Local author Brian Obach’s new book traces the evolution of the organic food

Brian Obach. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

Brian Obach. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

It would be difficult to find a supermarket today that does not sell organic fruits and vegetables. But what exactly does that “USDA-certified organic” label mean these days, and how does it compare to your local farmer’s “Certified Naturally Grown” produce? Is organic still a good thing, or has it become just a corporate takeover enabled by the federal government?

The answer to the latter question depends on who you talk to, says SUNY New Paltz professor of sociology Brian K. Obach, author of “Organic Struggle: The Movement for Sustainable Agriculture in the United States” (MIT Press, 2015). “There are different perspectives offered by different groups within the organic community,” he explains. “Broadly speaking, there are the people I call “the tillers,” whose vision of organic is small farms, local production for a local market, in contrast to “the spreaders,” those people who say, ‘Hey, organic is good and the more we have of it, the better, and we’re not going to spread it very far or very quickly without the involvement of conventional agribusiness.'”

“Organic Struggle” details the evolution of the organic food movement in this country from an obscure agricultural practice in the 1970s to its place today as a multi-billion dollar mainstream industry. Obach examines why the movement developed as it did, analyzes how those divergent interests and ideological divides within the organic community created vulnerabilities for it and evaluates where the movement is headed.


In a recent conversation with New Paltz Times, Obach explained why he believes the market-based strategy adopted by the traditionalists in the organic movement will never result in the organic market overtaking conventional agriculture. The solution to ensuring a healthy food supply in this country calls for a focus on policy efforts, he argues; the passage of laws that will transform the system as a whole.


When did the organic movement go mainstream?

Throughout the 1980s, interest in health and fitness was growing and there were a couple of food scares, instances where there was a great deal of national attention on food safety. The first point that we can identify when things began to change a lot was in 1989 when 60 Minutes did an episode on alar — a plant growth regulator used on apples — and they raised the possibility that it was carcinogenic. That received a lot of attention and really boosted interest in organic. People began wanting to get away from synthetic chemicals in general in their food. That gave rise to the passage of the Organic Foods Production Act In 1990, and that’s when the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) became the overseer of all things organic. But I should clarify that the passage of that law in 1990 didn’t actually go into effect until 12 years later, in 2002.


Why did it take so long?

The law sort of laid out the outlines for the USDA to be in charge of overseeing organic, but the details had to be developed… and it took a long time. There was a lot of debate and back-and-forth because prior to that, there was no universally recognized definition of what constituted organic. And now you’re going to have a law that is going to be enforceable; it has to be specific, it has to be precise and it has to apply to everybody. So there was a lot of debate and it took 12 years. In 2002, it officially started; that’s when you began seeing that little USDA organic label on all organic products. And when that happened, that gave another big boost to the organic market, because that’s when big food industry players began to get involved. You started seeing organic in supermarkets and big box stores.


Is the quality of the food any less when the government gets involved?

It depends on who you ask. It’s a regulated industry, and they’re adhering to the rules laid out for organic production in federal law. But there are practices allowed [in USDA-certified] that the traditionalists would say are not really appropriate. And they’re distrustful of so much corporate involvement in mass producing organic foods. It violates their vision of what organic was supposed to be.


Is it a watered down version?

Yes, that’s basically how they would characterize it. If you go to a local farm around here, they have dozens of different crops growing. They might have 20, or 30 or 50 different cultivars. Whereas these big players, they’ll have more conventional agricultural monocultures where they grow all of one thing. Which isn’t as ecologically sound, because it’s better to have a diversity of plants growing in a place. And the big players will have to push the limits of the organic rules to deal with producing in that way. It still meets the requirements, so USDA organic does mean something, but again, it sort of violates the vision of those people who had long associated organic with local diversified crop production and all of these other sort of social ecological ideas associated with that.


How did you get interested in this topic?

I study social movements; that’s my main area of specialization. Environmental movements in particular. And, of course, living here in the Hudson Valley, where we have probably more per capita CSA farms than anywhere in the country, arguably. That heightened my interest in it along with talking to local farmers, several of whom I feature in the book.


What can you tell me about them?

There are three people whose views are representative of segments of the organic agriculture movement here. One of them is Leona Hoods; for a long time she was the executive director of the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture. They were one of the large national coalitions that was very involved in the process of identifying the rules for organic when the law was passed in 1990. They had their critiques of the USDA but mobilized as a community, essentially saying, ‘If it’s now federal law then we need to be involved to try to influence policy.’

Then there’s Ron Khosla, founder of Huguenot Street Farm. He didn’t like the fact that the federal government was now, in the words of some, taking over organic. And he didn’t think that the USDA organic system works very well for small farmers: there’s too much record-keeping, there are fees associated with it and it’s bureaucratic. But you could no longer use the word ‘organic’ without USDA certification, and farmers who didn’t want to engage with the USDA process but were using long-held traditional organic practices were sort of put in a bind. So what he did — recognizing that people want to know what they’re buying and that it’s grown in a certain way, and want some kind of verification of that — what he did was to create another whole certification system called Certified Naturally Grown. And it’s run sort of the way organic had been before the USDA got involved.

Dan Guenther comes in as representative of a third way of looking at this. His view is that the important thing to focus on is not certification but in the local personal connection. He started Brook Farm and also the Phillies Bridge Farm and the Poughkeepsie Farm Project over at Vassar. I call him the ‘Johnny Appleseed’ of community supported agriculture, because he sort of went around and got these things going and once it’s up and running he gets another one going. But he never had anything certified; he felt that the people that come to him for food know him and know that he’s a conscious farmer and they trust him when he says he’s not using synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.

All those people that felt like organic was now something corporate run by the federal government started looking for alternatives. And that’s when people started to say, ‘Well, buy from your local farmers.’ Because that’s what organic was prior to the USDA; if not CSAs then food co-ops or natural grocery stores or roadside farm stands. That cynicism about the USDA gave rise in large part to the local food movement.


So where do you stand on all this?

I think it’s good that we have the USDA organic system and it’s good that there’s a strong local food movement. At the end of the day, I’m very pleased that what has grown out of all this in part has been organizations that are focused on food and agriculture policies. That didn’t really exist 20 years ago and I think the organic movement can be credited with that. But I don’t think that we’re going to transform the food and agriculture system as a whole through any market-based mechanism. And by that I mean people creating alternatives and then hoping that the alternative will grow and overtake all of the conventional food and agriculture system.

Organic today is probably something like five or six percent of the total market. And proponents of these other alternatives will say, ‘Well, it used to be only two percent, now it’s five percent and next it’ll be 10, then 20 percent and eventually take over.’ But I’m skeptical about it taking over completely; it’s not likely to happen. The idea that we’re going to kind of buy our way bit by bit to a different world is not realistic. Organic might grow, but it will remain essentially a niche market. Organic will never represent 100 percent of the market, because there are always going to be people who can’t afford to pay any more or are not willing to pay more if they see one tomato next to another that looks just as good and it’s cheaper.

To transform agriculture as a whole, we need to have laws and policies and then we can go into the supermarkets and feel that any of the food that we buy is not going to be ecologically disastrous or poisoning us slowly in some unknown way. I’m just as cynical about government as anybody, but the fact is, for the most part it works. We can always critique it but if we pass a law that says cars have to have seatbelts, then all cars have seatbelts. You pass a law, they’re reasonably effective at carrying them out. We need to get in the trenches in D.C. and Albany and pass laws that are going to make our food system better. That’s the road ahead, in my view.