Even as demand for organic food continues to explode, organic farmers in America are getting thrown under the beet cart they helped build.
The Chinese are taking over market share, especially of vegetables and agricultural commodities like soy, thanks to several American-based multinational food corporations that have hijacked the organic bandwagon they only recently jumped onto.
When megacorporation Dean Foods acquired Silk soy milk the prospects looked good for American organic soy farmers. Silk had always been committed to supporting domestic organic farmers, and with the new might of Dean Foods behind it, Silk would likely grow. Silk did grow, but it also dropped its commitment to domestic soy.
Multiple Midwestern farmers and farmers cooperatives in the heart of American soy country were told by Silk they had to match the rock-bottom cost of Chinese organic soybeans -- a price they simply could not meet. Organic agriculture is labor-intensive, and China's edge comes largely from its abundance of cheap labor.
"Dean Foods had the opportunity to push organic and sustainable agriculture to incredible heights of production by working with North American farmers and traders to get more land in organic production," says Merle Kramer, a marketer for the Midwestern Organic Farmers Cooperative, based in Michigan. "But what they did was pit cheap foreign soybeans against the U.S. organic farmer, taking away any attraction for conventional farmers to make the move into sustainable agriculture."
Silk bought Chinese soybeans for years, building a commanding share of the soy milk market, before substantially decreasing its support of organic agriculture altogether.
Few Silk products are certified organic anymore, and some are processed with hexane, a neurotoxin. The use of hexane poses risks to workers in the plants and possibly the consumers of the product and is listed as an air pollutant by EPA. In Illinois alone, 5 million pounds of hexane are released into the environment by food processors Bunge, Cargill and Arthur Daniels Midland.
While the green "USDA Organic" seal is gone, hexane-processed soymilk can still be labeled "natural," and if it contains organic ingredients, the label "made with organic ingredients" is still used.
A recent USDA report, "Emerging Issues in the U.S. Organic Industry," points out two notable trends in American food: Conventional food corporations are taking over successful independent organic companies, and the corporations are becoming increasingly dependent on imported ingredients.
While the retail price of "Chi-ganic" produce remains the same as what consumers were paying for domestic organic, there's reason to believe the quality is lower. At Whole Foods, for example, labels that read "USDA inspected" are stuck onto imported produce. According to "Behind the Bean," a recent study by Wisconsin's Cornucopia Institute, the USDA's record with food imported from China is fraught with irregularities.
"[USDA] found multiple noncompliances of the federal organic standards, [including] the failure of one certifying agent to hire Chinese inspectors that are adequately familiar with the USDA organic standards, and the failure by another organic certifying agent to provide a written and translated copy of the USDA organic standards to all clients applying for certification. This raises serious concerns about whether foods grown organically in China follow the same USDA organic standards with which we require American farmers to comply."
A stand at my local farmers market has a sign that says "Boycott Chinese Garlic." China currently supplies 75 percent of the garlic sold in the U.S., for an average price of 50 cents a pound. Two years ago, it was 25 cents a pound. Even with the price of garlic up from 25 to 50 cents a pound, large garlic growers and whole garlic-growing regions like Gilroy, Calif., are hurting. Gilroy used to be known as the nation's garlic capital. In addition to garlic cultivation, a retail empire was built on value-added products made with garlic. Now, Gilroy is just a garlic-processing capital, because most of its supply comes from China.
One advantage local garlic producers have going for them is that most Chinese garlic is the soft-neck variety, which is inferior -- in terms of flavor, clove size and peelability -- to the hard-neck varieties favored by many American garlic growers. But while farmers markets are spreading like weeds and creating ever more opportunities for consumers to buy the good stuff directly from growers, most Americans continue to reach for the netted bulbs of garlic within easy reach at the supermarket, or jars of peeled and chopped garlic.
Consumers buy organic for several reasons, including lighter environmental impact, cleaner and safer working conditions for farmworkers and the perceived health benefits of organic foods -- or at least their lack of toxic health detriments. Unfortunately, the import-fueled corporatization of questionably organic food is making all of these attributes less likely.
Silk's road to China is a well-worn trail and further evidence that organic as we knew it is dead, replaced by gigantic "Chi-ganic" corporations that are in it for all the wrong reasons.
Ari LeVaux writes a syndicated weekly food column.