January 19, 2003
Organic agriculture at a crossroads: Prof says
goals of ecological sustainability and social justice may require subsidies
24th annual Ecological Farming Conference
takes place Jan. 21-24 in Pacific Grove
By Jennifer McNulty
Thirty years after the birth of organic agriculture in California, the
industry looks more than ever like the agribusiness model it set out
Corporate buyouts of smaller organic operations are a visible
sign of change in the organic industry, but Guthman insists that
the paradox of organic is much more complex than a story of big
versus small, or good guys versus bad guys."
The early dream of producing food in ecologically sustainable ways
has withered under multiple pressures, but an analysis by UCSC geographer
Julie Guthman suggests that government subsidies would help restore
the organic movement as a force for environmental and social transformation.
The organic industry in California has largely replicated what
it set out to oppose, said Guthman, an assistant professor of
community studies and the author of the forthcoming book Agrarian
Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California (Berkeley:
UC Press, 2004).
Guthman will discuss her analysis during the 24th Annual Ecological
Farming Conference January 21-24, the worlds foremost sustainable
agriculture conference, at the Asilomar Conference Center in Pacific
Guthmans workshop, entitled Impacts and Implications of
Concentration in the Organic Industry, is scheduled for Friday,
January 23, at 10:30 a.m. Guthman, a faculty affiliate of the UCSC Center
for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems, is part of a contingent
of sustainable agriculture experts from UCSC who will be presenting
during Eco-Farm; see below for descriptions of other presentations.
Corporate buyouts of smaller organic operations are a visible sign
of change in the organic industry, but Guthman insists that the paradox
of organic is much more complex than a story of big versus small,
or good guys versus bad guys. I call it a trilemma, because its
about what growers need, what consumers need, and what workers need.
Californias large-scale, highly specialized form of commercial
farming hinges on crop specialization and low-paid immigrant farm labor,
said Guthman. Against that backdrop, and coupled with the organic movements
history of self-regulation and dependence on a price premium, engrained
forces have undermined organic growers ability to do things
in a very different way, said Guthman.
Among organic growers, too, there is diversity, with some embracing
the classic model of organic farming that relies on crop
rotations, diversification, composting, and biological pest control.
But much of the organic acreage today meets only the minimum standards
for organic production, she said.
Theres a widespread misconception that big corporate interests
took over the organic industry, when in truth a lot of the growth has
come from within, said Guthman. Operations like Natural
Selection/Earthbound Farm and Pavich Family Farms have recruited people
from the conventional industry to grow for them, because they wanted
more professionalism than what the visionaries of the 1970s were able
In addition, a lot of growth in the organic sector has been driven
by farmers seeking higher profits. But incentives for all organic growers
have eroded in the face of a shrinking price premium, and high land
values have pushed just about everybody to farm in more intensive ways,
said Guthman. As high-volume, lucrative crops like organic salad mix
come to be dominated by a handful of players, margins are tightening
and producers are also forsaking the vision of a more socially just
production and distribution model.
Although consumers can now find organic salad mix at retailers such
as Trader Joes and Costco, in what Guthman calls the Wal-Martization
of salad mix, prices are typically set at the retail level and bear
little relationship to what farmers receive.
In this market, its very difficult for the organic industry
to escape the imperatives of intensification without a policy mechanism
like subsidies, said Guthman. The cost of growing in a more
sustainable fashion cannot be entirely borne on the backs of farmers,
workers, or consumers.
UCSC affiliates are also participating in the following Eco-Farm workshops:
"Organic Farming Information for Professionals,
a workshop with Sean Swezey, associate director of UCSCs Center
for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems and director of the UC
Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SAREP); Friday,
January 23, 3:30-5:30 p.m.
College and University Farms Educators, a
mixer hosted by the UCSC Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food
Systems to facilitate networking among sustainable agriculture education
professionals; Thursday, January 22, 3:30-5 p.m.
How to Start a Small Farm, a workshop with
Sean Harrison and Marco Franciosa of Soil Born Farm in Sacramento, and
Kevin McEnnis of Quetzal Farm in Santa Rosa, all of whom graduated from
UCSCs Apprenticeship in Ecological Horticulture; Thursday, January
22, 8:30-10 a.m.
"Indigenous Microorganisms Progress Report,
a workshop with UCSC apprenticeship graduate Gil Carandang of Herbana
Farma in the Philippines; Thursday, January 22, 3:30-5 p.m.
"Gopher and Mole Control Strategies for Farmers and
Gardeners," a workshop with Thomas Wittman, operations assistant
at the UCSC Farm; Saturday, January 24, 8:30-10 a.m.
Scholar/Activist Consortium, a preconference
invitation-only meeting organized by Guthman and Patricia Allen, a senior
analyst at UCSCs Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food
Systems, to promote collaborations; Wednesday, January 21, 10 a.m.-5
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