Thursday, October 12, 2006

Why Organic?

You've probably noticed by now that I often recommend you choose organic foods when your budget allows - most strongly for dairy products, eggs, meats and poultry. The reason is these foods have different fat and nutritional profiles when compared with conventional, industrial farmed foods; with the caveat that the difference is when the animals are provided their natural diet. With regard to plant-based foods - fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, I make the recommendation to choose organic when you can because conventionally grown is usually higher with residue from chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

As the popularity of organic food continues to grow, it seems we're losing something along the way.

Business Week reported this week in The Organic Myth, "[a]s food companies scramble to find enough organically grown ingredients, they are inevitably forsaking the pastoral ethos that has defined the organic lifestyle.

For some companies, it means keeping thousands of organic cows on industrial-scale feedlots. For others, the scarcity of organic ingredients means looking as far afield as China, Sierra Leone, and Brazil -- places where standards may be hard to enforce, workers' wages and living conditions are a worry, and, say critics, increased farmland sometimes comes at a cost to the environment."

Front and center in the article was Stonyfield Farms sourcing powdered milk from New Zealand to make organic yogurt. "Stonyfield's organic farm is long gone. Its main facility is a state-of-the-art industrial plant just off the airport strip in Londonderry, N.H., where it handles milk from other farms. And consider this: Sometime soon a portion of the milk used to make that organic yogurt may be taken from a chemical-free cow in New Zealand, powdered, and then shipped to the U.S."

The CEO and Chairman of Stonyfield, Gary Hirshberg, said "It would be great to get all of our food within a 10-mile radius of our house, [b]ut once you're in organic, you have to source globally."

I don't know about you, but one reason, years ago, I decided to buy organic was to support the foundational principle of organic farming - sustainable agricultural practices.

Like many who learn about how we grow crops and raise animals for food, I was disturbed by some of the conventional farming practices - namely the confinement of animals, fed a diet they'd never consume willingly; the heavy use of industrial fertilizers that deplete soil; and the reality that we were dependent upon so few major crops in the United States. The alarming reality is the majority of our farm land is used to grow field corn, soybeans and wheat; each within an intensive monoculture that limits crop rotation and relies on a the use of more genetically modified seeds along with more pesticides and fertilizers to keep the crop yeilds high.

I never, in my wildest dreams, ever thought I'd be someone who might be labeled a tree-hugger or crunchy granola, but here I am today worried about what we're doing to the environment and our future food supply.

The unfortunate reality is, that as organic continues to grow in popularity, it too is being industrialized with its definition diluted in order to meet the demand of marketing to the masses. As Business Week points out, "...the organic paradox: The movement's adherents have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, but success has imperiled their ideals."

While Stoneyfield's Hirshberg chalks this up to as "[o]rganic is growing up," the reality is organic is losing its soul as it adopts the very "industrial-agriculture" and "factory farming" practices it once held as out-of-whack with nature, harmful to the environment and unsustainable, to capture marketshare and enhance profitability.

Which leaves me with the question - what should I do?

If organic is to be encouraged to become the dominant farming practice in the US, need I accept compromise is necessary and continue to support its growth by continuing to purchase foods from companies that are gaining a share in the marketplace and therefore be in a better position to exert pressure to change farming practices for the better?

Afterall, it can be argued that land farmed with less pesticide and chemical fertilizer is better than what we're doing now; and that animals raised on organic feed are exposed to less chemical residue from those pesticides and chemical fertrilizers and aren't routinely given hormones and antibiotics.

That does sound like it's better, doesn't it?

Then again, I find myself asking, are the organic practices leading to growth exerting pressure on conventional farming to change, or has conventional farming exerted pressure on organic to change; which is what is driving growth in the sector?

When that question is asked, it's pretty clear to me that organic is changing to adopt more conventional and industrial practices to grow in the marketplace and enhance profits.

Which leaves me with the decision of where to spend my money now and in the future.

After giving thought the pros and cons of continuing to support companies making compromises that move them toward higher profits because of their compromise to an unsustainable model, I've decided to opt-out of the Wall Streetization of organic and let my dollars speak - my money is going to local farmers committed to sustainable agricultural practices.

My reason is simply that for years we've made significant sacrifices in our budget to buy organic - a decision made years ago to support sustainable agriculture.

As anyone who has shopped at Whole Foods, Wild Oats, or natural food/health specialty market can tell you, it's not an inexpensive way to eat.

Years ago the majority of foods available in these stores was primarily sourced from local farmers, ranchers and artisans. Over the years the changes have been subtle, almost imperceptible, as the popularity of organic has grown and demand has increased - more products are on the shelves, a large number of retail chain supermarkets now include a separate organic section to shop in, and the selection year-round is impressive.

Unlike the avilability years ago, today organic fruits and vegetables once difficult to find off-season are readily available year-round; any cut of certified organic meat or poultry, or wild caught seafood you desire is on-hand day-in-day-out; and the variety of organic packaged processed foods often shunned as "unhealthy" - think potato chips, candy bars, soda, etc - line the shelves for our convenience.Indeed, organic has grown up!

It's now a model of industrial agriculture, a shining example of our human cleverness, certified organic, of course.

As a society, we need the guts to do the right thing.

I'm stepping up today and doing what I believe is the right thing - I'm saying no to industrial organic and going to support local farmers committed to sustainable agriculture - the primary reason I went organic years ago.

If you too want to see your money spent to effectively encourage sustainable agriculture, start by simply finding local farmers and ranchers in your area. Two excellent resources online:

Keep in mind, that's just your first step. Next you should take the time to get to know these people - visit their farms, ask questions, learn about why they are farmers, and learn why they're committed to sustainable agriculture. If you do that, you'll definitely find room in your budget to support these hard working folks!

I'm going to close with the words of Joel Salatin, an incredible farmer who provided my eggs and chickens when I lived in northern Virginia, "Balancing our ecology, economics, and emotions provides enough challenge to last a lifetime. We never reach a magical destination in this quest for balance, a point in time where we can say 'I've arrived.'"

I know my decision to opt-out of supporting this "grown-up" industrialized organic won't make much difference; there simply is no easy answer, nor perfect solution. I'm just one person making the buying decisions for one family; that, I must admit, will still have to include some compromise along the way.

But, as one person, I can also reach those of you reading here and hope you'll take the time to read more, learn more and decide how you too will spend your dollars as you make buying decisions to feed yourself and your family.

What made organic "grow up" was "one + one + one," a growing number of individuals learning about the unsustainable agricultural practices of conventional farming who grew in a number large to support change through their spending habits. Unfortunately that change isn't exactly in the direction anticipated and expected.

What can and will still speak volumes is the power of the almighty dollar.

One + one + one + one...

Where do you want to invest your hard earned money?

For me, the future is Beyond Organic.


  1. Anonymous8:21 PM

    "organic" has nothing to do with "sustainable".

    "Organic" is one teeny-tiny decision: I won't use chemicals. Maybe even tinier: I won't use chemicals deemed harmful. Wow, sainthood can't be far away!

    "Sustainable" is a gigantic world of decisions and practices. Ranchers and others with pasture can achieve it.

  2. Wow who wold hve thought it would get like that!!!

    I couldn't agree more with your actions, its the only way to get the message across. Just the other month I found out that the lady who sells the eggs I was buying at a local farmers market was feeding her chooks canola oil *boggle* to boost omega 3 content in the eggs. So I politely sent her an email explaining why I won't be buying 2 dozen eggs from her each week any more and thats it I have not bought any more eggs from her since. I think people should do the same with so called health and low carb products that are full of the same rubbish as everything else (soy, 282 etc).

  3. I like buying local, fresh, organic and sustainable from the local farmers' markets and will seriously miss them when the close for the season until June or July next year.

    Today was one of my last stops of the season at the farmer's market. The first significant frost last night across much of the state (Connecticut) so they had to pick most everything left on the vines yesterday. So, I loaded up with peppers, yellow summer squash, zucchini and tomatoes.

    They'll have pumpkins and some other more hardy stuff for a few more weeks and be gone before Thanksgiving, but the season is coming to an end. *sigh*


  4. Anonymous12:44 AM

    Nice posting. Lots of people are going through the same dilema now.

    "Organic" is, very unfortunately, pretty much a lost cause already for the long term. It was built by small family farms, but now it's really mostly owned by agribusiness. There's still some "authenticity" left in it, but that's dwindling.

    The people that started the movement made the big mistake (IMO) of branding the whole concept of "wholesome / sustainable", with the simple idea of "no chemicals". That allowed the whole thing to be taken over. Sure.. organic agribusiness is better than petrochemical agriculture, but as you say, there used to be much more to "organic" than just that.

    What we're seeing now is the whole movement slowly moving back to its roots, and "buy local" is where it's at. That is.. until some huge agribusiness company comes up with a "family farm" franchise! (I hope not!)

    (g from

  5. I say grow as much as you can yourself, you will save money and not have to worry about what is going in to your body, if you cant grow it all yourself you can always use helpful websites that allow people to give or trade locally home grown produce for free like gotta love innovation.