Organic must stand up and reclaim its role as a disruptive pioneer – or watch the ‘O’ word vanish in a fog of corporate greenwash. That was the stark warning delivered by long-term organic advocate Ronald van Marlen last month at the Biofach Congress in Germany. 

At last year’s Biofach, van Marlen warned of a “silent takeover” by multinational corporate interests, which he claimed was “shrinking organic ambitions” and eroding the holistic principles on which organic was founded. 

Existential threat
In this year’s talk, Van Marlen set out to show how Big Food has not only seized control of key organic brands but is starting to control the organic narrative, creating an existential threat to the whole organic movement in the process. 

To grasp the seriousness of this threat, said van Marlen, we need to understand the psychology of the modern multinational – cue a series of slides quoting from the 2003 documentary The Corporation, by Canadian filmmaker Mark Achbar. The film begins with an explanation of how corporations came to be considered in law to be ‘Legal Persons’ – acquiring a whole range of rights, protections and obligations. It then poses the question ‘what type of person might a corporation be?’ “A special kind of person, who has no moral conscience” suggests the philosopher and activist Noam Chomsky. 

But specifically what kind of person? Back to van Marlen: “If you’re a psychologist looking to diagnose a psychological  disorder you look for patterns of behaviour. And when psychologists have looked at modern multinational corporations they find that they display a whole string of traits associated with psychopathic behaviour. Callous unconcern for the feelings of others – tick.  Incapacity to maintain enduring relationships – tick. Reckless disregard for the safety of others – tick. Incapacity to experience guilt – tick. The list goes on.”

Designed to be bad
The Legal Person status afforded to corporations, said Marlen, means they are demanded by law to act in their own self-interest. “Corporations are legally designed to be bad. They can’t change even if they want to. We still think that the CEO pulls the strings in a large company – but he can be sent to jail if he fails in his legal obligation to deliver profit to shareholders. That’s why you shouldn’t trust any company that bangs on about sustainability but is patently unwilling to change. That is marketing.” 

Van Marlen warned that corporations now dominate food and agriculture on an “unbelievable scale”, and across every part of the food chain – from farm machinery, seeds and inputs, to distribution and retail. “There are huge negative connotations of concentration. There is no discussion. Corporations rule. And the bigger the concentration, the worse things are for farmers – golden rule. The corporations know everything you do. They sold you the tractor that they now track you with, with its built-in GPS.”

Van Marlen says that concentrated power also narrows the scope of innovation through defensive and derivative R&D, controls and restricts information, escalates environmental and public health risks and “hollows out corporate commitments to sustainability”. 

“A senior director said to me, ‘Mr van Marlen, are you from the organic movement?’ I said yes, for over 30 years! And he said, ‘well, can you do this one favour, can you please not mention the ‘O’ word?’.”

Don’t mention the ‘O’ word
And despite its appetite for hoovering up organic brands, Big Food gets nervous as soon as discussion turns to organic principles. Van Marlen tells the story of how he got invited to the headquarters of US multinational in a consultancy capacity. “A senior director said to me, ‘Mr van Marlen, are you from the organic movement?’ I said yes, for over 30 years! And he said, ‘well, can you do this one favour, can you please not mention the ‘O’ word?’. I said, the ‘O’ word? He said, ‘yes – organic’. I said, why? He said, ‘well, it get’s people here a bit agitated – people say, oh, these best practices people are coming here again to tell us what to do’. I said, I’ve not come here to tell you what to do, just to show how organic’s four principles work. I went back about six or seven times. Nothing changed.”

Part of the way the Big Food deals with the complexities of organic and its demanding ethics is to create something akin to Organic Lite – a technical, tick-box version of the real thing. This way, says van Marlen, “the four foundational principles of organic – the principle of health, the principle of ecology, the principle of fairness and the principle of care – are reduced to a single principle, the ecology principle, perhaps with a little bit of health thrown in. Fairness and care, that’s political stuff. And, anyway, the market decides what fair will be. 

“And it’s the principle of ecology that gets you your organic label. And that’s all that a lot of these people care about. Values? I’m not interested in your organic values, I just want a product without pesticide residues. That the limit of their interest.” 

Stealth attack
Van Marlen describes how another stealth attack on organic is being waged by corporate food and farming. This four-pronged assault involves negative framing of organic (organic cannot feed the world, organic is less sustainable overall than conventional agriculture, organic is for the elite few), the distraction of alternative phrases and descriptors, a rewriting of the organic narrative, and an attempt to “vanish the ‘O’ word”. 

He told delegates: “We need to counter this framing. We need to smash it. Organic can feed the world. We’re not for the elite few. We need to rally behind our organic narrative. Those four principles of organic – health, ecology, fairness, care – were created before any of the sustainability movement was dreamt about. We were there first with all of this thinking. It’s all in these four principles.

“And yet there is an increasing avoidance of the ‘O’ word. Instead we hear all these alternative words and discourses – circular agriculture, soil-based agriculture, agro-ecology, regenerative agriculture, low input farming, climate-smart agriculture. Almost anything but organic!” 

“Organic must stand up and reclaim its role as a disruptive pioneer. We need to behave again like the young climate change marchers of today.”

Call to action
Van Marlen ended his talk with a call to action. “Organic must stand up and reclaim its role as a disruptive pioneer. We need to behave again like the young climate change marchers of today. They show us that social movements are very much alive, in numbers that you dare not imagine.

“We stood up in the 1960s and and 1970s and offered an alternative – an agriculture that can be done without chemicals and fertiliser. Everybody laughed, but the seed of change was planted. We need to welcome inside the new niche thinkers, because they are the seeds of the new economy. But we are becoming caught up in the neoliberal religion of growth.”

Amidst all of this, van Marlen spots the obvious irony. “If you ask citizens what is the first word that comes to mind when they think about sustainability, that word is organic. Society is with us. They want us to keep going.

“But today, I want you to leave the room with a feeling of discomfort – and hope that you will go off and debate with each other how we can change. As the young climate change activist Greta Thunberg says, we can’t go home yet because the problem is not solved yet.” 

Ronald van Marlen’s bullet-point organic survival plan (part II) 

  • Claim back our role as game-changer 
  • Align and cooperate with other social movements 
  • Dare to disrupt
  • Create real chains, create communities 
  • Reflect, consider – stay critical 
  • Bypass corporates and mass retailers if they don’t want to join you
  • Refuse to become mainstream 
  • Know that the children are with us 

Ronald van Marlen is a board member of BioNederland and Stichting Demeter. He is also managing director of Toppas Organic Production, and owner and founder of TimeLi.