Organic agriculture at a crossroads: Prof says goals of ecological sustainability and social justice may require subsidies

Thirty years after the birth of organic agriculture in California, the industry looks more than ever like the agribusiness model it set out to oppose. The early dream of producing food in ecologically sustainable ways has withered under multiple pressures, but an analysis by a geographer at the University of California, Santa Cruz, suggests that government subsidies would help restore the organic movement as a force for environmental and social transformation.

24th annual Ecological Farming Conference takes place Jan. 21-24 in Pacific Grove
"The organic industry in California has largely replicated what it set out to oppose," said Julie Guthman, assistant professor of community studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and the author of the forthcoming book Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California (Berkeley: UC Press, 2004).

Guthman will discuss her analysis during the 24th Annual Ecological Farming Conference January 21-24, the world's foremost sustainable agriculture conference, at the Asilomar Conference Center in Pacific Grove. Guthman's workshop, entitled "Impacts and Implications of Concentration in the Organic Industry," is scheduled for Friday, January 23, at 10:30 a.m. Guthman, a faculty affiliate of the UCSC Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems, is part of a contingent of sustainable agriculture experts from UCSC who will be presenting during Eco-Farm; see below for descriptions of other presentations.

Corporate buyouts of smaller organic operations are a visible sign of change in the organic industry, but Guthman insists that the paradox of organic is much more complex than a story of "big versus small, or good guys versus bad guys. I call it a trilemma, because it's about what growers need, what consumers need, and what workers need."

California's large-scale, highly specialized form of commercial farming hinges on crop specialization and low-paid immigrant farm labor, said Guthman. Against that backdrop, and coupled with the organic movement's history of self-regulation and dependence on a price premium, engrained forces have undermined organic growers' ability to "do things in a very different way," said Guthman.

Among organic growers, too, there is diversity, with some embracing the "classic" model of organic farming that relies on crop rotations, diversification, composting, and biological pest control. But much of the organic acreage today meets only the minimum standards for organic production, she said.

"There's a widespread misconception that big corporate interests took over the organic industry, when in truth a lot of the growth has come from within," said Guthman. "Operations like Natural Selection/Earthbound Farm and Pavich Family Farms have recruited people from the conventional industry to grow for them, because they wanted more professionalism than what the visionaries of the 1970s were able to provide."

In addition, a lot of growth in the organic sector has been driven by farmers seeking higher profits. But incentives for all organic growers have eroded in the face of a shrinking price premium, and high land values have pushed just about everybody to farm in more intensive ways, said Guthman. As high-volume, lucrative crops like organic salad mix come to be dominated by a handful of players, margins are tightening and producers are also forsaking the vision of a more socially just production and distribution model.

Although consumers can now find organic salad mix at retailers like Trader Joe's and Costco, in what Guthman calls the "Wal-Martization" of salad mix, prices are typically set at the retail level and bear little relationship to what farmers receive.

"In this market, it's very difficult for the organic industry to escape the imperatives of intensification without a policy mechanism like subsidies," said Guthman. "The cost of growing in a more sustainable fashion cannot be entirely borne on the backs of farmers, workers, or consumers."


Reporters may contact Julie Guthman by calling (831) 459-2726 or by sending e-mail to

UCSC affiliates are also participating in the following Eco-Farm workshops:

o "Organic Farming Information for Professionals," a workshop with Sean Swezey, associate director of UCSC's Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems and director of the UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SAREP); Friday, January 23, 3:30-5:30 p.m.

o "College and University Farms Educators," a mixer hosted by the UCSC Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems to facilitate networking among sustainable agriculture education professionals; Thursday, January 22, 3:30-5 p.m.

o "How to Start a Small Farm," a workshop with Sean Harrison and Marco Franciosa of Soil Born Farm in Sacramento, and Kevin McEnnis of Quetzal Farm in Santa Rosa, all of whom graduated from UCSC's Apprenticeship in Ecological Horticulture; Thursday, January 22, 8:30-10 a.m.

o "Indigenous Microorganisms Progress Report," a workshop with UCSC apprenticeship graduate Gil Carandang of Herbana Farma in the Philippines; Thursday, January 22, 3:30-5 p.m.

o "Gopher and Mole Control Strategies for Farmers and Gardeners," a workshop with Thomas Wittman, operations assistant at the UCSC Farm; Saturday, January 24, 8:30-10 a.m.

o "Scholar/Activist Consortium," a preconference invitation-only meeting organized by Guthman and Patricia Allen, a senior analyst at UCSC's Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems, to promote collaborations; Wednesday, January 21, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.