Every winter I visit my dad in central Idaho, where the snow piles high along the two-lane interstate that slices the state from north to south and guides travelers through serene valleys and canyons dotted with tiny rural towns. In McCall, Idaho, nearby farms and ranches sell organic beef, eggs, fresh herbs, and even wild huckleberries at the weekly farmers’ market during warmer months, and most households keep a deep freezer in the garage stocked with locally harvested elk meat, salmon, and trout.
It seems like an idyllic throwback that hasn’t succumbed to big-box stores and urban sprawl. But even here, long winters notwithstanding, my dad and his neighbors can find nonlocal organic food in the grocery aisles year-round, thanks to organics’ meteoric expansion during the past three decades.
It’s at this intersection of supply and demand where some people question organics’ exponential growth, wondering if the movement has lost its soul along the way. Many longtime organic champions voice concerns about the implications of “Big Organic” and how it affects the true tenets of organic agriculture. Producers, retailers, and shoppers alike fret about increased environmental and economic impacts as organic expands. Are the worries justified? Or must organic scale up to compete in a global marketplace?
What is Big Organic?
You probably support your own small-scale organic favorites: local companies that make great, wholesome products, sell them at regional shops, and maintain a homemade, hometown vibe. But you’ve undoubtedly seen (and likely bought) Big Organic too: large-scale operations, such as Earthbound Farm or Horizon Organic, that supply enormous amounts of certified-organic products to national and international markets (think Costco and Walmart), often at lower prices.
Small towns like McCall are not the only parts of the United States that desperately need access to organics across socioeconomic lines. Even large urban districts with sound infrastructure suffer from restricted access to affordable, organically grown produce and packaged goods. Walmart recently released a statement that it intends to double its organic-produce offerings, but it didn’t mention accountability measures or specific time frames.
As the organic market grows to meet demand, the following challenges—and compromises—will grow, too.