Every time I visit the produce stand at J.E. Perry Farms, I find something new and interesting to try. Last week, it was this prehistoric looking vegetable, which is apparently a member of the broccoli family. Despite going to the same produce stand week after week, I had never seen this particular vegetable before because, unlike at the grocery store, the landscape is constantly changing as new crops and varieties come into season. A stunning array of pumpkins and squash has just arrived (I had no idea there were so many kinds), while the heirloom tomatoes are on their way out.
At first, the inconsistency was challenging because I was used to picking a recipe and then holding fast to my list as I trolled the supermarket aisles for that all-important asparagus that I needed for dinner. Pretty quickly, however, I realized that most vegetables can be substituted. Plus, it can be a lot more fun to grab a bunch of weird looking veggies and then come up with something to do with them. I keep staples like pasta, beans, rice, and vegetable broth in the house so I can whip up a stir-fry or vegetable-laden pasta dish or even a quick veggie-chili just by combining my produce stand finds with ingredients I have on hand. And instead of deciding in advance that we will have green beans with our pork chops, we just add “something green” to the grocery list and pick when we get to the produce stand. This free-form version of food preparation is a major departure from my old habits and has brought me into a different food culture: one that values food diversity and sustainability over uniformity.
Isn’t there a label for that?
Although we now regulate the word “organic” through the National Organic Program (NOP), its original connotation was of low (or no) input, biodynamic, small-scale farming that was grown for local, seasonal eaters. This type of farming improves the connection between farmers and consumers and gives people a better understanding of where their food comes from. Food produced in this way is less of an environmental burden and uses fewer resources. It keeps people and the environment free of pesticides and other chemicals that are used as inputs in conventional agriculture. But is the official version of organic still representative of this type of farming?
Defining a philosophy is always difficult, and often you end up with a list of regulations or defining principles that can be followed to the letter without embodying the true nature of that philosophy. The National Organic Program created just such a list to standardize the meaning of organic. While a national standard can assure consumers of what they are actually getting when they buy organic, there are many elements of the organic philosophy that are not guaranteed through the NOP. I had trouble identifying the right document on the USDA NOP website, but I did find their documentation in the Federal Register and the list of approved substances. I also found several third-party summaries that seem to be in agreement.
To carry the certified organic seal, a product must contain at least 95% organic ingredients, and the other 5% must adhere to additional regulations. Organic foods (whole or processed) must be produced without synthetic substances such as chemical fertilizers or pesticides, with some specific exceptions. It cannot include genetically modified organisms, irradiated ingredients, or come from farms that use sewage sludge as fertilizer. Farmers are also required to use practices that maintain soil quality and help prevent soil erosion, practice intercropping and perform crop rotations, and use natural fertilizers like compost or manure. If you want food that is free from pesticides and many other chemicals and isn’t genetically-modified, look for the USDA Certified Organic label, and that’s what you will find.
And now for the fine print.
What the NOP does not guarantee is that your food was produced with minimal inputs, that the farm on which it was grown is small or family-owned or mimics a natural ecosystem, or that the food was locally-grown. I’ll leave a detailed discussion of organic animal operations for another day, but organic cows for example can still be confined and fed (organic) corn although perhaps to a lesser extent since antibiotics are not allowed. The inputs on an organic farm can be purchased elsewhere, and can mimic industrial agriculture in many ways just with fewer synthetic inputs. And they can be huge.
According to a study of certified organic producers in California, in 2005, more than 75% of organic sales came from producers making more than $1M in annual organic sales . In 2006, the largest 5% (by acreage) of California’s organic operations contributed 70% of the state’s organically-grown food . In contrast, 45% of producers made less than $10K per year in organic sales and constituted less than 1% of the market . Packaged, processed, or nationally distributed organic foods bring in additional questionable elements because the companies associated with each of these sectors have been steadily consolidated and bought up by conventional companies. The following graphic from Phil Howard’s website shows the organic brands acquired by the top 30 food producers in North America as of June 2009. Organic food distributors and retailers are also becoming increasingly consolidated (see Howard’s website for neat graphics on these other areas).
The pros of large organic growing operations, conventional distribution methods, and selling to large retail grocery and warehouse stores, are that they lead to cheaper prices and more widespread access for consumers. There is a larger market for organic food so more people can eat food that is free from pesticides and more food is produced with fewer harmful environmental effects. The cons of this type of production are that it gives producers who stick to the letter of the law more access to consumers than those who adhere to the spirit of organic farming. It means food still travels great distances and adds to the perception that food comes from the grocery store rather than the farm. Furthermore, buying organic food from a company owned by, say General Mills, means you are inadvertently supporting their conventional practices along with their organic ones. And giving conventional food companies a bigger piece of the pie may also give them more ability to lobby for less restriction on organics and allow things like GMOs to be included.
Organic or bust.
So what is an ethical eater to do? For starters, buy organic food. Big or small, corporate or family-owned, organic is safer, healthier, and better for the environment whether you buy it from Costco, Trader Joe’s, or the farm down the street. That being said, if you want to be a part of a truly sustainable farming system, find a farmers market and start asking questions. Look for a farm that reflects your own values and priorities whether they are buying local, farm worker rights, or supporting a biodynamic polyculture. You probably won’t see a certified organic seal on the produce, but producers making less than $5K per year in sales can say they are organic without being certified as long as they adhere to the NOP regulations. And despite the national definition, organic farming is a philosophy and a movement not just a word. Make sure the food you buy, whether labeled organic or not, meets with your standards for sustainability.
Sources: This post was both inspired and informed by a lecture by Christy Getz, a professor in UC Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources. The quoted statistics are from  Klonsky and Richter, “Statistical Review of California’s Organic Agriculture 2000-2005” and  from Christy Getz, determined using primary data “obtained from the Registry of Certified Organic Operations, California Department of Food and Agriculture (2006)”. Several of the figures came from the website of Phil Howard, an assistant professor in the Department of Community, Agriculture, Recreation and Resource Studies at Michigan State University. Additional discussion on the pros and cons of Big Organic can be found in chapter 9 of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, written by Michael Pollan.