Michael A. Haedicke


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

Cover Interview of November 09, 2016


The story about the organic sector that I tell in this book is neither a triumph nor (as is the case with many other published accounts) a tragedy. It is a story of ongoing negotiations, of emerging patterns of conflict, of new approaches to compromise.

This is a good thing. The tension between transformative and expansionary visions of organic agriculture has propelled creativity and innovation within the organic sector, as well as provoking members of the sector to think more deeply about the significance of their work than they otherwise might.

However, one finding that emerged clearly in my research is that expansionary understandings of organic farming are becoming more influential, while transformative ones have retreated towards the sector’s margins. I document several reasons for this.

The federal organic regulations that went into effect in 2002 emphasized the goal of market growth and employed rationalized definitions of organic farming that left little room for discussions of systemic change. The new generation of organic foods professionals, who often work for large food companies and possess mainstream business training, find expansionary understandings more intuitively acceptable. Some small-scale farmers have chosen to exit the organic sector and to create new ways of marketing their products that go “beyond organic.”

There are real benefits to expanding the organic market in ways that convert increasing amounts of land to organic management. But there are also risks associated with the dominance of expansionary understandings. For one thing, temptations exist to alter organic farming and trade regulations in ways that would subordinate the best environmental practices to the goal of market growth. Additionally, processes of deliberation and compromise-building may be sidelined in a competitive and expanding market.

In the final analysis, people in the organic sector face an ongoing challenge, albeit in new circumstances: how can they cultivate institutions and practices that enable different ways of understanding the organic project to coexist? It is around this puzzle that some of the most exciting innovations – from participatory guarantee certification programs to new animal welfare standards – are emerging.