Friday, July 27, 2012

Beyond Organic

The main reason I buy organic items at the grocery store is not to avoid consuming biocides. Nor is it to avoid polluting the earth with these biocides. It's not to avoid synthetic ingredients in my food either. Although those things are all important to me, the main reason I buy organic is because that's the only way to be absolutely certain that I'm avoiding genetically modified food. (Today's post is not about GMOs, but we'll talk about the dangers of GMOs another time.) Beyond that, I'm not too impressed with certified organic food anymore. Why? Because what started out as a local, value-based movement has by and large transformed into just another arm of the industrial food system, a marketing tool, and a label behind which to hide loopholes, exceptions, and slack regulations meant to further line the pockets of food-producing giants. Let me explain.

Earlier this summer, the substance carrageenan was approved by the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) for the use in foods carrying the USDA's official organic label. Carrageenan is a stabilizer and thickener derived from seaweed, and it's a carcinogen. Yet, the NOSB, which is largely comprised of agribusiness representatives, has deemed this substance safe in food. And not just any food, we're talking certified organic food. How does a synthetic cancer-causer belong in organic food? This is just one example, an illustration to share with you what's really behind that label. You can see the list of all the substances approved in organics here if you're curious to know more. I personally like my food without a side of carcinogens and synthetics, but the organic label does not guarantee that these harmful substances won't be present in my food.

Let's turn to organic meat and eggs. One of the (many) reasons I stopped buying conventional animal products is because these animals are raised in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), where the conditions are inhumane, unsanitary, and just downright horrible. Other than the fact that I don't think it's right for animals to be treated that way, this system of producing food is dangerous. Sickness and disease in these animals is rampant. Cows are eating a diet of corn their digestive system isn't designed to handle, and so they become infected with E. coli. The conditions in which laying hens are kept are so cramped and filthy that 80% of eggs in the supermarket are contaminated with campylobacter. You wouldn't think that these same conditions would be acceptable under an organic certification, but they are. The feed has to be organic, but it's still the same system, just tweaked a bit here and there to continue to pull the wool over the eyes of the public.

I could go on and on . . . and on. But you get the point, right? "Organic" does not mean what the public thinks it means and wants it to mean. And that's the problem with certifications and labels. Their original meanings can become twisted, things can be hidden. So where do we go from there?

We go to our gardens, farmers markets, CSAs, and co-ops. We opt out of the food industry in general and become as locally oriented as possible. We eat at restaurants who source their food locally. We buy food that has no bar code and no packaging, from people with a face and a name, people we know! The more I've learned about the industrial food industry, both organic and conventional, the more my eating habits have shifted in this direction, and I encourage you to do the same! You will have to learn to eat seasonally if you don't know how to do that yet. (I'm still learning!) If you want tomatoes in January, you'll have to preserve them during the summer. You'll have to learn to eat fruits and vegetables that grow in your climate. You will have to buy food more than once a week because you'll be using fresh ingredients that won't keep in the fridge for days on end. You will have to eat "beyond organic," the term Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm uses to describe his farm. Well, he actually calls it a "family owned, multi-generational, pasture-based, beyond organic, local-market farm and informational outreach." And this is why labels fail us. You can't put all of that on a package. The solution? Opt out of the package.