Heady stuff for a movement that champions small-scale, sustainable food production.
A Movement Gets a Makeover
How did a counterculture movement that began by emphasizing the virtue of small and sustainable grow so big and comfortably mainstream?
More and more consumers began asking questions about the foods they eat:
- Where does it come from? Is it local or trucked in over vast distances?
- How is it grown? Is it part of a system that works in harmony with nature, or is it grown with synthetic chemicals and fertilizers?
- Is production sustainable? Do the conditions in which livestock are raised reflect a measure of respect for the animals' natural instincts and well-being or are speed, efficiency, and the profit margin the primary concerns?
- And last but not least, how does it taste? Is it bred for best flavor or primarily for uniformity of size and color and increased yield?
The answers to these questions led many people to choose organics.
Health and Food Safety
Concerns about the long-term health effects of the pesticides, chemicals, growth hormones, and antibiotics used in conventional farming convinced many people to seek out alternatives. Meanwhile, outbreaks of "mad cow" disease and E-coli raised consumer awareness about the conditions in factory feedlots, inspiring some buyers to turn to organic and grass-fed meats and poultry in an effort to buy "safer" foods.
Many people believe organic food is just plain healthier. A 2003 study from the University of California at Davis found that organic produce includes significantly higher levels of vitamin C and a greater variety of micro-nutrients than conventional produce. A Danish study released in 2005 concluded organic milk contained significantly higher levels of vitamin E, antioxidants, and omega-3 fatty acids. Other studies have shown that grass-fed animals produce meats, milk, and eggs with more vitamin E, folic acid, beta-carotene, and omega-3 fatty acids and less saturated fat and cholesterol than corn-fed animals.
Environmental and Social Issues
Some consumers have turned to organics because they are concerned about the environmental impact of industrial farming practices that degrade soils, contaminate waterways, increase greenhouse-gas emissions, contribute to a dependency on fossil fuels, and encourage bacterial resistance to antibiotics. Still others bemoan the loss of independent family farmers and the effect that agricultural consolidation has had on rural economies and the rural landscape, shifting it from one of biological diversity to a monoculture.
Taken together, these concerns represent the "hidden costs" of cheap industrial food.
Are There Two Organics?
As organic food began to appeal more and more to the mainstream, it was only natural that big agribusiness should take notice. Indeed, today there is something called "industrial organic." To the original, smaller-is-better organic crowd, the phrase "industrial organic" might sound as oxymoronic as "jumbo shrimp." But if the word "organic" evokes placid pastoral images of cows grazing languidly over lush green pastures, of clucking chickens scratching at the earth and plump pigs rooting about in the mud, then the rise of factory organic farms has created a competing vision, one that mimics large-scale conventional agriculture's emphases on efficiency, speed, and reliance on monoculture.
Yet for all the knocks against it, industrial organic production puts increasing amounts of land under organic cultivation, reducing the amount of chemicals being unleashed on the environment and limiting the quantity of antibiotics and growth hormones given to livestock.
Pinning a Label on It
The USDA currently defines organic this way:
"Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation."
These foods receive the official USDA seal of approval:
- Food labeled 100% organic is entirely organic whole food or is processed from entirely organic foods.
- Food labeled organic describes food that is no less than 95% organic (an organic soup, for instance, might include a small portion of non-organic ingredients).
- Food labeled "made with organic..." indicates that a specific organic ingredient is included in the processed food. (Tortilla chips might say "made with organic corn," for example.) In this category, the product must contain 70% organically grown ingredients to receive the coveted USDA seal.
Organic Bones of Contention
USDA decisions have proved fertile ground for critics, who contend that USDA regulations and rulings are watering down the meaning of organic. Some argue allowing processed food (including TV dinners) to be called organic strips the word of any real significance. Critics also contend that it is difficult for smaller organic farmers to wade through new paperwork, inspection requirements, and other regulations and fees necessary to receive the distinction "certified organic." Many smaller-scale farmers have opted out of the program, even though their farming methods are organic and might be even more sustainable than those certified as organic.
Going Beyond Organic
In the wake of these developments, some producers and consumers look to go "beyond organic," to reclaim what they consider organic's original intent by emphasizing such virtues as "local," "small-scale," "pastoral," and "sustainable." The increasing popularity of farmers' markets suggests a trend in this direction.