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The battle for the soul of the organic movement

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LONDON, England (CNN) -- When Lawrence Woodward started out in organic farming he was a self-described "naive, drop-out", with a simple interest in how people eat. He did a farming course and learned to drive a tractor. He learned the hard way how to turn a conventional farm "organic."

Thirty years on, he has seen organic farming transform from a cottage industry into a billion dollar game played by international food companies. And it's not just about chickens, carrots and lentils. Consumers hoping to eat healthier can also salve their social conscience with organic wine, mouthwash, surfboards, paint, jeans, pram blankets -- the list is endless.

Yet for Woodward, a pioneer of organic farming in Britain and head of Elm Farm Research Centre -- a research and development facility dedicated to organic agriculture -- the transition to the mainstream has threatened the soul of the movement.

"When we started we felt we could create an alternative market structure, we could change the way the food system was being run. But we've ended up following the mainstream," he says.

"It's now no different from conventional farming -- producers are being squeezed, products are over-packaged, let alone the numbers of air miles that are used to fly organic goods around the world."

He says supermarkets are ignoring basic principles. Organic farming means that apples are not always nice and shiny, and not always in season, but supermarkets say consumers want shiny apples all the time.

Woodward says the decision in August this year by the Soil Association, a UK organic food watchdog, to certify salmon farming as organic, was a sign of how wrong things are going.

"Salmon is not a fish that can be caged and be farmed in this way -- they are a creature that migrates," he says. "The fish farming issue symbolizes what going wrong and its really pushing the organic principle too far."

He says carp, for example, is a fish that can be farmed, but because supermarkets know there is a strong market for selling "organic" salmon, the organic licensing industry has caved in to pressure.

But for the Patrick Holden, director of the Soil Association, one of 11 bodies that certify organic goods and considered to be Britain's most stringent, the salmon farming decision was more about raising standards.

"I respect the views of those who believe it is beyond their pale -- but with nearly half of all fish consumed world-wide coming from farming and with the world's wild fisheries seriously over-exploited, it would be a dereliction of duty not to engage with and improve the environmental and welfare record of this sector," he said in a statement.

The organic industry was worth around U.S.$40 billion in 2004. The United Nations Food and Agriculture organization (FAO) says it has grown from 15 to 20 percent per year and is rapidly changing.

A 2005 report says supermarkets and large companies, who have acquired organic brands and small firms, set up partnerships with organic companies or have their own organic lines, increasingly dominate the industry. Cadbury Schweppes, Coca Cola, Danone, Deal, Heinz, Kellogg, Kraft and Sara Lee are some of the large multi-nationals that have entered the market.

As consumers turn to organics, scientists across the world are also trying to find out if organic food is really better for your health. At the moment, there are no definitive answers.

"Consumers expect answers about organics but they have not been proven yet," says Dr Machteld Huber, from the Louis Bolk Institute in the Netherlands, who is currently involved in a government-funded study into the effects of organic and non-organic feed on chickens.

She says, however, there are studies which show organically grown food has higher levels of Vitamin C and often more anti-oxidants (but not always.)

The industry is undoubtedly growing up. While the image of the farmer gently tending to his farm animals in small, verdant fields remains true, there are cracks in the rainbow.

And perhaps some organic farmers are now realizing that keeping the demands of large supermarkets and expectations of scientists at bay is as tough as keeping pests away from their crops.

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Pigs peer through fence at organic farm in Hanover, Germany.

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