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Organic food is often associated with gentrified neighborhoods, farm-to-table restaurants, and grocery item mark-ups; however, this is an incomplete portrayal of a complicated and decades-long evolution that requires us to look back in history in order to discern how society has arrived at today’s understanding of organic food. In her book, The Changing Politics of Organic Food in North America, University of Saskatchewan researcher, Lisa F. Clark illuminates the trajectory of the organic food movement from its counterculture beginning in the 1950’s with small farm-focused goals to its current day manifestation of organic mono-cropping by agro-industry giants. By comparing the histories of how the organic market developed in the United States and Canada, the author shows how capitalist market influences quickly swayed the direction of this agrarian countermovement back into the mainstream agenda. Clark’s training in policy and food movements arms her with the tools necessary to expose how various actors have propelled the politicization of the organic movement and the resulting consequences.
While Clark questions the methods of corporate institutions and the intentions of major governing bodies, she simultaneously stresses the need to re-evaluate movement objectives in order to stay relevant and capture a broader audience. A resonating theme in The Changing Politics of Organic Food in North America is the shift away from sociological and ecological values that occurred as the movement progressed, the same core values that were indispensable at the beginning of the movement. Farmers spearheading this movement sought for methods to keep local communities prospering through a hyper-local and short supply chain. Less than one hundred years later, the organic movement includes corporate agribusiness and cross-continental distribution in the process between producers and consumers.
Clark begins her narrative by introducing two competing definitions of organic and how they are applied in contradictory ways; in doing so she illustrates how the original organic movement has been rerouted towards capitalist-favourable directions. The early definition of organic is process-based; a definition that focuses on a sustainable and humane approach to producing food that maintains the health of the soil and environment (14). Alternatively, the product-based definition of organic, developed later, is one that focuses on the material qualities of an organic food product: qualities that grab consumer attention and speak to consumer ideals (34). In this definition, land usage and short value chains are significantly less important compared to the value-added benefits consumers associate with organic foods. While Clark demonstrates how a shift in these definitions was part of a pivotal transition in the politics of organic food, she fails to critically analyze the broader consequences of this shift including the issues of food insecurity, consumer agency, and labor rights.
Each continuing chapter explores how national governments, trade agreements, and private entities were strategic in the politicization of the organic food movement. Clark’s The Changing Politics of Organic Food in North America reminds the reader it is not merely enough to “shake the hand that feeds you.” Instead, it is necessary to take a socio-political approach in examining how the operationalization of ‘organic’ is continually reinterpreted in relation to broader changes in the conventional food system. Through highlights such as how the Canadian tax system incentivizes individuals to re-invest in farms and how organic farmers in California oppose strengthening of labor rights for agricultural workers, Clark demonstrates the multifaceted nature of the politicization of organic food.
The comprehensive account starting from the 1930’s to 2015 makes this book an essential part of the food politics literature. Though the book’s academic tone and statistics-driven analysis may narrow its potential reading audience, it addresses critical issues that should concern an interdisciplinary audience as well as the general public. Clark’s book reminds the reader that not long ago, there was no need for an organic market. It was not until the agricultural industry shifted towards farming with synthetic-inputs that it became necessary to differentiate organic food from conventional food. The book seeks to answer the question, “can organic farming remain true to its social movement roots while it economically expands?” (185). To answer this question affirmatively, the reader understands the future will require work from multiple parties; the process will be long and difficult but it is not impossible. “Voting with your fork” is important though it is only one step in fostering the development of a holistic and just food system for all.
Ginna Solorzano is pursuing a Sociology Ph.D. at North Carolina State University with a specialization in food and environment. Her research is centered around the nexus of food, networks, and social capital. Prior to attending NCSU, Ginna worked as an educator for community organizations providing nutrition and cooking classes to underserved neighborhoods.
Ginna Solorzano poursuit des études de doctorat à la North Carolina State University (NCSU) avec spécialisation en alimentation et environnement. Ses travaux de recherche se concentrent sur les relations entre la nourriture, les réseaux alimentaires, et le capital social. Avant de fréquenter la NCSU, Ginna a travaillé comme éducatrice pour le compte d’organismes communautaires en donnant des cours de nutrition et de cuisine à des personnes vivant dans des quartiers défavorisés.