The Whole Foods Paradox: Organics and Fair Trade Outgrow Founding Ideals

Labeling coffee as "fair trade" can boost sales by 10%, finds a recent study. The findings shed light on the rapid growth of the fair trade and organic markets.  But as stories at the New York Times and Bloomberg this past week describe, as consumer demand grows, it is difficult for industry to live up to the ideals of these labels.  


The growing vagueness of these labels also portends significance for public understanding of sustainability, another term now perhaps so widely used that it has lost much meaning.  If more thought is not put into the marketing and use of these labels, Greens may lose a valuable tool for encouraging political consumerism, a method aimed at rewarding and punishing companies for their sustainable and ethical practices.  As Bloomberg reports, globally there are now more than 400 different ethical labels that can be applied in the marketing of food, clothing and other products.

From a front page story at the New York Times on the organic agriculture trade:

To carry the Agriculture Department’s organic label on their produce, farms in the United States and abroad must comply with a long list of standards that prohibit the use of synthetic fertilizers, hormones and pesticides, for example. But the checklist makes few specific demands for what would broadly be called environmental sustainability, even though the 1990 law that created the standards was intended to promote ecological balance and biodiversity as well as soil and water health.

Experts agree that in general organic farms tend to be less damaging to the environment than conventional farms. In the past, however, “organic agriculture used to be sustainable agriculture, but now that is not always the case,” said Michael Bomford, a scientist at Kentucky State University who specializes in sustainable agriculture. He added that intense organic agriculture had also put stress on aquifers in California.

Some organic standard setters are beginning to refine their criteria so that organic products better match their natural ideals. Krav, a major Swedish organic certification program, allows produce grown in greenhouses to carry its “organic” label only if the buildings use at least 80 percent renewable fuel, for example. And last year the Agriculture Department’s National Organic Standards Board revised its rules to require that for an “organic milk” label, cows had to be at least partly fed by grazing in open pastures rather than standing full time in feedlots.

But each decision to narrow the definition of “organic” involves an inevitable tug-of-war among farmers, food producers, supermarkets and environmentalists. While the United States’ regulations for organic certification require that growers use practices that protect water resources, it is hard to define a specific sustainable level of water use for a single farm “because aquifer depletion is the result of many farmers’ overutilizing the resource,” said Miles McEvoy, head of the National Organic Program at the Agriculture Department.

While the original organic ideal was to eat only local, seasonal produce, shoppers who buy their organics at supermarkets, from Whole Foods to Walmart, expect to find tomatoes in December and are very sensitive to price. Both factors stoke the demand for imports. Few areas in the United States can farm organic produce in the winter without resorting to energy-guzzling hothouses.

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