Day-traders slump in rows before three computers each, in a room with the blinds drawn. The long tables are littered with McDonald’s take-out wrappers and bottles of Advil and Pepto-Bismol. CNBC blasts from wall-mounted televisions. The traders watch numbers fly across computer screens, buying and selling shares of stock in blocks of 1,000. Some of them make over $300,000 in a single day. On the dry-erase board, someone has scribbled “OATS” onto a list of stocks whose earnings reports will be released that day.
OATS is the ticker symbol for Wild Oats, a successful supermarket chain specializing in organic foods. OATS and its main competitor WFMI (Whole Foods Markets) are recent additions to the ranks of food sector duopoly, joining Coke vs. Pepsi and McDonald’s vs. Burger King. Organic food is a $10 billion per year industry, growing at 20 percent annually, and giants like Dole want in.
That’s why the word “organic” can no longer be used for marketing purposes without Uncle Sam’s approval. On October 21, the USDA’s National Organic Standards came on-line after 10 years of crafting. It’s been a roller coaster ride of industrial-strength mediocrity, including a rough draft of the document that would have allowed genetically modified organisms, irradiated food, and crops grown in sewage sludge to be labeled “organic.” That stunt prompted an outcry of over 300,000 letters and calls, more public comment than on any other U.S. public process ever. Based on this feedback, the standards were revised such that—among other things—these three practices are not considered “organic.” The policy also allows each state the option to develop its own standards, which must be at least as stringent as the national standard. Montana has opted to do this.
In many ways, this is a victory for organic food. The fact that Big Business wants to jump on the bandwagon shows that the masses want an alternative to techno-food. The fact that the ratified standards go to extreme lengths to ensure the absence of chemicals in cultivation and processing is an impressive demonstration of how far we’ve come since Rachel Carson’s warning in Silent Spring. This is democracy in action, with people casting dollars and letters as votes rather than ballots.
On the other hand, Big Business threatens to co-opt and mediocritize the very ideological core of “organic.” With the parameters defined, Big Business now can search for ways to leverage the economics of scale and crack this booming market.
I caught up with Josh Slotnick by his broken-down tractor on the corner of Orange and Front Street. Slotnick, who teaches hands-on organic farming at UM, believes the new standards are myopic in their fixation on chemicals and ‘food purity.’ He thinks the rules burden small farmers with regulations and paperwork—stuff that Big Business can easily handle—while the standards give insufficient attention to soil and water quality, local culture, and local economics.
“Now you can eat pesticide-free food grown on 6,000 acre farms in Mexico by giant corporations” says Slotnick. “Why are these companies in Mexico? Why does any corporation go to Mexico?—the bottom line. And then they ship the food thousands of miles and under-sell small family organic farms, whose commitment to organic values are what fed the movement in the first place.”
Slotnick is not alone is his disenchantment with Uncle Sam’s “organic.” In Marin County California, farmers are creating their own certification process, which takes into account soil conservation, watershed protection and fair labor practices. Farms, ranches and food processors that meet these requirements can use the “Marin Organic” label.
Similar ruminations on a western Montana frequency have reached the perked ears of Chef Boy Ari. Indeed, why not create our own local label? Then, shoppers could distinguish between local, small-scale organic food and the industrial-strength breed. Paul Rosen, produce manager for the Good Food Store, is open to the idea.
“Supporting local business and agriculture is what the Good Food Store is all about” says Rosen. “Look at Lucy and Steve Elliot [of Lifeline Farms in Victor]. They’ve been organic farming for 20 years, helping define the concept. Now they need a bureaucrat to tell them what’s organic?”
Elliot is cautiously open to the local label idea as well. If the institutionalized standards don’t cut it, what else is a visionary supposed to do?—though it may seem a bit silly to go right back to the drawing board after the organic standard has finally passed. And it could add confusion to the marketplace. “Don’t quote me as having an opinion at this point” says Elliot, still sore from the last time I quoted him. “I’m just musing—thinking it over with you involved. It would be better if the locals banded together...of course it would be better.”
All right then. What should we call our new label? How about Headwaters Harvest? How bout Coreganic? No, no, no, wait, I have it, dig this: Puregasmic!! Yeah. Email me if you’ve got something better.
E-mail Chef Boy Ari: Flash@missoulanews.com