The problem with organic food

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Does the label “organic” deliver on its promise?

What does the word “organic” conjure up for you in your mind? For me, ten years ago before I began to research food, “organic” meant over-priced, blemished fruits and veggies. I certainly didn’t understand why anyone would pay extra for what I thought must be subpar produce. Of course, I had never seen an organic apple at that time – I just believed they would be full of worms, since no pesticides were used. Later, after I’d actually gone into a store that sold organic produce, and found my first organic apple to not only be blemish free, but also to be the tastiest apple I had ever had in my life, the word “organic” took on a new meaning for me. Now it meant tastier food, and it also took on the pastoral meaning of the traditional family farm – the type of mixed farm we read about in our first-grade readers.

Organic food now means food grown without chemical pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and organic animals are fed organic feed, and are antibiotic and hormone-free, but according to Michael Pollan in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, originally the word “organic” meant much more than that – a communal bond that was trying to change the relationship people had with the planet in order to save it. The organic movement was born in the late 60s as a protest against the collective – anything industrial and centrist. The California hippies at the time were environmentalists that wanted to create that one-on-one connection with the earth, and to grow healthy food in a cooperative, “more gentle on the earth” way that wasn’t contaminated by the industrial, collective, “conquest” of nature” system. Living organically was a political act based upon three ideals: chemical-free farms (how food was grown), anticapitalist food co-ops (how food was distributed), and “countercuisine” or “brown food” (brown rice, brown bread etc.) which was pitted against the “white foods” created by industrial agriculture. Pollan explains how the original organic hippies believed completely that “you are what you eat”, in every sense of the word, and that one cannot separate the food you eat from how it is grown, and how it arrives at your table.

In nature, plants and animals are symbiotic. Animals poop on the plants which nourishes the soil that the plants need to grow, that the animals eat. It is a closed system that replenishes itself, and is therefore sustainable. So, mixed farms actually work quite well. But is the organic food we buy in the supermarket actually coming from these mixed farms we imagine in our heads, and does it fit the ideals of the originators of the organic movement?

I think unfortunately a lot has been lost. Over the last 40 years the growth in organic food has been tremendous, the word “organic” now representing an 11 billion dollar a year industry. With the demand for organic food being so big, suddenly organic food is being shipped thousands of miles from where it was grown, using lots of fuel for its transport. Organic farms have grown in size to handle the demand, meaning they have needed to adopt many of the industrial agriculture methods in order to process the food. Sure, the food is grown without chemicals, but heavy machinery is needed to pick, wash and package all those organic mixed leafy greens or organic baby carrots we see at the grocery store. Last week I discussed the problem of feeding cattle corn rather than grass. Organic beef is probably fed organic corn, and an organic cow will get just as sick on organic corn as a conventional cow will on conventional corn. So, we have organic factory farms which are indeed feeding their animals organic feed, but not the animals’ natural diet, putting out organic beef, milk, chicken and eggs. But now the farmer can’t use drugs to keep the animals healthy. The organic food movement has become industrialized in order to handle demand. Also, processed organic food uses the word “organic” to denote something healthy, but organic ketchup made with organic high fructose corn syrup is just as unhealthy as the conventional product.

And what do the words organic “free-range” mean when it comes to chicken and eggs? The words conjure up the idea of happy chickens running about outside in the grass, pecking out grubs – being a chicken! According to Pollan, who visited Petaluma Poultry in California which sells free-range organic roasting chickens and organic free-range eggs via the brand name “Judy’s Family Farm” through Whole Foods, 20,000 chickens live together in huge sheds. They are not in battery cages, but still live in pretty cramped quarters due to the number of chickens and the space available to them. Along the side of the shed is a grassy yard that the chickens can explore should they wish, but apparently because the door to the outdoors is shut for their first 5 weeks, they never bother going outside during the last 2 weeks of their life. But the farmer can put “free range” on the label because that option is available to the chickens for the last quarter of their life. The chickens eat the organic feed that is in trays above the ground in the sheds. So much for “free-range” chicken and eggs – seems a bit of a scam to me! They are unlikely to be getting the grubs they need to alter the nutrition of their eggs or their meat for the better, after all. I have yet to see “pasture fed” on milk, cream, yogurt, cheese or butter in my grocery store, so one must assume it is grain fed, even if it is organic.

So the organic movement, brimming with the ideals of the late 60s has turned into industrial organic, a method of farming that closely resembles that of conventional industrial agriculture. Ideals have fallen by the wayside, since the farming and distribution methods are essentially the same. Industrial organic is probably slightly better than conventional farming due to the lack of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, which would not only produce a less toxic, potentially healthier food, but would also do much more preserve the soils and protect the streams from chemical run-off. But is that good enough?? When it comes to meat, poultry, eggs and dairy, is the food healthy enough to provide us with the nutrition we need? Is this the food system we should be supporting with our hard-earned dollars?

There is a third option – a much better way, that provides healthy food and sustains the planet. Next week we’ll discuss opting out of the industrial food system. Do read Michael Pollan's fantastic book – it is well worth it.

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Conventional vs. Organic vs Pasture-fed meats, poultry, eggs and dairy
High Fructose Corn Syrup
Processed food is taking over our supermarkets
Food brands that contain genetically modified ingredients
Essential fats: Omega 3 to Omega 6 ratio
Food, our raw material

Pollan, Michael The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals Penguin Press, New York, 2006.

Gonzalez F. et al.Grain feeding and the Dissemination of Acid-Resistant Escherichia coli from Cattle Science Washington, Sept. 11, 1998, Vol. 281, Iss. 5383: p. 1666-69. (A study that shows the difference in e-coli levels between grass and grain fed cattle.)

Copyright 2008 Vreni Gurd

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