Alibi V.18 No.27 • July 2-8, 2009 

Food News

The Slippery Silk Road

American consumers and growers are left in the dust as China goes organic

Tofu, shoyu and soy milk: Five thousand years of culinary tinkering.
Tofu, shoyu and soy milk: Five thousand years of culinary tinkering.

Even as demand for organic food continues to explode, organic farmers in America are getting thrown under the beet cart they helped build. The Chinese are taking over the market share, especially of vegetables and soy, thanks to several American-based multinational food corporations that have hijacked the organic bandwagon they only recently jumped onto.

A June USDA report titled "Emerging Issues in the U.S. Organic Industry" discusses two notable trends in American food: Conventional food corporations are taking over successful independent organic companies, and these organic mega-corporations are becoming increasingly dependent on imported ingredients.

The Soybean Bait and Switch

When Dean Foods acquired White Wave, maker of Silk brand soy milk—which I used to drink like it was liquid crack—the prospects looked good for American organic soy farmers. Silk had always been committed to supporting domestic organic farmers, and with the might of Dean Foods behind it, Silk would likely grow.

Silk did grow but dropped its commitment to domestic soy. Soon after, Silk bailed on its commitment to organic soy.

After the sale of White Wave to Dean Foods, multiple Midwestern farmers and farmer cooperatives in the heart of American soy country were told by Silk they had to match the rock-bottom cost of Chinese organic soybeans—a price they simply could not meet. Organic agriculture is labor-intensive, and China has a big edge in the cheap labor department.

The soybean is a major cash crop in the U.S.
The soybean is a major cash crop in the U.S.

"Dean Foods had the opportunity to push organic and sustainable agriculture to incredible heights of production by working with North American farmers and traders to get more land in organic production," says Merle Kramer, a marketer for the Midwestern Organic Farmers Cooperative, based in Michigan. "But what they did was pit cheap foreign soybeans against the U.S. organic farmer, taking away any attraction for conventional farmers to make the move into sustainable agriculture."

Silk bought Chinese soybeans for years, building a commanding share of the soy milk market before substantially decreasing its use of organic ingredients.

Few Silk products are certified organic anymore, and some are processed with hexane, a neurotoxin. The use of hexane poses risks to workers in the food processing plants and, some fear, consumers: It’s listed as an air pollutant by the Environmental Protection Agency. In the state of Illinois alone, five million pounds of hexane are released into the environment annually by food processors including Bunge, Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland. While the green "USDA Organic" seal may be missing in action, hexane-processed soy milk can still be labeled "natural," and if the product contains any organic ingredients, the label "made with organic ingredients" is still used.

While the retail price of imported produce remains the same as what consumers were paying for domestic organic, there's reason to believe the quality is lower. At Whole Foods, labels reading "USDA inspected" are stuck to produce imported from abroad. But according to "Behind the Bean," a recent study by Wisconsin's Cornucopia Institute, the USDA's record with food imported from China is fraught with irregularities.

"What they did was pit cheap foreign soybeans against the U.S. organic farmer, taking away any attraction for conventional farmers to make the move into sustainable agriculture."

Merle Kramer, Midwestern Organic Farmers Cooperative, on Dean Foods’ takeover of White Wave (makers of Silk brand soy milk)

"[USDA] found multiple noncompliances of the federal organic standards, [including] the failure of one certifying agent to hire Chinese inspectors that are adequately familiar with the USDA organic standards, and the failure by another organic certifying agent to provide a written and translated copy of the USDA organic standards to all clients applying for certification.” The study concludes, “This raises serious concerns about whether foods grown organically in China follow the same USDA organic standards with which we require American farmers to comply."

Coming to a Head (of Garlic)

A stand at my local farmers’ market has a sign that reads "Boycott Chinese Garlic." China currently supplies 75 percent of the garlic sold in the U.S. for an average price of 50 cents a pound. Two years ago it was 25 cents a pound. Even with the price of garlic up, large garlic growers, and whole garlic-growing regions like Gilroy, Calif., are hurting. Gilroy used to be known as the nation's garlic capital. In addition to garlic cultivation, a retail empire was built on value-added products made with garlic. Now Gilroy is just a garlic processing capital; most of its supply comes from China.

One advantage local garlic producers have going for them is that most Chinese garlic is the soft-neck variety, which is inferior—in terms of flavor, clove size and peelability—to the hard-neck varieties favored by many American garlic growers. But while farmers’ markets are spreading like weeds and creating evermore opportunities for consumers to buy the good stuff directly from growers, most Americans continue to reach for the netted bulbs of garlic at the supermarket or jars of pre-peeled and pre-chopped garlic.

Consumers buy organic for several reasons: lighter environmental impact, cleaner and safer working conditions for farmworkers, and the perceived health benefits of organic foods (or, at least, their lack of toxic health detriments). Unfortunately, the import-fueled corporatization of questionably organic food is making all of these attributes less certain. Silk's road to China is a well-worn trail and further evidence that organic as we knew it is dead, replaced by gigantic corporations that are in it for all the wrong reasons. And these corporations, more than the Chinese, are who killed organic.