Why do so many organic pioneers sell to giant multinationals? Ronald van Marlen has an idea. “Could it be because they’re exhausted by the sheer power of the food system? They’re just exhausted by it all?”

Van Marlen takes his cue from the British feminist writer Sara Ahmed who has observed (in relation to the struggle for gender equality) that “power works through exhaustion”.
“When I heard this the first time it was like a hammer. I thought, that’s it! We lose the battle because we’re exhausted. All these people who had a fire burning in them are 55 now. You just give up in the end.”
But it’s the consequences of the recent run of buyouts of pioneer organic businesses that really concerns Van Marlen and was the nub of his talk – The Silent Takeover – at this month’s Biofach event.
Are we happy mainstreaming?
“Are we happy mainstreaming?” he asks the packed conference room, before launching into a impassioned 50-minute polemic on why, if we are, we really shouldn’t be.
First, Van Marlen rewinds to 1962 and publication of Rachel Carson’s landmark book Silent Spring. Presented as a “fable for tomorrow” the book, which exposed the destruction wrought on ecosystems by chemical pesticides, is still regarded as one of the most effective denunciations of industrial malpractice ever.
“That book turned the world upside down. Carson showed why the birds didn’t sing in the spring anymore. DDT was killing everything. I’m using the word silent in my talk today because the takeover of organic is a very silent process.”
He says: “I’m not by ‘corporate basher’ by nature, although I have a lot of criticisms of them. But I do want to debate with them and I think we should deal with them when they come to the organic movement”.
Van Marlen wants us to reclaim the term ‘organic movement’. “People will tell you ‘it’s about the market, stupid’. And it’s true that organic has become a market. But it is also still about the movement. And I want to share with you the interaction between these two forces”.
Selling like idiots
He argues that market-led organics are driving unrealistic – and undesirable – targets for growth. “One stall-holder at a US trade show told me ‘we’re selling like idiots, and barely giving a thought to anything else’. We all know there is a serious gap opening up between supply and demand. And where you have a gap, someone sees an opportunity. Where there are opportunities there are risks. That’s why we had a lecture on anti-fraud controls earlier today. This is a market, organic, that is overcooking and speeding like a rollercoaster.”
Van Marlern argues that as organic has moved into the mainstream it has started to lose sight of its ideals. “The founding principles of organic were about change, not becoming mainstream. Four simple principles – the principle of health, the principle of ecology, the principle of fairness and the principle of care – distill some very clever and ground-breaking thinking. And using those four principles we can make a better world.”
But when organic becomes mainstream, he argues, those principles reduce in number – “we get rid of the difficult ones” – or become diminished. Often, says Van Marlen, the four principles of organic are reduced to one, the principle of ecology. “That’s basically about a farming method and it’s important – and it’s what gets you your EU or USDA organic logo. But it is only one part of what organic stands for.
Doing the documents
“We are moving to a situation where a movement becomes something you verify by looking through a microscope. The microscope says it’s organic! That package will be here in a few years – it’s called the ‘O’ package. We will have travelled from a process-based orientation, based on four holistic principles and directed at creating impact, to an end product orientation that validates organic with a microscope and is about doing the documents. In this way, organic is reduced to being a technique stripped of social aspirations.

“We will have travelled from a process-based orientation, based on four holistic principles and directed at creating impact, to an end product orientation that validates organic with a microscope and is about doing the documents”

Applying social movement theory to the subject, Van Marlen explains that organic pioneers have moved from being ‘niche innovators’ – “the people who challenge, disrupt, say stupid things, think out of the box” – to being part of the ‘regime’. The regime is where big companies coalesce, along with policy making, the dominant culture and political structures. “The regime doesn’t see any need for change, and it’s not actually very keen on innovation. It also resists big thinking ideas – like gender equality, action on racism – from the higher ‘landscape’ level.”
Locked-in pioneers
“We were the niche innovators. We were never meant to become part of the regime. Former organic pioneers who become the regime without being aware are locked in by the mainstream regimes they once sought to disrupt.”
Name-checking recent takeovers of organic businesses, Van Marlen asks: “Were these companies in financial trouble, did they need to sell? And to what question is Nestlé or Unilever or Amazon the answer?”
The grip on the global food chain exerted by a handful of multinational food and drink corporations is being compounded by a hoovering up of organic brands, Van Marlen asserts. “A movement about principles and values is being sold by a market for value creation. And I can tell you that you can create value for shareholders without any values at all.”
The new disruptors
Van Marlen wants the organic movement to regalvansie its role as force for positive change. It can start by “giving a stage to the new disruptors”.
“There is lots of new thinking going on. Young people are turning to earlier ideas about trust. They see a growing role for PSG (Participatory Guarantee Systems) projects. These are the new niche innovators, and they are challenging the existing order.
“A healthy movement creates space for these people and this type of thinking. They are not for the current system, they want something completely new – and they are completely right. And, yes, if you invite them to your meetings the are disruptive!”.
Van Marlen closes with a bullet point organic survival plan

  • Stay wake (don’t wake up as a locked-in pioneeer)
  • Align with others (especially the new disruptors)
  • Debate every position paper 
  • Read Organic 3.0 and see if your agree – don’t just buy it
  • Try to live by all four organic principles 
  • Don’t be naive about power 

Ronald van Marlen is owner of the Timeli consultancy and board member of BioNederland and of the EKO label scheme.