Guelph - When it comes to the marketing of North America's $11-billion-a-year organic biz, hippies are becoming as scarce as hens' teeth.
And that's created a whole crate of dilemmas. True, you can now get organics at the supermarket, the produce is super-model quality, and prices are coming down. But according to agricultural economist John Ikerd, who got a standing ovation at the Guelph Organic Conference last weekend, January 20 to 23, the mainstream's embrace of organics comes with its own price tag, including leading roles by the likes of Dole, Heinz and General Mills.
Ikerd, a professor emeritus from the University of Missouri, told the gathering that mass market entanglement has brought with it a series of dubious achievements like regulation, standardization, specialization, economies of scale and corporate concentration.
Tying organics to such an industrial agenda, he says, undercuts the original mandate of the organics movement: the renewal of healthy soils and the strengthening of local communities.
Take the problem of transporting food. The average unit of eats, be it carrots, meat or oranges, has kept on truckin' for over 1,500 miles. But organics likely travel even further: 85 per cent of Ontario organics are imported, regardless of the season.
Going to such lengths for cheaper food is unsustainable, both in terms of the fuel burned to transport food and the relationships burned to do food in a distant way, Ikerd argues.
"It might make economic sense, but it doesn't make common sense. We've got to return to the roots of organic, which is about connection and integrity,' says the guru, who urges organic farmers to sell to local communities instead of faraway niche markets.
While hippies were exploring granola, tofu and herbal tea back in the 1960s, Ikerd, raised in a dirt-poor family in the Missouri Ozarks, was into ultra-conservative Goldwater Republicanism, going full-bore along the fast track of agricultural economics, itself an academic discipline barely distinguishable from 18th-century social theory.
It was the farm crisis of the 1980s that shook him to the core. As prices for farm commodities went south, he watched farmers who had followed business advice from himself and his peers.
"But I want to be honest with you," he tells NOW during a slow dinner after his presentation. "There was a big personal side to this change, too. I was having a mid-life crisis."
During the 80s, he went through a divorce and a triple heart bypass and overcame what he describes as his addiction to the adrenalin of publishing journal articles. Then he lucked into a grant to do research on alternative agriculture and returned to his home state university in Missouri.
In the late 80s, just as the organic movement found itself on the fast track, expanding sales at the breakneck rate of 20 per cent a year that it's maintained until today, Ikerd was looking for ways to slow the whole industrial agriculture machine down.
He identified with the starting point of the organic pioneers of the early 1900s. The very term "organic" comes from the sharp distinction between organic - as in natural, biological, ever-changing, sharing a communal web, integrity/integrated - and industrial, which deals with lifeless objects such as coal and steel.
Loyal to this definition, Ikerd had a unique take on the movement's turning point, the development of a national organic code in the U.S. in 2002.
Looking at the runaway popularity of the word "organic," most organic farmers and processors worried that the same thing would happen to it as to "natural," which was co-opted to mean whatever advertisers wanted it to mean: all-natural hair colouring or all-natural bleached toilet paper.
To protect the good name of organics and all the work they'd put into mastering the complex demands of organic production, and to assure consumers that the extra cash they forked over for organics was paying for an important difference, U.S. organic farmers and businesses worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to spell out clear and strict standards.
But for Ikerd, these regs spelled trouble. A former manager in the meat-packing industry, he says, "It was relatively easy for me to see that this was the standard requirement of an industrial system. Regulatory standards, he says, "leave out social justice and community. There's no heart, no soul, no family written into certification," and no relations of trust or knowledge of where the food comes from.
If you don't know where your eats come from, the labour conditions under which they're harvested or made, the manner in which the company deals with the soil, the ecosystem and the market, then the process is not "organic' in the original comprehensive sense. Standards, after all, Ikerd says, are there precisely because they "allow you to deal with people you don't know."
Ever the economist, Ikerd sees opportunities for localism flourishing in the beltway areas around cities, where farmers can respond to the relatively affluent "cultural creatives" and "true naturals" whom marketers and pollsters estimate make up about a third of North American shoppers.
The building of an accountable food system will come one person at a time, he explains in a five-minute riff that reveals his childhood experience with the rhetorical style of the Southern Baptist church. "You don't have to wait for a government policy change," he says. "You can take advantages of opportunities that are there now."
Nearer, my God, to thee.