Why Did the Chicken Cross the Globe? Organic Food and the Global Economy

| Thu Jul. 6, 2006 8:27 PM EDT

"Organic" ain't what it used to be. As Michael Pollan notes in his book, The Omnivore's Dilemma (excerpted in the last issue of Mother Jones), what started out a quarter century ago as a reform movement is now well on its way to becoming a full-on industry, worth $14 billion at the last tally. People will disagree, of course, about whether this is a good thing. Some, like Joel Salafin, a local-food evangelist profiled by Pollan, sees the big organic companies like Whole Foods as, in Pollan's words, "part of an increasingly globalized economy that turns any food it touches into a commodity, reaching its tentacles wherever in the world a food can be produced most cheaply and then transporting it wherever it can be sold most dearly."

Well, good or bad, it's happening. For evidence, see this piece out today from AP. After noting that demand for organic food is outstripping supply (sales have grown 15-21 percent a year), that mainstream supermarkets are getting in on the act, and that the number of organic farms (10,000) is on the rise, though not fast enough to meet supply, the piece touches on the increasing globalization of Organic Inc.

As a result [of the lagging growth in the number of organic farms] organic manufacturers are looking for ingredients outside the United States in places like Europe, Bolivia, Venezuela and South Africa. ...

The makers of the high-energy, eat-and-run Clif Bar needed 85,000 pounds of almonds, and they had to be organic. But the nation's organic almond crop was spoken for. Eventually, Clif Bar found the almonds — in Spain. But more shortages have popped up: apricots and blueberries, cashews and hazelnuts, brown rice syrup and oats.

Even Stonyfield Farm, an organic pioneer in the United States, is pursuing a foreign supplier; Stonyfield is working on a deal to import milk powder from New Zealand.

"I'm not suggesting we would be importing from all these places," said Gary Hirshberg, president and CEO of Stonyfield Farm Inc. "But for transition purposes, to help organic supply to keep up with the nation's growing hunger, these countries have to be considered.

I leave to more sensitive souls the question of whether this development destroys the mystical communion folks have with their chicken dinners. I will say, though, that while there's obviously no inherent reason why the organic food "industry" should be immune from the dynamics of the global economy, the organic "movement," premised as it is on concern for the natural environment, runs into the problem that transporting food--even within the United States--burns up a whole lot of fuel. When a renegade movement is tamed, ironies abound...