The $25 Billion organic marketplace has enjoyed substantial growth for over a decade, thanks to growing consumer consciousness and farmer innovation.
No longer a passing trend or simply a niche market, organic food and farming are proving to be a viable alternative to the unhealthy, unsustainable and unjust conventional food system.
Unprecedented wholesale and retail control of the organic marketplace by UNFI and Whole Foods, employing a business model of selling twice as much so-called “natural” food as certified organic food, coupled with the takeover of many organic companies by multinational food corporations such as Dean Foods, threatens the growth of the organic movement.
Consumers are confused about the difference between conventional products marketed as “natural,” and those nutritionally and environmentally superior products that are “certified organic.”
Retail stores like WFM and wholesale distributors like UNFI have failed to educate their customers about the qualitative difference between natural and organic.
A troubling trend in organics today is the calculated shift on the part of certain large companies from certified organic ingredients and products to so-called “natural” products. With the exception of the “natural” meat sector, where there are limited voluntary guidelines, there is no definition of “natural.” In the majority of cases, “natural” products are green washed conventional products, with “natural” label claims neither policed nor monitored.
Whole Foods and UNFI are maximizing their profits by selling quasi-natural products at premium organic prices. Organic consumers are increasingly left without certified organic choices while organic farmers continue to lose market share to “natural” impostors. It’s no wonder that less than 1% of American farmland is certified organic.
Whole Foods and UNFI’s business model of centralized sourcing and prioritizing natural products over organic rewards large corporate farms and processors, to the detriment of local and regional small-scale organic farmers and brands.
Organic farmers must “get big or get out” to be able to compete and have free access to markets. Many industrial organic farms and dairy operations reflect the same abuses and problems of the conventional food system: extremely energy intensive, systematic abuse of workers, reduced food quality, and damage to biodiversity.
So-called “natural” products, since they are actually in most cases conventional products in disguise, are being sold at lower prices than genuine organic products–thereby retarding the growth of the organic sector.
In light of the food system’s significant contribution to the climate crisis and the deepening economic troubles facing local food economies, it is more important than ever to prioritize locally produced organic food.
Though Whole Foods talks a lot about supporting local food and producers, the fact is that the vast majority of their products are not local, and much of what they sell is sourced from a small number of industrial organic operations in California, often owned by the same conventional food conglomerates responsible for destroying the world’s food system.
UNFI has undermined the growth of the organic movement by implementing an unfair tiered pricing system that gives Whole Foods deep discounts while other grocers, coops and independent retailers pay significantly higher prices, in effect subsidizing UNFI for its reduced profits at Whole Foods.
With UNFI as the largest organic (but of course their sales are mostly so-called “natural” products) food wholesaler and Whole Foods as the largest organic (like UNFI most of its sales are “natural”) food retailer, organic consumers are assured higher prices, lower quality and fewer choices.
In 2008, the Organic Consumers Association exposed a problem which particularly threatens women – a large number of leading conventional as well as “natural” and “organic” brands of shampoos, lotions, cosmetics and household cleaning products which contained the carcinogen 1,4-Dioxane.
Included in the list of products were several Whole Food’s 365 brand products and many products in the UNFI catalog.
While several dozen companies have committed to eliminating the 1,4-Dioxane, neither Whole Foods, nor UNFI, have endorsed OCA’s Coming Clean Campaign, nor have they called on the USDA to crack down on blatant labeling fraud in the organic personal care and cosmetics sector.
In the last decade, the organic marketplace has experienced hyper consolidation, with numerous small to medium-sized farmers, manufacturers and retailers being taken over by larger, profit-hungry corporations.
Whole Foods has employed an expansion strategy that resembles Wal-Mart with its targeting of local and independent retailers with new store locations while steadily buying out competitors like Wild Oats.
UNFI has also grown rapidly over the last decade, in part by aggressively taking over other distributors, regional wholesalers and manufacturers.
The organic food and farming movements were born out of the desire to provide healthy and safe food to all. Whole Foods’ business model: selling overpriced conventional foods as “natural,” with organics in a subordinate role, is a recipe for maximizing profits rather than maximizing the growth of organic food and farming.
Worse yet, Whole Food’s high prices have not translated into larger profits for family farms or small-scale manufacturers. Likewise, UNFI’s growing market share and near-monopoly of the organic and “natural” market has reduced the options for consumers and independent retailers alike, undermining the growth of consumer buying clubs and the lower-cost alternatives.
UNFI and Whole Foods have a history of cutting workers’ benefits. Both have gone to extreme lengths to block their employees from choosing to unionize. Whole Foods has long fought unionization of its retail locations, largely ignored the demands of farm workers organizations, like the United Farm Workers, and kept workers’ wages consistently low by industry standards.
UNFI has repeatedly fought efforts by its employees to fight for better pay, benefits and working conditions. Where workers have sucessfully formed unions, UNFI has begun moving jobs to new, non-union locations.