Friday, February 12, 2010

Organic or Not Organic

I'm about half way through "Omnivore's Dilemma," well into the part about the organic food industry. Yes, it's an industry. That bucolic valley and small farmer in grimy overalls grinning on the front of the package? Doesn't really exist, at least when it comes to what you buy at the supermarket. The organic produce at Whole Foods and Stop & Shop usually comes from giant corporations whose land management practices, while better than the standard industrial farm, are still problematic. Mr. Green Jeans this ain't

And those "outdoor" hens that you pay twice as much for because they are organic? The full sum of their "outdoors" is a strip of grass outside their huge industrial hen house that few if any of them ever venture onto.

Is organic better? I'm not done with the section yet, but the answer seems to be, yes, but not nearly as much as one would think.

What is clear is that organic will never truly change our food system for a number of reasons: it's too expensive, it's impractical (supermarkets need one big distributor, not 100 small farmers) and it has been corrupted by Big Food and the FDA, which allowed "organic" processed food, a seeming oxymoron.

Plus, organic is not always better. Take organic milk. Virtually all of it comes from giant industrial dairies controlled by one or two companies. Sure they feed the cows organic feed, but these animals live in massive feed barns just like their industrialized cousins. Horizon Dairy's Old Boss is not out grazing in a verdant field. And the milk is outrageously expensive, as much as $4 a half gallon compared to about $1.60 for the conventional stuff, which is to be expected because it's being shipped across the country.

Then there's The Farmer's Cow, a cooperative of Connecticut dairy farms. Its milk is not organic, but it does not use hormones. And it's local. And it only costs about $2.60 a half gallon.

Sure it's not organic, but it seems like a no brainer. You preserve open space in your community, support local agriculture and get a superior product at a reasonable price. So what if it doesn't meet some arcane definition of organic?

I don't mean to dis organic. It's always better to ingest fewer chemicals, to raise food more humanely with less damage to the environment. But it's not a panacea, and its reach will always be limited.

1 comment:

  1. Very true! "Corporate organic" is produced much the same way as regular food. Small-scale local farms are closer to the spirit of organic, even if they don't have organic certification. Local food is fresher, better-tasting, cheaper, and arguably more nutritious, and local farmers are more accountable than are large corporations. The term "organic" has become all but meaningless.