I am certain that everyone, at some point in their life, has been warned to choose their words wisely. Why? Because words matter. However, they only matter to the extent that we give them meaning.
What do I mean by that? I lived in China for nine months and the most frustrating part of the experience was the language barrier. I could have stood in the middle of Tiananmen Square and shouted obscenities or recited Shakespeare and no one would have cared. I could have read aloud from Mao’s Little Red Book or the Communist Manifesto, but as long as I was speaking English, no one would have understood. My words would have been “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” For words to have power, both the speaker and the hearer must first agree upon the definitions of the words being used.
With that in mind, let’s talk “organic.” It’s a word that gets thrown around a lot these days, but what exactly does it mean?
When first coined, “organic” was commonly understood to mean local, sustainable, diversified, holistic, and natural. There was nothing official about the movement; it grew as a reaction to the increasing industrialization of food industry. Products weren’t certified or approved by governing organic council. Organic products were practically non-existent in grocery stores so the movement, by necessity, was locally driven. The best way to find organic products was to go directly to the farm. Farmers were held accountable to the generally agreed upon organic practices because a customer could show up at any time.
As demand for organic products increased, industrial agriculture became interested and wanted to cash in on the growing market. However, traditional organic practices – small, local, diversified farms – weren’t profitable or reliable enough for their tastes. They wanted to continue using their industrial methods – large-scale monocropping – but with an organic label. So the government got involved and created this:
According to the USDA,
“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. Before a product can be labeled ‘organic,’ a Government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards. Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified, too.” USDA Alternative Farming Systems Information Center
These standards may seem great, but government regulation almost always creates more problems than it solves.
First, it increases production costs. Do you ever stop to wonder why organic food costs so much more when the farmers aren’t buying expensive chemical fertilizers? “Before a product can be labeled ‘organic,’ a Government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards.” The farmers must pay for this inspection. That’s fine if you are Cascadian Farms or Muir Glen (both are subsidiaries of General Mills), but what about the little guys who were once at the heart of the organic movement? Some choose to forgo certification on principle and some simply cannot afford it. Their products, which are organic in every sense of the definition, are at a disadvantage because they lack official government approval.
Next let’s tackle sustainability. “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.” What is more sustainable: fresh organic berries shipped from Chile or Argentina or locally grown apples that may or may not be certified organic? What about processed organic foods (the likes of which didn’t exist 10 years ago)? Take Newman-O’s (a.k.a. organic Oreos) for example. The ingredients include wheat (possibly domestically sourced), sugar (most US sugar is from GMO sugar beets so this is likely imported), palm fruit oil (imported), cocoa (imported), chocolate (imported), and soy lecithin (possibly domestically sourced, but unlikely since most US soy is GMO). These ingredients are shipped from around the world to the Newman’s Own factory where they are turned into cookies and shipped back out to stores throughout the country. Talk about carbon footprint! How is that sustainable? But it’s organic so it’s OK, right?
I’m not judging because I am far from perfect myself. I’m still very new to the locavore world. Even as I type this, I feel a twinge of guilt over the 2 bags of organic berries in my freezer that were probably sourced from Mexico, the chia seeds from somewhere in South America, the coconut oil from Sri Lanka, the olive oil from Palestine (yes, Palestine, not Italy) and the cans of tuna that likely came from Thailand. Even with the impending threat of global warming, I doubt local chocolate, bananas, citrus fruit, or coffee will be available in the North Atlantic region in my lifetime and I don’t see myself giving these foods up any time soon. So I do my best to choose carefully, buying as much as I can locally and seeking out ethical companies for those items which cannot be found in my area.
It’s just something to think about. I am thrilled that people are becoming more aware of what they are eating, but it’s important to remember that the USDA stamp of organic approval isn’t always the best indicator of what foods truly embody the organic spirit.