Cindy Burke is the author of To Buy or Not to Buy Organic and recipe writer for The Trans-Fat Solution.

‘Organic’: What’s in a word?

December 18, 2007

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.

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.

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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.

‘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.

There are 7 comments on this item
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1. by Fasenfest on Dec 18, 2007 at 4:31 PM PST

Great piece. You make people think about what is and what isn’t sustainable. You’re right. Once mainstream industry sniffed out the profits in organic they were determined to get market share. And so they have. So thanks for separating the wheat from the chaff. But, just a thought, why drink orange juice at all? Unless you live where oranges grow you are still sipping quite a bit of fossil fuels with your breakfast.

2. by anonymous on Dec 19, 2007 at 10:12 AM PST

I must say I have never read your blog before and only stumbled across it as I have a google alert for ‘organics’ set up, and while you make some good points, some of your statements really angered me, especially being an employee of a large organic company (these are of course, my own personal feelings). Yes, there is often a large margin on organic products- but that goes hand in hand with the higher production costs of organic items, especially in agricutlure which includes more preventive measures and more farm labor in place of conventional pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, etc. And I cannot understand why the Spinach E.Coli recall has anything to do with your article- yes the spinach was organic, but any farm produced item has the risk of being infected with E.Coli. Monoculture, items that are highly processed and extensively handled have just about nothing to do with that recall and it is misleading to say so. I have no tie to that company, but being in the produce industry it affected us all very much, and none of us are exactly pleased when wrong information has been given out. You then say that the lesson is that when you buy non local produce the produce comes from dozends of different fields and handled over and over- well they aren’t handled ‘over and over’ and the spinach in your bag comes from one field- one that is very easily traced by the company in case of situations such as that one. And what about those of us throughout California where this was ‘local’ produce- what lesson were we supposed to learn from this? Gosh, sounds like a reason for us to NOT buy local produce.

3. by Fasenfest on Dec 19, 2007 at 2:38 PM PST

While it is not necessarily true that large-scale corporate organic farms are duplicitious in there motives or methodology, it is true that they beat the pants off of really small local farms with regard to economies of scale. I have known many small farmers who where nudged out of the very markets they trailblazed because corporate farms offer both the volume and price small farmers cannot. I think acknowledging that is an important issue when discussing the reality of today’s organic industry. And it is fair to say, as the author has, that large scale corporate farming cannot supply the same sort of safeguards that the small farmer can. Having said that, I am not suggesting there is no soul in the corporate organic industry (I’m sure most of the people in it are there for the right reason) but rather that it shadows the soul and spirit of those who choose to stay small. And I think we should all remember the theory of the Schmachers - Small Is Beautiful and (I might add) truly sustainable which is what the founding impetus of the organic farms where about.

4. by Lainie on Dec 26, 2007 at 10:22 AM PST

It’s true that the organic label does not encompass every ramification of progressive food production, but the fact that the eater is still responsible for making good choices does not negate the great value of the organic label. Organic IS better than a conventional system that not only allows but depends on synthetic and toxic pesticides, genetic modification, irradiation, factory ranching and slaughtering, and lack of biodiversity. Within the organic framework, it is still possible to make choices based on values of fair trade, food miles, and scale. (Don’t forget that there are people who may only have that Safeway organic brand readily available; don’t condescend to those people, who are also trying to do the right thing.) And until you define local, sustainable, and small, those concepts are open to very broad interpretation. When you do attempt to define those ideas, you may find yourself facing the same challenges as the people who have worked to create a meaningful organic framework. It’s not perfect, and there are problems that must be addressed and aspects of it that must evolve, but it has been revolutionary nonetheless. If you take the time to understand what the organic label does and does not guarantee, you’re less likely to be disappointed in it and more likely to realize you can support organic and support small and local as well, if those are your priorities. My organic blog:

5. by lucymn on Jan 16, 2008 at 4:00 PM PST

I agree with all of your points, and like you, I try to live by a heirarchy of values when it comes to food purchase and consumption. I also used to demonize Horizon for their big dairy crimes, that is, until I met some dairy farmers (all small scale operations) who are completely happy producing organic milk for Horizon Organics.

The thing I learned after speaking with the farmers (from Vermont, Wisconsin, Michigan) is that they all own their own land, most have no more than 50 head of dairy cows, were organic long before USDA put a seal on it, AND THE KICKER- for them, Horizon has always paid them better and has been more loyal to these families than other dairies mainly COOP could offer them. To them, Horizon consistently paid them a fare price for their milk so they could maintain quality standards at the micro-level. There weren’t unreasonable production quotas to meet. Their families stayed on the farm- made a living, and feel a deep sense of pride in their work. So perhaps we all could use a reality check. It’s easy to jump on the name- calling bandwagon, but just as we do, we might be hurting the very farms we want to support. Yes, Horizon Organics has been in trouble procuring milk from a big dairy farm that didn’t meet standards, yes it distributes organic milk all over the country. But if we are simply talking about organic quality-the truth is more grey than black and white.

6. by Fasenfest on Jan 17, 2008 at 6:34 AM PST

I think there is a long history of small dairies coming together to pool their milk in one large distribution site. In Oregon, The Tillamook Cheese Factory is such a site with the milk coming from farms around the area. Yes, these economies of scale work well for many farmers and as you say “grey” is a valuable shade when deciding the pros and cons of anything. But, we are still talking about the wheels of industry. Whether it is the organic industry or not, we must not overlook that it is often industry, not humans, that set the standard by which we all must play. That small dairy farmers can survive by finding their niche in this industry is a blessing. That they have had to or perish is not. I understand life goes on and things change and much good is done in the name of progress but I am one to look at the wheels of industry with a wary eye no matter how many good folks manage to hitch their wagons to it. Am I a luddite? No. But for those of us who have the time and inclination (which I know is a priviledged position) buying directly from local farms (there are many co-op groups that share trips to and from) in recycleable glass bottles at a price that will beat what even Horizon will pay is another clear option. That few of us have the time or inclination to do that opens up a whole new discussion; one that is tangentially connected to the wheels of industry. Suffice to say, would we all go back to buying milk directly from the dairy or milkman, the small dairy farmer might consider options that even Horizon cannot beat.

7. by Rebecca T. of HonestMeat on Oct 7, 2008 at 4:48 PM PDT

Even large-scale organics help to keep millions of pounds of pesticides and synthetics fertilizers out of our air, water, and soil. While their carbon footprint might be nearly the same as conventional, their chemical footprint is considerably lighter. Organic production, whether small-scale or industrial, protect farmworkers from exposure to dangerous chemicals. I know there are still a couple dangerous items used in organic production (notably, sulpher and copper),but in general the farmworkers labor in a much healthier environment.

And do think about this- if organics stayed small, localized, and expensive, would consumer in say Tampa, Florida or Las Vegas, Nevada or Scranton, New Jersey have access to organics? In terms of food access, we may just have to accept that there are two ‘tiers’ in organics- one that feeds the masses with average quality, fairly inexpensive food and the other that feeds their local populations with high quality, more expensive artisan foods.

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