Giving Organics the Business

As Michael Pollan so elegantly revealed in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, the organics movement has been profoundly changed by its own success. No longer the provenance of the groovy little farm down the street, lots of organic food comes from large, multinational corporations.

In this week’s BusinessWeek, Diane Brady looks at organic dairy producers and how consumer demand has forced companies like Stonyfield and Horizon to get bigger—and abandon some of their original ideals.

There’s no question that organics are profitable:

For Big Food, consumers’ love affair with everything organic has seemed like a gift from the gods. Food is generally a commoditized, sluggish business, especially in basic supermarket staples. Sales of organic groceries, on the other hand, have been surging by up to 20% in recent years. Organic milk is so profitable, with wholesale prices more than double that of conventional milk, that Lyle ‘Spud’ Edwards of Westfield, Vt., was able to halve his herd, to 25 cows, this summer and still make a living … .

But there are perils in this growth, and one of them is that supplies of organically grown ingredients can be inconsistent.

What to do? If you’re [Stonyfield Farm’s] Hirshberg, you weigh the pros and cons of importing organic milk powder from New Zealand. Stonyfield already gets strawberries from China, apple purée from Turkey, blueberries from Canada, and bananas from Ecuador. It’s the only way to keep the business growing. Besides, Hirshberg argues, supporting a family farmer in Madagascar or reducing chemical use in Costa Rica is just as important as doing the same at home.

As Wal-Mart, Heinz, and General Foods enter the organic food fray, it’s worth remembering that, for sustainablity and health, eating locally always trumps eating (big) organically.

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