The Nineties in America
Organic Food Movement
Definition: Agricultural and consumer movement
The organic food movement of the 1990's affected agriculture and grocery stores and launched a rapidly expanding industry.
The environmental movement of the 1960's and 1970's laid the foundation for the increased support for the organic food movement in the 1990's. Following grassroots advocacy for organic standards in the 1980's, the U.S. government passed the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA), Title XXI of the Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act of 1990, or Farm Bill. The purpose of the OFPA was to establish national standards for the marketing of certain agricultural products as organic; to assure consumers of a consistent organic standard; and to facilitate interstate commerce in organically produced food. The act established standards for organic products and criteria for certifying a farm or part of a farm as organic.
During the 1990's, the organic food industry experienced sustained growth. Major chains such as Whole Foods Market and Wild Oats Markets grew rapidly and incorporated smaller chains and independent organic grocery stores. These large organic grocery chains helped to bring the prices of organic food down, although it remained more expensive than conventional food in part because of increased production costs in some areas and higher expenses due to smaller-scale production, and because of the costs associated with governmental certification. These large chains marketed organic food to consumers as a moral and enjoyable alternative to conventionally grown food products.
During the 1990's, organic gardening and community-supported agriculture (CSA) increased in popularity. Connected with the organic food movement, home gardeners used organic techniques to grow fruits and vegetables as well as ornamentals. Home gardeners and some small organic farmers also focused on growing heirloom varieties.
Community-supported agriculture was a way for small farmers to have a successful closed market. In a CSA system, consumers subscribed to a weekly delivery of food products and accepted whatever was seasonal. Some CSA farms encouraged subscribers to work on the farm in exchange for part of membership costs. The system reduced risk to the farmer and provided consumers with a way to obtain fresh, local food. Not all CSA farms were organic, but many were, and CSA systems were closely tied to the local food movement, founded on similar principles.
Criticism and Controversy
Consumers wanted organic food for a variety of reasons. These included concerns about pesticide residues on conventionally grown plants and artificial hormones given to livestock; the belief that organic food tastes better; and a desire to lessen environmental impact. All of these reasons have been criticized as incorrect or unfounded, but evidence remains inconclusive.
The organic food movement has been criticized for being antitechnological and unsustainable. Some studies have shown organic farming to result in lower yield and higher impact than conventional farming; others have shown comparable or higher yields for organic techniques in certain parts of the world. Critics argue that conventional techniques produce more food per acre and have lower impact because they preserve more nonagricultural land; proponents of organic agriculture claim that small farms are more efficient overall, although they do not produce large volumes of single crops the way monoculture farms do.
Critics have also claimed that organic food is too expensive for low-income families and poorer countries and thus a luxury available only to the elite. Others contend that the cost of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides is prohibitively expensive to poorer countries and that application of organic farming methods would improve crop yield. The many variables involved in measuring agricultural yield make it difficult to determine definitively the effectiveness of organic farming as compared to conventional methods.
The organic food movement of the 1990's changed how many Americans viewed food and widely affected agricultural and marketing practices. The enormous success of organic food chains like Whole Foods Market and Wild Oats Markets proved that organic food could be profitable to retailers and producers as well as appealing to the general public.
The impact of the growth in the organic food industry reverberated throughout the decade and continued to arouse public debate in the twenty-first century. The increased popularity of organic agriculture brought up many issues, such as the relative impacts of different agricultural methods on the environment; food safety and public health; whether industrial organic agriculture is in keeping with the ideals of the organic food movement; and socioeconomic topics.
DeGregori, Thomas R. Origins of the Organic Agriculture Debate. Ames, Iowa: Blackwell, 2004. DeGregori discusses two historically contrasting views, the technological view that led to modern agriculture and the "vitalist" view that supports organic agriculture. The author is a proponent of responsible use of technology and argues that resources are not finite but rather created by technology.
Fromartz, Samuel. Organic Inc.: Natural Foods and How They Grew. Orlando, Fla.: Harcourt, 2006. Addresses the history of the organic movement and its connections to industry, assessing the compromises the movement has made to reach mainstream consumers.
Groh, Trauger, and Steven McFadden. Farms of Tomorrow Revisited: Community Supported Farms, Farm Supported Communities. Junction City, Oreg.: BioDynamic Farming and Gardening Association, 1998. Provides an introduction to, history of, and argument for community-supported agriculture.
Kristiansen, Paul, Acram Taji, and John Reganold. Organic Agriculture: A Global Perspective. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2006. The authors critically examine the successes and limitations of the organic agriculture movement worldwide, including in the United States.
Lipson, Elaine Marie. The Organic Foods Sourcebook. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 2001. Covers the history of the organic food movement, profiles influential people and companies, and provides a list of resources.
Norberg-Hodge, Helena, Todd Merrifield, and Steven Gorelick. Bringing the Food Economy Home: Local Alternatives to Global Agribusiness. London: Zed Books, 2002. Examines global food issues from multiple angles in an argument for local food.
Melissa A. BartonSee Also
Agriculture in Canada; Agriculture in the United States; Earth Day 1990; Food trends; Genetically modified food; Global warming debate; Kyoto Protocol; Science and technology.
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