top of page

The Organic Revolution, or You Can’t Dismantle Capitalism with a Marketing Plan

Introduction: How the organic movement transitioned to a $39 billion industry through a combination of market mechanisms, supported by organic certification, and legislation.

The co-authors, Katherine DiMatteo and Grace Gershuny, have devoted their professional and personal lives to advancing organic production. Katherine is well known to IFOAM’s constituency as its Board Chair (2008-2011). As the first Executive Director of the Organic Trade Association (OTA), she helped expand the organic industry and build its public and market place credibility. An early developer of organic certification and a founding member of OTA as well as an organic practitioner, author and educator, Grace served as a staff member of USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) in the 1990’s, where she had a key role in developing the program’s regulatory structure.

Since the passage of the US organic legislation, the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) in 1990, the domestic organic market has enjoyed consistent double digit growth. Only during the recent period of global economic recession did organic sales growth fall below 10%, still well above the flat-lined grocery industry as a whole. In recent years increasing numbers of mainstream consumers have gained access to organic products through conventional retail outlets in addition to natural foods stores, farmers markets, and forms of direct marketing such as community supported agriculture (CSA) schemes. Geographic and demographic diversity of organic consumers has also expanded, according to a recent announcement issued by OTA. Data released by the NOP early in 2015 proclaimed that the number of domestic certified organic operations had increased by more than 5% over the previous year, and that since implementation of the program in 2002, the number of domestic organic operations has increased by over 250 percent.

These figures represent a great accomplishment, which has propelled the organic sector firmly into the economic mainstream. However, 25 years after passage of the OFPA, despite its logarithmic growth the industry is still less than 6% of total US retail food sales (which represents less than that in actual amount of product sold, as the dollar value of organic goods is higher than comparable conventional products). Despite a steady rise in numbers of organic producers, the average size of organic farms tends to be considerably smaller than that of conventional operations. A large preponderance of producers of high value vegetable and fruit crops rather than high acreage commodity grains or livestock translates into a less than 1% share of US farmland that is maintained under organic management. Moreover, a serious supply problem looms, especially of feed grains, threatening to curtail growth of the dairy and livestock sectors. At this rate, how long will it take to reclaim enough land from GMOs and toxic pesticides, rebuild soil carbon reserves, or eliminate synthetic fertilizer runoff into waterways to make a difference to the planet?

Obstacles to adoption by conventional farmers

In the 1980's and 1990's, those of us who worked to develop the organic market believed that the best way to grow more organic producers was to demonstrate that producing organically was at least as profitable as conventional, with added environmental and social benefits. Recent studies indicate that organic producers consistently realize higher net profit than conventional ones, despite somewhat lower yields. This message has indeed reached multitudes of new and aspiring farmers, but has had limited penetration into existing conventional operations, mostly among producers of high value fresh produce crops. Today, well over 90% of US corn, soybean, canola, and cotton production is based on genetically engineered varieties.

One of the most commonly cited barriers is the significant risk born by the farmer during the three year transition (conversion) period, when yields may be depressed but there is no price premium for the product. Other important obstacles include the lack of appropriate infrastructure such as grain cleaners, lack of adequate research into problems of producing without agri-chemical inputs, and the cost and hassle of organic certification. Others have pointed to a social/cultural/political distrust, and often outright hostility, towards the world view represented by zealous organic advocates—often accused of anti-scientific beliefs and far left ideological agendas. The erection of ever higher and more prescriptive standards is well documented as a mechanism that is used to discourage new entrants to any industry (and thus competition for existing companies), and has a similar effect in the organic sector.

Many producers are skeptical of the potential for continued growth in market share for organic in light of proliferation of competing and conflicting claims such as ‘natural,’ ‘non-GMO’, ‘animal welfare’, and of course, ‘sustainable.’ According to recent research by the Hartmann Group, the ‘locally produced‘ label is valued more highly than organically grown. A great deal of this confusion and even outright distrust of the organic label by those who are passionate cutting edge 'foodies' can be attributed to a constant drumbeat of alarm over the 'corruption' of organic raised by self-styled 'organic watchdogs.' This is a situation that appears to be unique to the US, but is worth trying to understand.

Impacts of the relentless push for purity and 'higher standards'

Self-styled 'organic watchdogs' who claim to be protecting 'organic integrity' have sown suspicion and distrust of the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) and opposition to 'industrial organic' producers and companies amongst the progressive activist community, as well as alienating conventional producers who might otherwise have an interest in transitioning. The fixation on eliminating anything deemed 'synthetic,' no matter how benign, results in vulnerability to charges of organic standards as unscientific, leveled repeatedly by agribusiness propagandists--not to mention the loss of beneficial tools for organic producers, especially those still ‘testing the waters’. The focus on purity and the primacy of consumer perceptions to determine organic production standards is destructive on many levels, especially when it discourages practical-minded farmers from giving organic production serious consideration.

The demand for purity is antithetical to the need for health. Purity requires monoculture. Purity rejects our symbiotic relationship with the teeming microbiome that contributes the huge majority of our metabolic well-being, but instead strives for an illusory sense of germ-free safety. The story of sugar can be said to encapsulate the horrific consequences of the quest for purity in the food system. A similar story could be told about the fate of our major cereal grains, especially corn, wheat and rice, in which whiteness and purity have been valued to the detriment of health and nutrition. As impurities have been refined out, the social status of these foods has been elevated, while at the same time their life giving qualities have been diminished. The addictive qualities of both refined carbohydrates and refined hydrocarbons is not a coincidence. That the production, processing and manufacture of foods (and other products, most notably textiles) from these now lifelessly pure products is predicated on an exceptionally vicious dehumanization of brown and black people by those of euro-caucasian descent is a shameful and sordid chapter of our history that lives on at the very core of our societal dysfunction.

The most vocal watchdogs of organic integrity are not, to be clear, espousing racist ideologies, and are often progressive and passionate advocates of human liberation. Their quest for purity grows from a misplaced belief that this will promote health for themselves and others. They therefore demand foods that are pesticide-free, synthetic-free, unprocessed, never tainted by GMOs or environmental pollution. Much damage to the holistic vision of original organic movement has been done by those who earnestly believe that organic food must be pure, and that ideological purity must trump political compromise.

What can be done?

In 2012 USDA announced a goal of increasing organic production by 25% within three years. While laudable, this goal has proven highly unrealistic. In an effort to meet this objective, the NOP has mounted a 'Sound & Sensible' campaign to reduce the unnecessary burdens of certification and offer more technical information to potential producers. A federally funded cost share program is currently available for certification, and now organic producers can get crop insurance for real market prices—but there’s no telling how long those incentives will remain. Many talk about restructuring subsidy programs to compensate producers for ecosystem services and offer carbon credits--another unlikely prospect, given the current US political situation. The most recent Farm Bill increased funding for organic research and extension initiatives, as well as for conservation programs that support organic transition plans. None of this addresses the big social-cultural obstacles, or path dependency. None of this addresses the political power—including media domination--of the agribusiness-as-usual lobby.

Time to rethink the idea that consumer perception is what matters, and that organic must be upheld as the 'gold standard' of sustainability

The market has served a valuable function in popularizing the organic 'brand,' and awakened many to the ills of a food system aptly characterized by former IFOAM President Gunnar Rundgren as a Global Eating Disorder. Without diminishing the need to continue working through market channels, the organic community must now go beyond the marketplace, as many believe we must go beyond organic, particularly in terms of social and ethical criteria. This means creating alternative economic and political institutions, such as public banks, worker owned businesses, and community-based citizens action groups. We must align ourselves with movements such as environmental justice, food sovereignty, and other forms of local self-determination. Natural resources—including and especially food production—must be democratically controlled by those who depend on them for the basic necessities of life. For most North Americans this means doing all in our power, as privileged citizens—as opposed to consumers--of the Global North, to end the ongoing colonization of the Global South and the rape of everyone’s common heritage of clean water, biodiversity, and living soil. In its landmark report, Agriculture at a Crossroads, the IAASTD emphasized the critical role of smallholder agriculture, as appropriate to the eco-region and culture, as a source of community-level basic provisioning and a myriad of associated ecosystem services.

This is not an ‘either-or’ solution. Diversity of strategies is essential in order to communicate the imperative need for organic conversion to and within diverse communities and cultures. People must be met where they are, with humility, respect, and a good command of the science. Self-education is a critical first step and ongoing requirement.


Grace’s US Senator, Bernie Sanders (an avowed Democratic Socialist and candidate for President in 2016) stood up at a recent organic farming conference in her home state of Vermont and paid those assembled the supreme compliment of calling us revolutionaries. The organic revolution is now in full bloom - let us work in every way possible, collaborate honestly with those whose political or economic positions we may dislike, at whatever level we are capable, to foment an organic revolution of health and well-being for the good of humanity and our planet.


Search by Topic

bottom of page