Saskatchewan author tracks rise of organic food movement

Lisa F. Clark’s book tells the story of how the organic movement responded to the social, economic and political changes brought on by the rise of industrial agriculture in the 20th century. Photo: Jennifer Sparrowhawk

By Lorraine Stevenson
OrganicBiz staff

If you think organic food is “hippie chow” or a fringe food fad that will pass, a read of The Changing Politics of Organic Food in North America might change your mind.

Published in 2015 by Saskatchewan author Lisa F. Clark, it traces the rise of the organic agriculture and food sector over nearly a century,  exploring how a diet of a marginal few in the 1960s became a multi-billion dollar industry in the 2000s.

A research associate with the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of Saskatchewan, Clark says she was intrigued by the political dynamics underlying the organic movement and its growth over the past decades.

“Politics can radically change seemingly apolitical issues,” she said in a telephone interview from her Saskatoon office. “Food is very political. I think the organic movement is a good example and demonstration of how political food can be.”

Photo courtesy: Edward Elgar Publishing
Photo courtesy: Edward Elgar Publishing

Her book traces the decades-long development of organic agriculture in North America, from its beginnings in the early 1920s when farmers and gardeners were experimenting with techniques for healthy soil management. By the 1950s, an agrarian movement had taken root among them as they resisted the post-war usage of agro-chemicals, Clark writes. That agrarian movement would ultimately find its niche within other sweeping social movements of the 1960s as more people challenged all types of industrialization.

One of the things I try to examine in more detail in my book is that it is not just about science. It’s not just about economics. It’s actually about politics and how people perceive value… – Lisa F. Clark

That was a period when books like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring had raised the alarm about the impact of agro-chemicals in the environment. The public turned its attention to one of the most fundamental principles of organics — that is how food was produced was as important as the food itself, said Clark.

Organic agriculture was largely ignored by policy makers and business, and derided by government throughout much of the 1970s and 1980s, with only small networks of farmers and businesses in existence, and consumers buying organic food mainly in health food stores.

But everything began to change again in the 1990s when biotechnology was introduced, the public learned about genetically engineered food and organic advocates realized they would needed regulators to develop, monitor and evaluate organic standards. Up to that point in time, it was widely felt government and business should have no role in managing organic value chains.

“GMOs were synthetic inputs,” she said. “There had to be regulations to be sure the production processes were true to the principles that had developed since the 1920s.”

Regulatory frameworks and standards were developed, and the public’s attention turned once more to organic food. And as more perceived value in how organic food was produced, the number and diversity of the actors who associated themselves with organic principles began to multiply, says Clark.

“Instead of ‘Back to the Landers’ and ‘middle class hippies,’ the developing market potential for organic food drew in many interested parties seeking to gain from the growing politicization of food issues and organic agriculture’s niche market status,”she writes in her book .

Today a far more diverse customer buys organic food. Some are buying it because it’s GMO-free. Others don’t want synthetic chemicals on their food while there are those who believe it organic food tastes better and is nutritionally superior. The bottom line is that the consumer paying premium prices for organic food continues to see value in what they’re buying, said Clark.

“These things are political,” she said. “One of the things I try to examine in more detail in my book is that it is not just about science. It’s not just about economics. It’s actually about politics and how people perceive value in certain models and ways of production.”

Clark has concluded that organics are less susceptible to market downturns than conventional food. During the recession of 2008, organic food was one of the only food subsectors actually still growing, even if it was single-digit growth, she said.

“That’s counterintuitive to a lot of people…why would premium-price organics still be growing during a recession?” she said. “But people have principles they assign to organic food. ”

Clark said she hopes her book sheds light not only how the organic movement evolved, but will help readers better understand its current state, and the ongoing debates around where it may be headed.

The Changing Politics of Organic Food in North America is published by Edward Elgar Publishing Inc. The book can be purchased on its website for a 10 per cent discount at e-elgar.com.

A free download of chapter one is available on Elgaronline.