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'Organic': What's in a word?

(article, Cindy Burke)

[%pageBreakSettings nobreak=true]I’ve enjoyed reading your many comments about my last post. Comments such as “I completely disagree with you about not choosing organic whenever possible” are exactly the kind of comments I would have made myself three years ago. 

In fact, I am so crunchy that the original title of the book I planned to write was 100 Foods You Must Buy Organic. My publisher and I signed a contract to write that book, and I began doing more research on organics. What I found out changed my mind — blew my mind, in fact — and caused me to have several long conversations with my book’s publisher about why I could not write the book we had originally agreed upon.

In talking with farmers and others in the food-supply chain, I learned that there are many nuances to food production. There's no easy doctrine to follow anymore, such as "Always buy organic to save your health and save the environment." Back in the 1970s and 1980s, yes, you were getting a superior product by purchasing organics exclusively — and you were also supporting family farms, encouraging biodiversity, reducing pesticide use, and supporting a smaller “footprint” on the earth. 

The key word in those sentences, however, is “were.” Instead of organics changing the world for the better, sadly, the world has changed organics. Organic foods have now become the very thing we had hoped they would provide an alternative to. 

Monoculture (growing a single crop), heavy machinery, extensive processing, and shipping food thousands of miles to the store are the new norm for organic food production. The differences between organic and non-organic produced food are often minimal, frequently coming down to which chemicals farmers can or cannot use to battle pests and disease.

[%image "reference-image" float=right width=400 credit="Photo: iStockphoto/Jason Lugo" caption="Confined cows are not grazing cows."] 

How did this happen?

In the U.S., demand for organic products has increased by 15 to 21 percent each year for the past 10 years, compared with an increase in demand of only 2 to 4 percent for non-organic food sales. Sniffing out a trend, large agribusinesses began to notice that consumers would pay more for anything labeled “organic” — food, snacks, shampoo, soap, cleaning products. Seeking higher profits, they jumped on the organic bandwagon with enthusiasm during the 1990s. 

Agribusinesses are not out to save the world, or to make you healthier by growing better-quality food. Their primary goal, as always, is to make as much profit as possible, as fast as possible. They “manufacture” organic food, and they try to lower costs whenever possible. For the consumer, that sometimes means “certified organic” ingredients sourced from China (notorious for polluted air, land, and water) in your frozen meals, granola bars, and other processed foods. 

Big-business organic also demands monoculture on a massive scale. The tainted spinach recall of 2006 was, I hope, an eye-opener for shoppers about how many vegetables are now highly processed, extensively handled, and widely shipped. Millions of plastic bags of fresh organic and non-organic spinach and other greens were recalled and destroyed as an E. coli outbreak sickened dozens of people and spread to 26 U.S. states from spinach grown in a small area of California. It reminded me of how meat packers are forced to recall millions of pounds of ground beef due to potential contamination from one farm. 

As it turned out, E. coli-contaminated, non-organic spinach was the culprit in that outbreak, but the real lesson is that when you buy non-local spinach in a bag, the leaves come from dozens of different fields and are handled over and over again. That’s true of both organic and non-organic bagged spinach.

Big-business “organic” also means that some farms only meet the bare minimum standards for organic certification. Horizon Organics, owned by agribusiness Dean Foods, is a telling example of this practice. Horizon Organics has been caught raising many of its organic dairy cows with thousands of other cows in factory farms where the creatures have had little freedom to roam, graze on grass, or even lie down. Since the animals were fed organic grain and did not receive antibiotics, Horizon could legally sell “certified organic” milk. 

As the Chicago Tribune reported in 2006, “Said Robert Fry, who served as a contract veterinarian at \[Horizon\] for eight years before he was dismissed in February \[2006\]: ‘They portray to their customers that they’ve got this happy cow out on grass, this pastoral, idyllic scene. And that’s not the case. There’s a bit of misrepresentation on their part to the consumer.’”

Clearly, there's a big difference between confinement dairies and sustainable dairy farms that raise cows in a pasture setting, strictly follow environmental practices, and produce high-quality milk. The differences between what I call Grade A organic growers (small sustainable farms or farms who follow sustainable principles) and Grade B organic (who follow the minimum rules, while lobbying the FDA to lower the existing standards) are huge. Yet according to the U.S. government’s organic standards, the “certified organic” label applies equally to both producers.

[%image "monoculture" float=left width=400 caption="'Organic' doesn't mean crop diversity."] Big-business organics do not necessarily offer more nutrition, a safer growing environment, or a smaller “footprint” upon the earth. Organic Dove bars, organic corn flakes, organic frozen chicken teriyaki, organic toothpaste — does this sound like food that's better for the environment? Better for your health? 

Just to compare the differences between “certified organic” store brands and non-organic premium brands, I did a little experiment this week. I bought 64 ounces of Safeway's store brand organic orange juice at $3.49, and then I broke the bank and bought the same amount of Naked Juice non-organic orange juice for $8.99. We had a little OJ taste test. Remember that citrus is in season in the winter and is at the peak of flavor now. 

Safeway's version was pale orange in color and tasted thin, very sour, and slightly bitter. My six-year-old commented, “This tastes nasty. I’m not drinking this.” None of us even wanted to finish our small glasses of organic Safeway OJ. 

Naked's non-organic juice, on the other hand, had a deep orange color and a nice balance of pulp and juice; it tasted sweet with a slight sour tang, like biting into a very juicy Valencia orange. Our conclusion: We strongly prefer the non-organic Naked Juice, and could easily tell that the quality was vastly superior. We’ll never buy Safeway organic OJ again.

There’s the dilemma, folks. You can’t just blindly believe that organic is always better, because it isn’t. Organic food doesn’t necessarily taste better, it isn’t always more nutritious, and it’s not likely grown on a small farm. Once you start peeking beneath the curtain, you’ll see that the way organics used to be, the way organics should be, isn't the reality today. 

As George Page told me when I visited his Seabreeze Farm in Washington state, “My customers are way beyond organics. They want something better than organics.” 

I couldn’t agree more. I advocate buying from local sustainable farmers whenever possible. I shop at farmers' markets year-round. I grow a little kitchen garden in my front yard during the summer. But when it’s winter and I have to shop at the grocery store, I try to make informed choices and pick food that gives me the best taste for the best value — organic or not.

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