Industrial organic vs. small-scale organic – and why we need to support the latter

You care about your health. You care about the animals. You care about the planet. This is why you buy organic food. 

Great! Now here’s another component to care about: the small, local farmer. Why?

Simplified, if you don’t support local farmers, you support industrialized, mass production.

Even if you buy organic or veggie or local – and even if you avoid eating animal foods – as long as you buy in big supermarkets, you are (in most of the cases) knowingly or unknowingly supporting the food industry. 95% of all money families spend on food in Belgium is spent in the supermarket, 2/3 of this in only 3 supermarket chains. 80% of the products sold in those supermarkets come from multinationals. Organic shops are already a better choice, since the products they carry are more likely to come from producers living the organic philosophy, producing on smaller scales, applying permaculture or agroecological principles, and/or applying higher quality standards (e.g. demeter certifications). Still many products sold in bio shops are (industrially) processed and not necessarily healthy. The food industry is also more and more taking over organic companies (see below), which is usually not visible on the label, making it harder and harder to know who you are actually supporting when buying a certain product. 

Organic and mass production just don’t go together

A truly sustainable (and ideally regenerative) farm is an integrated one, meaning that animals fertilize the soil for the plants, that then feed the same animals, the farmer, his family and the customers. On such a farm, no fertilizers or animal foods have to be bought from third parties. Such farm practices are usually operated on a relatively small scale (Sepp Holzer in Austria and “The Biggest Little Farm” in the US are proof that it is also possible on larger scales though). 

As soon as “mass production” enters the equation – even if it is organic mass production, farming practices have to be more or less compromised. A product sold in big supermarket chains is almost per definition produced in masses. Supermarkets usually prefer working with only a few suppliers in order to keep the purchase price low and the dependency of the farmer on them high. As a consequence, more animals need to be held on less surface, increasing CO2 emissions (unless grazing is managed “holistically“). While still grazing for some part of their lives, they are then finished on subsidized soy and corn bought from a third party provider, to make them fatten quicker – at the expense of the health of both animal and consumer. Since they don’t grass the same fields where crops are grown, plant fertilizer has to be bought. The most yielding plants are chosen and grown in big quantities (monocultures) – often in foreign countries where there is more space and labor is cheaper. Monoculturing reduces biodiversity and increases the risk of plant disease and thus harvest failure, so pesticides are needed, to avoid plant disease. The soil is getting depleted from monoculturing as well, increasing the need for fertilizers. The farm can no longer be run by the farmer, the animals and small machines, but as many processes as possible have to be taken over by big machines, using a lot of fossil fuels. In organic mass production, there are still some slight differences as opposed to conventional mass production (e.g. the limited usage of antibiotics, somewhat less animals per square meter…) but don’t fool yourself – it is still a factory-like kind of production.

If we support small, local farmers, we save biodiversity, local production and integrated farming practices.

Even the organic and/or veggie sector will be owned by multinational food industries

You might not buy Coca Cola, Kellogg’s or Nestle, still you never know if eventually you do end up supporting them anyways, since those companies are also starting to embrace the organic and/or veggie segments by launching new products and/or acquiring companies. Did you know for example, that Alpro Soy and Provamel are owned by Danone, who – among other questionable practices – is a big (conventional) dairy producer / processor? Or that Pukka teas are owned by Unilever? Did you realize how many “industry” foods you can find in the organic section of the supermarket or even in the organic shop? It’s the same colorful boxes of cereals, powder soups, sweets and candy as in the “conventional” section – maybe without all the chemical additives, but far from being a healthy, natural farm produce.

Once there are no more small, local farmers (and their number has been declining year after year since the beginning of the 19th century under the pressure of bigger and bigger industry farms), there will only be industry left and there can be no doubt that “organic” will then also be owned by them – it is already happening! Unfortunately, industry usually means centralization, economies of scale and cost cutting, all of which are usually not very sustainable as we saw above.

However, industry does not have to mean all that. It is possible to have good small scale farm products in stores! For example, some organic distributors commercialize demeter certified grains in a decentralized system, meaning that the products are collected from different farms and marketed under the same brand. Of course this kind of quality and distribution system implies a higher price.

So if we still want the convenience of the supermarkets / organic shops at every corner, but at the same time have really sustainable products, we have to be willing to pay for that. And I say “willing”, because often the money is there, but the priorities are more on the TV or iPhone side than on food. So we cannot just blame “the industry”. They produce in the way they do because we – the consumers – want food to be as cheap as possible, available 24/7/7. If we showed them that we prefer buying at local, organic farms and/or higher quality produce, the industry might find a way to support decentralized, local production in small quantities.

If we support small, local farmers, we keep an alternative to the industry and/or we might even make the industry change the way it functions.

Organic is not = organic

Let’s be realistic: Supermarkets don’t sell you organic because they want you to be healthier or to improve the quality of life of the animals or to save the planet. They sell it to you, because it is a profitable, fast growing market segment. Money can be made, so be assured that black sheep will try to cheat on you, selling you something “organic” which might in reality not be what it resembles. This is why the EU had to regulate the market and define minimum quality criteria (which under the pressure of lobbyists are being diluted more and more). However, those criteria are not always black or white. There is a lot of grey area and some profit-orientated companies will stretch the law as much as they can. You would be surprised what is still possible under the “organic” umbrella! Often it is the same “factory-like” sort of production and not the idealistic farm that you might then be presented in advertising.. Even if you buy your food in an organic shop, you cannot always be sure what you get and how this food has been grown. 

On the other hand, an ethical farmer will be happy to show you his farm and you can convince yourself, that everything is done in the way that you want it to be. The farmer does not even have to be certified organic then! Should there be any problem with your food, you know who to turn to. You know the farmer, and he also knows you (well, kind of…). So for him, the customer is no longer an anonymous figure and his sense of responsibility for your wellbeing increases.

Granted, it can be unrealistically time-consuming for someone living in the city to visit several farms and to buy directly from them. However, there are many convenient solutions these days also for city people. In Belgium, I am personally a fan of Agricovert, a cooperative of 30 farmers. You can visit them, learn about their philosophy, meet many of the farmers in one event, maybe visit a farm or two… in other words, you can convince yourself of their high quality and ethical standard, so that you can trust them, without having to visit each and every farm yourself. More info here.

If we support small, local farmers, we know our food!

Organic is not necessarily sustainable, leave alone regenerative

Sustainable farming means that we can continue doing what we are doing without further reducing soil (and human) health and fertility. It does not necessarily mean, however, that we will INCREASE it. That’s what regenerative means: healing and restoring soil and human health and fertility.

Organic food from the supermarket or the organic shop does not necessarily have to be grown locally nor does it necessarily respect seasonality. You can find tomatoes from Israel, apples from Australia, strawberries from China etc. – all year round and all organic. How friendly to the environment are bagged salad greens shipped from New Zealand or tomatoes grown in the Mexican desert with a lot of water? And even if the tomatoes come from the Netherlands, you still don’t know if they have not been grown in a big, heated greenhouse, wasting a lot of energy to grow them at a time of year they would never grow naturally. Then you would actually do better choosing the tomato from Italy, where it was at least grown in the sun.

A small, local farmer on the other hand, only grows what can be grown at this time of year. He prefers “short circuit selling”, either via a shop on his farm, co-ops (purchase groups of consumers), on markets or via a shops focused on the distribution of local, sustainable food. This has the additional advantage for you, that your food will usually be fresher and thus contain more nutrients and flavor.

I am not suggesting to never ever buy imported products. I also eat some and sold some in my shop when I still had it. They add to diversity in the end. However, most of our food should be fresh, local and seasonal.

If we support small, local farmers, we reduce our CO2 footprint.

Organic or not – the current system produces a lot of waste

The supermarket system makes it necessary to always keep a sufficient stock of everything. Furthermore, products have to fulfill certain criteria in order to be accepted by the supermarket at all. A curvy cucumber will be rejected as well as too big or too small potatoes. Between production, wholesale, supermarket and consumer it is estimated that about 30-50% of all food produced ends up in the garbage! Well, in such a system we could not feed the world organically – that is for sure!

A small, local farmer on the other hand, will try to adjust his production to the demand and sell as much of his produce as possible. Overproduction just for receiving more subsidies is not on his agenda. In some cases he even has sold everything beforehand (solidarity purchase systems or pre-ordering). Produce is not thrown away because of a strange shape or size. Damaged produce might still be used to make juice, marmalade, animal food etc. All in all, waste is much less and we can feed more people with the same production quantity.

If we support small, local farmers, we help to reduce waste and thus save resources.

Support of local economy and sense of community

If everybody bought at small, local farmers only one day per week, we would need many more farmers again to meet that demand. In the beginning of the 19th century the majority of the population was farmer, while nowadays it is about 2-12% of the population. Buying local can thus have a very positive impact on local economy and unemployment rates.

If everybody bought at small, local farmers only one day per week, this might also foster a new sense of community in a region.


Supporting your small, local farmer means supporting:

  • Sustainable or even regenerative, integrated farming practices
  • Preservation of biodiversity
  • Improved animal welfare
  • Natural, (industrially) unprocessed and thus healthier foods
  • Local and seasonal production and commercialization
  • Waste reduction and resource saving
  • Saver products (higher sense of responsibility of the producer towards his consumers)
  • Sense of community in a region
  • Local economy

How to do it?

Granted, if you live in the city, it can be more challenging to get your food from a farm. However, these days you actually do not have to do this, because the farmers (or some dedicated intermediates) bring the food to YOU (or at least close to you). Here you find a list of my preferred sources of good food from short-circuit distribution in Brussels and Belgium.


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