Michael A. Haedicke

 

On his book Organizing Organic: Conflict and Compromise in an Emerging Market

Cover Interview of November 09, 2016

In a nutshell

Organic farming is inspired by visions of harmony between human beings and the natural world. These days, however, many people who reflect about organic foods think instead of struggle.

Activists and scholarly observers have pointed out that food conglomerates and mass-market retailers are hungry for a slice of the organic market. Mega-farms growing acres of irrigated organic tomatoes in the Mexican desert (no one’s idea of sustainability) have made national news headlines. In his 2006 bestseller The Omnivore’s Dilemma, writer Michael Pollan questioned whether these growing numbers of market-oriented farmers and large food corporations have “cost organic its soul.”

In the rush to the barricades, few people have paused to explore the different ways that participants in the organic sector interpret the goal of farming in harmony with the natural world. My book focuses squarely on these diverse cultural understandings of organic foods and agriculture.

I show that conflicts within the organic sector often take shape around competing visions of sustainability, each of which lays claim to a mantle of moral virtue. Rather than following the well-worn cultural trope of struggle between God and mammon, these conflicts pit against one another the two warring gods of idealism and pragmatism.

At the book’s heart lies an analysis of two cultural visions of organic agriculture. The first of these visions, which I label transformative, positions organic agriculture as an alternative system of food production characterized by small-scale farms, community-based businesses, and egalitarian social relationships. Farming organically, in this vision, involves commitment to wide-ranging social and cultural change.

The second vision, which I label expansionary, identifies organic instead as a collection of environmentally-benign agricultural techniques and methodologies. From this perspective, the market-driven growth of the organic sector is a good thing, because it causes more land to be managed organically. More organic land, in turn, means reduced human impacts on the environment.

Using unique archival documents and extensive interviews with leaders in the organic sector, my book traces the development of these two visions at key moments in the organic sector’s history. I describe conditions under which the contradictions between these visions have fueled social conflict, but this is not the whole story.

I also show myriad ways – ranging from the design of national regulatory policies to the micro-politics of independent organic retail stores – in which organic sector members have created compromises between these two visions. Although they appear less dramatic than conflicts, the character of these compromises has set the course for the organic sector’s long-term development.