There’s ‘Big Ag’ and ‘Big Organic’—How much does ‘big’ matter when it comes to sustainability?


Organic farming has grown a lot over the past 20 years. It’s been touted as an alternative to conventional farming and some activists have pointed to organic as an answer to “Big Ag,” the large, corporate controlled farming that they say is behind the use of chemical pesticides and genetically modified organisms.

But some experts are starting to say the organic industry isn’t any better and may in fact be just as problematic as “Big Ag.” Let’s call it the ‘Big Organic’ phenomenon.

Lisa Clark, a University of Saskatchewan research associate, has published papers and a book looking at what she believes has been the erosion of the original principles of organic farming.

According to Clark, the organic industry has been overtaken by larger corporations that have shifted a focus on organic growing from process to selling/marketing a final product. She points to California organic farms, which can be 1,000 acres and use heavy machinery and oft-illegal migrant labor. She also points to an economic consolidation in which four firms—Hain-Celestial Group, United Natural Foods International, Whole Foods Market and Kurig Green Mountain—control nearly all the organic industry in Canada and the United States. To her, this is no longer “a counter movement to industrialized agriculture’s devaluation of social and environmental relations in the production process.”

While organic growing has certainly changed from its 1960’s roots, is “Big Organic” really better than “Big Ag?”

It depends on what you think of Big Ag,” too. You can be big, and still be organic.

Organic supporters like the Cornucopia Institute have pointed to practices by farms that label themselves organic but may be anything but. According to Cornucopia:

One of our first activities was exposing industrial-scale, confinement style, dairies with 4,000-10,000 cows that were producing organic milk for the Horizon label (Dean Foods/WhiteWave) and Aurora Dairy (private-label milk to Walmart, Costco, Target and a number of grocery chains).

Cornucopia took flyer photos of these “organic” farms and filed complaints with the certifiers of those farms. But even these farms were not practicing organic farming techniques they should have.

What if a farm was that big but still using organic practices?

They’d still be organic, said Mischa Popoff, a former organic farm inspector in the U.S. and a frequent critic of the way organic farming is regulated and handled today.

“Both the philosophy and the rules of organic production make no mention of size or market area, as well they should not. The three tenets of organic farming are: 1)To build soil through composting rather than synthetic fertilizer; 2)To avoid the use of synthetic pesticides; 3) To avoid GMOs”

On of the photos taken by Cornucopia Institute

One of the photos taken by Cornucopia Institute

The first tenet is more than a century old, while the anti-GMO stance is about 20. However, the size of the farm has nothing to do with how it’s farmed. You’d just need a lot more compost on 1,000 acres.

Suzy Friedman, sustainable agriculture director for the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), showed how farms, large and small, were able to follow sustainable practices, including organic ones, despite the sizes of the farms. There were also farms, large and small, that could not:

  • South Dakota farmer Christine Hamilton’s family farm, Christiansen Land and Cattle, raises corn, soybeans, winter wheat and cattle on 14,000 acres. The farm uses no-till practices (which a lot of organic farmers avoid), plants trees to prevent erosion, and uses cover crops, optical technology, and soil health measures to raise yields. Her farm is, however, not organic-certified, and she and her husband have invested in a number of agricultural biotech companies.
  • Full Belly Farm, a smaller (400 acre) certified organic farm in California is rotating crops, using cover crops during the off season, and applying compost, all of which support soil health.

While researchers like Clark think there’s a difference in products because of the corporation doing the producing, farm performance is not necessarily dependent on size. Big farms can use careful soil stewardship, organic practices, or they may not. Same with small farms. And there’s nothing in the National Organic Program about the size of the farm, or the distance traveled to deliver organic produce. Whether long distances or large acreages to grow organic (or non-organic) food is sustainable, however, is another matter.

Andrew Porterfield is a writer and editor, and has worked with numerous academic institutions, companies and non-profits in the life sciences. BIO. Follow him on Twitter @AMPorterfield.

  • Farmer with a Dell

    In my observation what organic purists hate most is…wait for it…efficiency. Just utter the word in the presence of a small farm zealot, but first protect your personals from the violent knee jerk reaction.

    Large farms and, especially, very large farms are the symbols of “efficiency”, and with good reason. Certainly you can mismanage a large full time farm, but you can’t mismanage it for very long. It simply must be run effectively and efficiently. And that is hard work. It requires a great deal of management skill and attention to detail. There is a great deal at stake, not only for owners but also for families of the many employees and customers.

    Small part time farms, on the other hand, have no absolute need for efficiency. Plenty of time and off-farm resources to kick back if one chooses, relax, imbibe the subtle nuances of a rural lifestyle, wax poetic over the meaning of life to a privileged gentleman farmer, fashion exquisitely ornamented artisanal gimcracks, polish your 5th avenue sales pitch, mark up prices to stay current with what the boutique market might bear…ah, it’s work, work, work – the vital work of a “small farm” administrator is never completed.

    More to the point, efficiency is optional on small part time farms. Some, in fact, are tidy, bustling models of industry and efficiency. Others are slothful pest holes. Most vacillate along a spectrum between the two extremes, as mood and economic circumstances may buffet them. And most of the big talking about small farms is done by arrogant blowhards who do not farm at all.

    And that’s the reality – “small farms” are mostly big talk. Large farms aping the official “small farms” talking points are mostly big business. No one has to be critical of it unless they let themselves be tricked into buying into it. And whose fault is that?

    • Crush davis

      Well said. In short, this discussion isn’t really about what organic farming is or isnt. It seems that we should be exposing how it’s been represented to a gullible public by marketers who are very happy to misinform intentionally. For whatever reason. But generally to make bank…like Monsanto.

    • Doug001

      I would have thought that organic farmers would embrace crops that need less pesticides, less soil damage etc. but of course they don’t want it to be easy. How about if we found heirloom potato plants that were particularly attractive to colorado beetle, and added Bt genes to them, they would have a sacrificial bait plant that could save their crops without becoming part of the foodchain. It would be right in line with organic practices, but they’d never accept it. Just plant a row around the outside of your potato fieldand mow it down a couple of times a year to stop them flowering, and have a field of no spray potatoes. Nah, too sensible.

      • Farmer with a Dell

        Judging from outward appearances the organic folks adhere to just one fundamental theory of organic farming: ‘talk loud & get paid a big premium, plenty big enough to produce less, lose more’. All the rest is just going through the motions.

        They are always talking a big game but about the only strategy they ever seem to employ is mulching, often with plastic, sometimes with compost or some half rotted waste. During the day when anyone might be watching they will have “interns” (ie. volunteer/slave labor) and a few women and children walking the rows crushing bugs between two little stones or flicking ’em into a tomato juice can of diesel fuel.

        After dark it’s most likely the honchos go out and dust or spray to wreak a little chemical revenge on the bugs. That’s most likely how all those pesticide residues end up on about half of all organic produce. I’ve seen ’em piddling around planting a menagerie of plants thought to possess magic powers to repulse insects and so forth – all a big farce, but it amuses the weak minded and separates grocery shoppers from their money.

        Most of the time organic plots are so weedy even the bugs have to hunt around for crops to eat. Organic zealots will say all that mess shelters natural predators that eat up all the bad bugs and kiss all the good bugs on the forehead. Whatever. All I know is you can only afford to fart away your time harvesting half a crop if you’re being paid double or more for it. Even then, what’s the point?

  • Diana Pena

    Build soil with composting instead of synthetic fertilizers? There’s a reason why synthetic fertilizers replaced the composting we used to do in ag, bitch.

  • Now if only we could get rid of the “Big is bad” mindset that saturates our cultural narrative and get a modicum of education regarding modern agriculture into the mainstream… One can dream.

    Great blog post. ~ Kerry H., WLJ Editor

  • Schratboy

    Chemicals are good tasting and part of a healthy environment.

    • agscienceliterate

      Some foods taste better than others, and some foods are healthier than others. All foods are comprised of chemicals. Here is the chemical makeup of an apple:

    • agscienceliterate

      Especially the numerous toxic organic chemicals used at much higher levels than in GE farming.