Conventionalising organic – is organic food a realistic alternative?

On March 17th 2011, the Waitrose Weekend magazine boldly proclaimed “Eco farming tackles food production”. The ensuing article then summarised the main findings of a recent UN report to say that “sustainable techniques…can both increase yields and repair the environment”. So if Waitrose is backing ecological farming (or at least publicising it), and the UN is calling for governments to back it, then at what point does it stop being an alternative and become ‘Plan A’? Does the mainstream/ alternative dichotomy refer to yield, the amount of land used, the number of people being fed, the number of people working in the industry, etc?

Perhaps the question I’m trying to ask here is ‘who gets to decide’? Clearly definitions and decisions are an integral part of the ‘alternative narrative’. If we here take Guthman’s chapter on the “conventionalizing” of organic, then we see the attempts at codification and certification of a distinct set of processes and outcomes. In effect, the years of political and legislative efforts were an attempt to protect and proclaim not the benefits or virtues of organic, but primarily it’s ‘alternativeness’. The process of becoming recognised and becoming registered was premised on a positivist approach, identifying not the values or ideologies which inspired the movement, but the “easily measurable and verifiable” (Guthman, p.118) distinctiveness of its standards. Regulations gradually became enforced which were both proscriptive and positive in nature and certification, as we see by the end of the chapter, became almost an end in itself. The onerous process set down by the “organo-nazis” (Guthman, p.134) of the CCOF and the militant tie-dye/ponytail-ism was replaced, or at least challenged by Quality Assurance International (QAI). The pejorative “Quick and Instant” soubriquet (Guthman, p.138) demonstrating that certificates not worth the paper they were printed on, and the easy gain attitude of many aspirant inductees were challenging the (overly) rigorous standards set down in law. Guthman’s argument is that being organic is (or should be?) far more about the ideological values and self-definition rather than the absurd regulations such as the arbitrary three year transition period from the use of banned substances to the ‘purity’ of the land (Guthman, p.127) and its sanctification as organic. Really if we consider organic to be the alternative, then the narrative outline by Guthman is one of alternatives within an alternative, or a minority within a minority. And again we ask how big or successful (or whatever other spurious metric we want to use) does organic have to become in order to be not an alternative mode of production, but a dominant one? While contamination through eutrophication and the ‘polluting’ of soil and water prevents organic and fertiliser-motivated agricultures from being geographically parallel, could we start to see organic zones, regions, or countries? The strict legal qualifications outlined by Guthman appear similar to AOC/ PDO/ PGI denominations, so will not just the chemical quality of the ecology, but also something more like its specific properties as organic become something new to fight over and regulate?


This potential scenario of pure and marketable (here read profit-making) soils could become a boutique industry in itself. This could mark the full return to foodstuffs not being just about the price, but about the pure exclusivity. But then this bourgeois dream could also be a proletarian nightmare – whole zones of agricultural exception being devoted to the most rigorous pristine organicism, far away from the Hobbesian world of corporate input-driven mass agriculture. The vision would have the Garden of Eden being recreated for those who could afford to eat its fruits. This vision is, of course, far from that outlined in the summary of the recent UN report above. Organic is for those who could afford it, the ‘proles’ unable to produce for themselves, and fully dependent on that which no one apart from the profit-makers wants. But then as Belasco states, while we focus on the product, it is to the detriment of time spent looking at the process (of production). Mumford’s scabrous and dystopian “brave new world of totalitarian technics” (quoted in Belasco, p.225) is far closer to current reality than many would want to imagine, but as with Huxley’s original, there are ways in which we can prevent the inevitability or totality of the nightmare becoming the everyday waking state. Much of Belasco’s tone is not one of criticism for the mischievous marketing of ‘whole foods’ and convenience, but criticism of us, the Northern middle-class consumer for sleepwalking into the nightmare future. Belasco’s approach is laudable, the Marx of the supermarket trying to raise our consciousness and eschew the hegemonic mystification. As a side it is worth noting that on “where Warren gets to rant about food”, there are to date 0 blog posts. If we are to be saved, it is up to the preacher to make his sermons accessible to the everyman, like Epicurus advocated harnessing the power of marketing to spread the good word. The onus here is on the consumer to maintain their consciousness and stay one step ahead of the corporate food marketer. But how viable is this in everyday life – does the average (privileged Northerner or relative yuppie in any emerging market) actually have the time? Perhaps these concerns are those belonging to the people with the time to study processes and ask the questions such as “How will the greenhouse effect affect grain production?” (Belasco, p.230). An alternative could, of course, be proposed by us bourgeois economists, anthropologists and food students, but would it ever be a viable alternative for the majority of humanity?

Koert van Mensvoort

While the alternative proposed in the UN report above is a top-down measure of spreading the actual benefits of the good word (I don’t think it is here cynical to note the rhetoric of salvation and economic morality), that outlined by Fairhead and also Pottier is one of the conceptual and cultural collision between the alternative and the mainstream.  Both are rational (in the best sense) and beyond criticism to view ‘indigenous’/ ‘local’ knowledges as contested and continually evolving dynamic epistemologies and cosmologies. Similar to Belasco, Fairhead, looking at a very different context, advocates a holistic view of man as both farmer and consumer situated within both social and agricultural contexts. But what would Wallerstein say to these views and realities? Most likely he would scoff and state that they are hyper-peripheral to the economic and positivist core of scientific and neo-liberal agricultural production. But could the periphery ever smother the core? Could the periphery ever become the core? How much of an alternative mode of production is that presented to us by Fairhead if it is never going to be more than the local – if it is never (and can never be?) the global? The real challenging alternative will be when ethnographic study is transposed from Bwisha to Bradford, Buenos Aires, Boston. Rather than a clarion call to dig up urban streets for victory (but against who? Agribusiness perhaps?), this rather a more inquisitive armchair approach to ask whether these are real alternative modes of production? This is not a questioning of authenticity and epistemology like Fairhead, but a doubt-sowing along Guthman’s or Belasco’s lines. Are the options presented an alternative to late capitalism, or will the organic, the alternative merely be consumed and regurgitated by the force of the global market?

James Ingram


Belasco, Warren (2005) “Food and the Counterculture: A Story of Bread and Politics” in The Cultural Politics of Food and Eating: A Reader, eds, J. Watson & M. Caldwell (Blackwell), pp. 217-234.

Fairhead, James (1993) ‘Representing knowledge: the “new farmer” in research fashions’, in Pottier, J (ed) Practising development: social science perspectives.  London: Routledge, pp. 187-204.

Guthman, Julie (2004) “Conventionalizing Organic: From Social Movement to Industry via Regulation,” in Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California (University of California Press), pp. 110-140.

Pottier, Johan (2003) ‘Negotiating Local Knowledge: An introduction’, in J. Pottier, A. Bicker and P. Sillitoe (eds) Negotiating Local Knowledge: Power and identity in Development. London: Pluto Press, pp 1-29.


One thought on “Conventionalising organic – is organic food a realistic alternative?

  1. I hope you’ve all enjoyed reading. If you’ve got any comments, or criticism, or praise (!) then drop me a line via Twitter: @ingyingram

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