Organic Agriculture is Big Business, Too



Forbes recently published an article asking the (rehtorical, I assume) question, “Is Organic Agriculture Affluent Narcissim?”

My answer? Of course it is. I thought we all knew that.

I find myself in an interesting position these days. I consider myself rather neutral — I’m happy we’re all free to choose what we put in our mouths. I’m happy that, as farmers, you can choose the business case that makes the most sense for your farm and philosophy. But the longer I watch the organic vs. conventional debate get batted around on Facebook, Twitter and my living room, the more I’m pushed to start picking some fights — not because I’m confrontational, but because much of what gets bandied about is misinformed or just plain wrong.

Case in point: organic food is not more nutritious, nor does it necessarily carry less pesticide residue. The good news? Conventional food also doesn’t harbour excessive pesticide residue — and both types of produce should be washed before eating anyway. Unscented dishsoap removes anything you should worry about and it’s much cheaper than buying organic food.

Counterpoint: if environmental exposure is your concern, it’s true that organic agriculture uses fewer pesticides…but that’s not entirely accurate. Case in point: organic production still allows for pesticides, just of different formulation. The bigger issue? If you choose organic, ask if it’s been tested for pesticide residue  — the answer is at best maybe, but know that organic food is not held to a different yardstick. In Canada, maximum residue limits for all chemicals are the same for both conventional and organic foods. So, not to say that organic farmers are cheating (not at all), I’m only pointing out that there is no reason to believe pesticide residues are significantly different between systems. Moving on.

Case in point: (and this one gets me rather fired up) What different choices would you make if your family lived on half the money you have now? More so than food, living within our means means prioritizing. Those of us rich enough to think that “prioritizing” means choosing to keep a car longer than 5 years are very rich indeed. I’ve had more than a few conversations with stay-at-home moms who feel downright awful and guilty that they cannot afford to feed their children organic food. This, my friends, makes my blood boil. Health should absolutely be a priority, regardless of income level, but to look down our very rich noses and say that organic is BETTER, full stop, neglects to see one very important point — organic food is damn expensive and available only (in all pragmatic terms) to the rich. Organic food is a luxury good, end of story.

And, my last point, which builds on this last statement is that organic agriculture, food and products is big business, my friends. While the “health food store” may look quaint and “mom and pop” it is most certainly not. Loblaw’s recent announcement that they are opening a Whole Foods-like chain proves that point. Organic stores are rife with packages (hint: packaged foods are worse for you than fresh foods, so there’s a little clue on making some better choices, people), and behind each of those display shelves of “all-natural, free-range potatoes” (seriously, that phrase has been used) is big business.

I personally know several former organic producers. Yes, former. Why? All of them stated the financial case just didn’t exist — just like conventional agriculture, the farmers’ share of the work is inversely proportionate to their share of the margin. In short, large-scale organic agriculture still returns low margins to farmers. It’s retail that’s making all the money. Think about that.

Those who refute studies that prove organic food and conventional food is closer to equal than different based on the financial backing of “big ag” are forgetting one important point about their own pro-organic studies — they are backed by “big organic”. Anyone who forgets that point has on very glitzy, very expensive rose-coloured glasses indeed.

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