In the food movement, big is not better. People tend to look fondly upon small farms and small businesses. And for some reason that I don’t understand, there is an assumption that organic farms and organic businesses should be small. Further, if they grow large, they will automatically be evil corporations or an entities undeserving of our support. In general, I believe it is avoid making sweeping conclusions about big firms or small firms. But we can develop a framework for examining both (1) the relative benefits of big vs small organic firms and (2) our beliefs about big and large organic firms.
So, step 1 is to define what we mean by organic farms and organic firms. In most countries, government regulations clearly specify what it means to be an organic farm and firm (a manufacturer, for example). The definitions are based on practices: farming practices include (this is not exhaustive) crop rotation, buffer zones, intercropping, and use of manure or compost. Handling practices (which regulate processing and distribution) include complete segregation of organic and conventional products along the supply chain. The practices also include a list of prohibited substances (chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and solvents in processed foods) and allowable substances (in the US, this is called the “National List.”) All the firms along the supply chain are required to keep a paper trail of the organic products.
Only the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) has a list of principles that include concepts such as the principle of health, fairness, and care. The fourth IFOAM principle – that of ecology – is embedded in the organic standards promulgated by all government authorities.
Thus, in the market, the word “organic” applies to ecological aspects, and does not consider equity or fairness or healthfulness. In fact, there are plenty of certified organic foods that are junk food.
When people state that they prefer small farms and small food businesses, I think they are saying they believe small farms and small food businesses are better able to provide fair wages, or that they have a smaller carbon footprint. These firms, we imagine, are raising, processing, and distributing food in a manner that is environmentally sustainable.
Do people’s expectations match up with reality? What do we know about small farms and small food businesses?
- First, profitable small farms and small food businesses reflect the American spirit of entreprenuership. This aspect is important to many people – particularly those who want to be the master of their own destiny.
- The small businesses likely operate at a higher per unit cost, which I think is fine (but let’s admit it).
- Do small businesses pay fair wages? And benefits? I would say some do and some do not. We do know that workers in the food industry tend to be poorly paid. Farmers and food businesses that try to pay fair wages/benefits often find they can’t do so and still remain in business.
- Do small farms and small food businesses have a smaller carbon footprint? The literature to date suggests that a small, local farm or food business does not necessarily have a lower carbon footprint.
- Are the small farms/food businesses “sustainable” regarding the environment? Not necessarily. Unless a farm is certified as organic, we are unsure of how environmentally attentive the farmer is. However, I think we can comfortably say that smaller livestock operations are less damaging to the environment, in terms of impact on climate change and pollution caused by waste, than their large counterparts are.
A closer look at the small farm suggests that some of our beliefs about “smallness” do not necessarily hold up under scrutiny. When we buy a local apple from the farmers market, we can be buying the product of a environmentally friendly farm that pays fair wages and has a low carbon footprint. Or we might be buying an apple with less desirable attributes.
So that leads me to wonder – perhaps the objections to “big organic” are the same as those towards “big ag?” If so, is it right to think that way??