geared to the big industrial operators). Whether any of these is a big improvement depends on the good faith of all the participants, from farmer to certifier to customer.
 
5. I write mostly about a general mindset and strategy. Most of what I write is geared to organizational and philosophical matters, not as much directly to consumer matter. But for the kind of buying follows from that, I practice and recommend doing the best one can within that framework. Buy the best you can afford, the rules being that local is better than commodified, smaller better than bigger, committed to real values rather than mercenary (especially insofar as you can perceive the mentality and goals of a producer and/or seller – is it a way of life or do they have a mini-Monsanto mentality?), organic/agroecological better than not.
 
It’s true that big corporate buyers can help all producers of non-GM crops, for food and feed, scale up to the necessary level where the products are broadly affordable for the community food sector. In other words, the more non-GM corn is bought for a big retailer’s store brand processed stuff and for their CAFO sourcing, the more affordable it will also become for small direct retail farmers to use as feed. So if producers of non-GM grain etc. saw themselves as just using the corporate sourcing toward the real goal of community sector rebuilding and stuck with that goal without becoming corrupted, the corporate sourcing would be a helpful springboard. On the other hand the more everyone, including “organic” types, see themselves as part of the same commingled commodity economic paradigm as the corporate system, the more they’ll obey the dictates of the big buyers, and the more they’ll have the time-serving house-flipping mindset that they’re only doing this for a period before they get to sell out. In that case the corporate ideology and commodity practice will completely dominate, the community food sector’s development will be hindered rather than boosted, and in the end the quality of the organic consumer product will be degraded completely like I described above.
 
6. If there arose a real movement to rebuild healthy, democratic agriculture and food, the Community Food movement and economic sector as I call it, this sector could use corporate sourcing to help scale itself up to the necessary level where wholesome food became affordable for everyone, and non-GM feed was readily affordable to direct retail farmers. The sector could build out the input and processing infrastructure it mostly lacks and badly needs. I stress, the necessary level of scaling up and building out and no bigger, based on sustainability and distribution within its own watershed and foodshed. That’s a core measure of whether such a movement exists: Is the goal to produce affordable real food for human beings, while seeking revenue only in order to support this goal and support oneself? Or is it the same old capitalism, with profit and “growth” for their own sakes (and eventually cashing in, selling out to a big buyer) the real goal, while participants just pretend to do the best they can as far as the product?
 
Obviously the big corporate buyers don’t care about these goals and want to prevent all this from being built. Which leads to the corollary that if the movement I described above doesn’t exist, if people don’t have that mindset, then not only will corporate control of the organic sector (and of much of the organic movement’s politics as well) continue to escalate, but the depressing pattern of small organic producers offering themselves to be bought up will continue. In that case the big corporate controllers eventually will erode and then gut the organic standards themselves, and that will be the end of the whole thing. They’ll do that as soon as they’re able. We already know, for example, that industrial organic is industrial first and organic second, and that they share the USDA’s goal of allowing GMOs to qualify under the “organic” standards.
 
7. Therefore I’m also not sure about even the industrial organic brands. To the extent the mindset of Food Sovereignty and building the Community Food sector actually exists, and to the extent that the growth of the organic sector helps expand and render economically more viable non-GMO sourcing for animal feed and similar staples which can then be used to build the Community Food sector – its inputs, products, and processing infrastructure – to the extent these are true, industrial organic can be a stepping stone for us.
 
But this boils down to the first question, to what extent does the Food Sovereignty mindset, as part of the public citizen mindset, actually exist, as opposed to the same old private-individual-is-an-island mindset which, even where it comes to organic and localized agriculture and food, thinks primarily in terms of “growth” and eventually selling out to a buyer.
 
And since that’s the primary question, it follows that the first necessary priority of a Food Sovereignty movement is to build this mindset, propagate knowledge of it, encourage it, recruit to it, organize on the basis of it.
 
 
 
 
 

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for this history of corporate unprincipled attempted and achieved manipulation of the “organic” label, much of which I hadn’t heard.

    Comment by Jennifer — July 29, 2018 @ 8:35 pm


RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

%d bloggers like this: