The Changing Politics of Organic Food in North America

The Changing Politics of Organic Food in North America

Lisa F. Clark

The Changing Politics of Organic Food in North America explores the political dynamics of the remarkable transition of organic food from a ‘fringe fad’ in the 1960s to a multi-billion dollar industry in the 2000s. Taking a multidisciplinary, institutionalist approach that integrates social movement theory, public policy analysis and value chain analysis, it tells the story of how the organic movement responded to the social, economic and political changes brought on by the rise of industrial agriculture in the twentieth century.

Chapter 2: A clash of values: competing definitions of organic

Lisa F. Clark

Subjects: environment, biotechnology, environmental governance and regulation


Organic agriculture is understood to be a form of food production that differentiates itself from conventional agriculture on the basis of a set of principles. Though attention to soil health was the original impetus for the development of organic agricultural methods and techniques, organic agricultural practices quickly developed a broader set of principles designed to instruct practices. The principles guiding organic food production were originally defined in opposition to the rise of conventional industrial practices premised on economic efficiency and increasing yields. The way organic agriculture has been incorporated into the mainstream agri-food system, however, presents challenges to the integrity of many of the fundamental principles and values associated with the organic food movement. What was once a relatively unified challenge to industrial methods of food production is now made up of two contending, yet not consistently oppositional interpretations of the definition of organic; the process-based and product-based definitions. There are many specific approaches to organic agriculture that do not fit neatly into either definition discussed here, but the two overarching definitions of organic generally reflect the different programmatic commitments and practices we see in Canada and the US today. Others have noted two distinct approaches to organic production existing in the North American context and elsewhere. Klintman and Bostrom (2013:108) label the two approaches as ‘behind the shelf’ and ‘on the shelf’. The first refers to a method of production that accounts for social and cultural processes not necessarily tangible in the final, end product.

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