As large companies like Wal-Mart move into the organic market, the alternative food scene is transforming from a small-time fringe movement to a major business. Even the definition of organic farming and production is changing -- in December 2007, law was passed allowing some synthetic substances in organic food production. Many organic farmers in the United States also worry they'll be undercut by imported organic foods that are less expensive.
Food cooperatives, or co-ops, are an alternative to conventional grocery stores and help support local producers. Cooperatives are owned and democratically managed by members, people who work or shop at the organization or help supply goods. Cooperatives exist to serve the needs of their members.
As a consumer, becoming a member of a food cooperative gives you a group advantage. Cooperatives receive volume discounts, savings that are passed down to members. Cooperative members help run the organization, voting on policies and making decisions. Members also receive patronage refunds, or a share of the earnings that is usually part cash and part equity.
Cooperatives generate local jobs, pay taxes back into the community and usually support local farmers and producers by selling their products. The impact of buying locally and through cooperatives is significant. In the United States, the top 100 cooperatives in 2003 had combined revenues of about $110 billion [source: ICA]. There are more than 100 million members participating in cooperatives in the United States, and about 30 percent of farmers' products in the United States are sold through the more than 3,000 farmer-owned cooperatives [source: NCBA].
Some critics argue that buying foods locally and living the 100-Mile Diet takes jobs away from developing countries. Yet, there are more than 700 million cooperative members worldwide who participate in over 750,000 cooperatives [source: NCBA]. In 1994, the United Nations estimated that co-op efforts support the livelihoods of nearly 3 billion people [source: ICA].
Both organic and local foods have their own pros and cons; there is no perfect choice. By being aware of where your food comes from and how it is grown, it's easier to decide what type of products to buy.
To learn more about organic food and organic farming, look over the links below.
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- "Agricultural Pesticides: Management Improvements Needed to Further Promote Integrated Pest Management." General Accounting Office. 2001.
- Birr, Emily. "Organic Food Fight." NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, NewsHour Extra. 2006.
- "Chemical health risks of conventionally produced foods." Consumer Reports. 2006.
- Frederick, Donald A. "Cooperatives 101: An Introduction to Cooperatives." USDA Rural Development. 1997.
- Genetically Modified Foods and Organisms - HGP Ethical, Legal, and Social Issues. Human Genome Project. U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science. 2007.
- Gogoi, Pallavi. "Wal-Mart's Organic Offensive." BusinessWeek Online. 2006.
- Halweil, Brian. "Still No Free Lunch: Nutrient levels in U.S. food supply eroded by pursuit of high yields." Worldwatch Institute. 2007.
- International Cooperative Alliance. http://www.ica.coop/al-ica/
- Kremen, Amy, Catherine Greene, Jim Hanson. "Organic Produce, Price Premiums, and Eco-Labeling in U.S. Farmers' Markets." USDA.
- National Cooperative Business Association. http://www.ncba.coop/
- National Cooperative Grocers Association. http://www.ncga.coop/
- "Organic Food Fight, Rapidly Growing Industry Wants Congress to Settle Label Controversy." Associated Press. 2005.
- Organic Food Labels Consumer Brochure. USDA. 2007.
- "Reducing Food Miles." ATTRA - National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service. 2007.
- Slow Food USA. http://www.slowfoodusa.org/
- Theuer, Richard C. "Do Organic Fruits and Vegetables Taste Better Than Conventional Produce?" The Organic Center. 2006.
- "Trouble on the Farm: Growing Up with Pesticides in Agricultural Communities." Natural Resources Defense Council.
- University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives. http://www.uwcc.wisc.edu/
- Weiss, Rick. "U.S. Uneasy About Biotech Food." The Washington Post. 2006.