Is ‘big’ bad and ‘small’ beautiful?
By Harriet Behar, MOSES
Organic agriculture could be considered a victim of its own success. As consumer demand for organic food has grown, so has the interest in organic products from food conglomerates and large retailers. Fears are rising that organic could mirror the path of conventional ag, with increasingly larger operations, consolidation and vertical integration for marketing and distribution of products. Can organic agriculture get “big” while keeping true to the principles that have led to its success? I think it can. I think we can—but, as a community, we need to discard the black-and-white judgment that big is bad and small is good.
We want more organic production here in the U.S. We want the benefits organic provides, both to the environment and to farmers and consumers. With large retailers promising to stock shelves with organic products at prices that are 25 percent less than consumers are accustomed to paying, we need the economies of scale provided by bigger systems to compete with cheaper imported products.
The assumption that large organic farms or businesses will behave the same as conventional “Big Ag” is a false one. When I was a full-time organic inspector, I visited large, corporate-run farms and businesses that were stellar organic stewards, meeting both the letter and spirit of the organic law. Many times, the larger operations have the capital, infrastructure and labor to implement a smoothly functioning organic system. They have the extra incentive to “do things right” because they have made a significant investment upon entering the organic marketplace, and they do not want to fail.
I also visited smaller family-sized operations that were just skimming the edge of meeting the organic regulations. The only commitment to organic was to gain that organic premium with a minimum of change to their conventional mindset or activities. Size or scale is not the issue—all types and sizes of operations should be held accountable to the foundational organic principles.
By and large, though, family-scale farms around the world are the heart of organic agriculture. These farmers have an emotional connection to the land and the animals they steward. They have turned to organic production or maintained an organic system because of this connection and their sense of responsibility to manage the resources entrusted to them in ways that respect rather than exploit them.
We all know the problems associated with Big Ag and its focus on cheap food and higher profits. Exploitation is inherent in that system. The organic community can learn from what has happened to family-scale farms in conventional agriculture. Family-scale farms—the backbone of organic production—would have difficulty surviving in a marketplace that values cheap food above all else. If the main goal is to produce the cheapest food at any cost, we will find ourselves purchasing organic foods produced in countries where labor is cheaper, and see domestic production shrink.
It’s not going to do any of us in the U.S. any good if organic production moves outside our borders. We want the environmental benefits of organic production here at home. We also want the societal benefits of thriving family-scale farms and vibrant rural communities.
As organic production in this country grows, we need to maintain the integrity of business interactions between all players. People working the land or raising the livestock need to be paid a fair price. The organic market has been built on a system that values the extra effort that goes into the production of organic food and fiber. The organic premium has helped smaller family-scale farms be economically sustainable, while many conventional family farms have succumbed to the pressures of Big Ag and the commodity-and-livestock-price roller coaster.
A diverse production, marketing and distribution system is as important as a diverse crop rotation for long-term sustainability. That diverse system has room for direct-to-consumer market channels, aggregated systems that pool the production of smaller farms, and large corporations.
The real challenge we face in domestic organic agricultural production is not scale. Rather, it is maintaining the integrity of organic as we grow—integrity in the organic standards and in the relationships along the supply chain.
Harriet Behar is a MOSES Organic Specialist. She represents MOSES in the National Organic Coalition and the National Sustainable Agricuture Coalition.
From the May | June 2014 Issue
April 28, 2014
Thank you for addressing a very difficult subject. The concept that everything big is always bad is really pervasive in the ‘natural and organic’ communities. This view is really narrow and wrong. You are brave to address it!
Again, thank you,