Oh boy, this is going to be a LIFE CHANGING blog post for some, especially those that like to buy organic foods. I’ve been re-reading “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan and have been finding out so much about food production, manufacturing/processing, food laws and labeling, and most importantly, how there are a LOT of ethical gray areas in the regulation and laws around “organic.”
Most health and environmentally conscious consumers buy organic under the impression that “it’s better for me, the animals and for the land/environment.” Turns out that’s not ALL necessarily true. Today’s organic foods have become just as commoditized as conventional foods because, well, that’s what the market demands. More mouths to feed and more demand have created an entirely new subset of organic, something Pollan cleverly put as “industrial organic.”
For the most part, the term “organic” is mysticized. We cook up images of baby cows grazing happily in open pastures, Judy the local farmer tending to her chickens as they cluck around on grassy patches, pigs rolling around in the big ol’ mud pits on a hot summery day. More often than not, this simply is not true. Pigs live out their days in feedlots on concrete slabs. Chickens live in gigantic indoor sheds and cattle leave green pastures when they are a few months old to live out the remainder of their lives similar to those pigs. The big difference? Organic feed, no hormones, USDA approved drugs/synthetics and little-to-no pesticides/fertilizers.
First, let’s look at the definition of “organic” under the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). According to their website, “Organic is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods. The organic standards describe the specific requirements that must be verified by a USDA-accredited certifying agent before products can be labeled USDA organic.”
Furthermore, “organic operations must demonstrate that they are protecting natural resources, conserving biodiversity, and using only approved substances.” Keep that last part in mind.
The USDA website breaks down grades and standards for a variety of foods/produce, such as beef, eggs, poultry, dairy, fruits, etc. and it’s a laundry list of PDFs and complicated language that you’d be hard pressed to find the common man (or woman) taking the time to sit down and translate all of the information into simple sentences.
When most of us think about “organic” we think about sustainable farming practices, pasture raised chickens, grass-fed beef and other livestock, and absolutely no pesticides or chemicals (or synthetic ingredients) used on our food during growth and in the food during production and processing. But the question I ask you (and one that Pollan posed as well) is “what makes your organic frozen TV dinner, or burrito, or organic muffin any better than the conventional version?”
Short answer. It doesn’t.
Pause for dramatic effect.
First let’s focus on the first half of your food’s journey: farming and agriculture. We are all likely aware that conventional farming relies heavily on two crops: corn and soy, usually genetically modified organisms (GMO), and that animals in conventional farming are fed a diet of corn/soy — two foodS that they were NOT biologically designed to eat. Cows are herbivores by nature (meaning they eat plants… grass mainly). Cows have two stomachs, one is specialized to digest foods that us humans can’t: grass. It’s called a rumen and it has special enzymes and bacteria that break down the grass for the cow to digest it and to absorb the immense benefits. When we feed cows corn/soy, to simplify, it royally fucks up their rumens and makes them sick. They experience bloating/indigestion, and other diseases, parasites, infections and digestive issues that pasture raised cows do not ever get. That’s why we pump them full of antibiotics — to keep them sick enough to live out their purpose: get super fat in a short amount of time so that they can feed the human race.
I’ve oversimplified this process A LOT for the purposes of this post. My point here being that in organic agriculture farmers are still allowed to feed their cattle corn/soy, but without heavy antibiotics, pesticides or growth hormones. A majority of the organic milk and beef you see in your local health food store has still come from a factory farm, just an organic one, where the cows are given organic feed, live in a dry lot with no grass or access to open pasture and are tied to milk machines multiple times a day.
And the entire process from farm to fridge/freezer is highly mechanical and industrialized (relying HEAVILY on fossil fuels to both manufacture the product and ship it hundreds of thousands of miles to you, the consumer) to the detriment of the growing carbon footprint.
In fact, under the USDA there is now a list of “permitted” synthetic and nonsynthetic substances for use in organic livestock and crop production, including some limited “non-organic” substances. Why? Because it’s incredibly challenging to scale a man-made industry without man-made medicines/substances.
Here are some of the nonagricultural “nonorganic” substances allowed in organic processing and products:
You can read more here.
Now let’s look at some synthetic (aka not natural) substances allowed for use in organic livestock production as medicines, disinfectants and sanitizers:
And there are so, so, so many more harmful things that you can read here.
Peruse the aisles at Whole Foods, or any other big chain store that caters to an organic crowd, and you’ll be mesmerized by seductive marketing slogans like “free range chicken” “cage free eggs” “grass-fed beef” “humanely raised” “ultrapasturized” or “no pasturization” and promise of access to “sustainable, local, and ethical sources to feed your family.” You’ll be swooning over imagery of quaint red barns, smiling cows, little children playing alongside their soon-to-be dinner plastered all over various containers, packaging, cartons, etc. It will give you ALL THE FEELS. But it’s more often than not outright deceit and misperception. That is the power of marketing.
Here’s the catch. Almost all of those products traveled an avg. of 1500 miles just to reach that shelf you’re staring at. But… it’s organic! I bet you’ve seen the brand Earthbound Farms in the produce department, specifically the greens/lettuce section. Well, Earthbound Farms (located in California and owned by non-organic Taylor Farms) produces nearly 80 percent of all organic lettuce sold in America, according to Pollan. In fact, Earthbound combined with another mega corporate organic grower, Grimmway Farms comprise the majority of the organic product market. For scale, the organic food market is expected to reach over $70 billion dollars in sales by 2025. Are you still having warm and fuzzies over the idyllic hometown farmer who personally collected your cage-free eggs and drove them to the local grocery chain?
While we’re on the topic, let me share something that I myself just learned (thanks again to Pollan). When it comes to cage-free or free-range eggs/chickens, there’s a catch. The USDA requires organic farmers to only provide the OPTION for chickens to go outdoors. That means installing a small door in one of the warehouse-sized chicken coops with a small patch of green grass that the chickens never see. Why don’t they see it? Well it’s in the farmers best interest (I mean his/her check book’s best interest) that the chickens stay inside. Why? Because under organic regulation, the farmers cannot use antibiotics and if the chickens journey outside, they’re prone to get sick and infect the rest of the coop, lending directly to lost profits. And because the chickens aren’t eating nutrient dense grass and protein packed bugs/fly larvae from cow manure like they rightfully should be eating, they are malnourished and have weakened immune systems.
There is a brand, “Judy’s Family Farm Eggs” that is sold in most popular organic/health food stores, including Whole Foods, that we had been buying up until about last week. Their packaging promises “old fashioned organic eggs” and shows an image of happy hens clucking around a little girl in a farm bonnet and a boy in blue overalls that are “raised in wide open spaces in Sonoma Valley, where they are free to ‘roam, scratch, and play’.” Cute. Homey. And totally a lie. This company is actually owned by a larger egg producer in California, Petaluma Egg Farm, and underwent a lawsuit in 2012 for deceptive marketing. Turns out, the chickens were not humanely raised (and kept in modern, barren industrial sheds) despite what their website and marketing would have you think. I also buy from Vital Farms, because I know for sure that they raise their chickens in pastures, cruelty free and feed them a proper diet.
Corporate milk manufacturers like Horizon and Aurora, which sell organic milk also still use highly industrial processes to get the final product to you. That term you saw earlier — ultrapasturized — means that the milk has gone through a high heating process that kills a lot of the important nutrients in order to ship it across the country. It might be organic, but it’s a damaged good, missing its full nutrient profile.
My biggest takeaway here is that just because you see the “organic” label does not inherently make it “healthier”. You can buy an organic TV dinner, organic high fructose corn-syrup (which is a highly processed version of sugar that is entirely void of nutrients and only aids to the epidemic of chronic disease like obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes/insulin resistance, inflammation and even cancer.), organic potato chips, organic cookies, organic pizza… you get the picture.
Organic has become a stand-in for many things, except for the ONE thing it was originally created for: natural, local and humanely sourced foods. In fact, there are many local farmers that are raising animals (chickens, cows, pigs, turkeys) humanely in pastures, feeding them the diets they were born to eat and DON’T have the USDA organic label because it’s almost entirely meaningless and not applicable in this sense.
I am not saying to avoid organic like the plague. We need organic farms to help reduce environmental toxins from pesticide and fertilizer run off. Those are really bad chemicals that are making people sick (they get into our water sources and cause long-term disease) and degrading our environment.
But we must also recognize that supermarket organic has gotten too big, that we’ve come to a point where “organic” doesn’t really mean what it was originated to mean. It’s lost its meaning and therefore it’s significance and has become just another cog in the industrial, profit turning wheel. I assume you are at least mildly interested in this topic if you’re still reading this article. If that’s the case, I highly recommend you do your own research, read Pollan’s book and definitely check out Polyface Farm, a polyculture farm in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, to see how sustainable farming should and can be done.
And then take it one step further and go to your local farmer’s market and talk to your local vendors. Find out how they grow their vegetables, how they raise their livestock. Go visit the farm if you can. It’s truly the only way to trace the food back to its original source and to fully appreciate what it means to be a part of a sustainable, ecological system built on morals, as well as an appreciation for nature, quality nutritional value and humane practices.
And remember, you vote with your dollar in the food economy. So if this makes you emotional or mad or desperate for change, don’t wait for someone else to make a move. You can change the game right now by taking your money elsewhere, by supporting local growers and farmers and giving back to your local community. You may find that many others will benefit from this one seemingly small act as well.