Tuesday, February 16, 2010

How Organic is Organic?

How organic is organic? I’ve been giving this a lot of thought since I read an excellent two part article in the Lancaster Intelligencer Journal (some name, huh? Think it assumes all its reader’s are intelligent enough to know what intelligencer means? Don’t worry I had to look it up too). The article by Mary Beth Schweigert has lots of side bars filled with data and some good reporting on the truth behind “certified organic”. It was a lot to digest, but I’ll share some of the facts that caught my eye.

“Certified Organic” means that a food contains at least 95% organic ingredients. That 5% is leeway allowed just in case there is no organic version of a necessary ingredient, but it definitely creates a pretty big loophole for the clever, profit-driven manufacturer to duck through.

There are currently 245 “exemptions” that can be claimed by “certified organic” producers that include food additives, processing aids, cleaners, animal medications, and pest controls. The consumer has no way of knowing just how many exemptions have made it on to their plate because labels do not have to reveal any of this. Two of the exemptions include tetracycline and copper sulfate. I’m familiar with these two because I’ve encountered them in my own farm life. I used copper sulfate last summer to (unsuccessfully) battle the tomato blight because I had read it was approved for organic farming. According to its Material Safety Data Sheet, copper sulfate is an algaecide that is toxic to fish and potentially dangerous if it enters public water systems. Tetracycline I recall from my days as a vet assistant years ago. We used it to fight off infections by injecting it directly in to a horse’s blood stream. Turns out it is also used on fruit trees to control fire blight, and its Data Sheet says it is toxic to the human liver and reproductive organs. Might have been good to know that a few decades ago. There are 243 other exemptions that may or may not be as frightening. A few years ago there were only about 75 exemptions, but as organics have become big business (and big business has jumped in to organics), the number of exemptions keeps multiplying. Hmmm….makes you wonder who’s qualifying these exemptions and who pays their salary.

Pesticides approved for use on certified organic farms are made from chemicals found in nature instead of chemicals created synthetically. Arsenic is naturally occurring in nature, but I’m sure none of us would like to find traces in our food. The list of approved pest, weed and disease controls is eight pages long.

All of that in itself would be alarming, but add the fact that currently there are only 16 people paid to run the entire government organics program and one can only imagine the potential for shenanigans in the organic world. Thankfully, my favorite president, nearly doubled the organics budget for 2010 and there will soon be 30 people woefully underfunded and overworked attempting to supervise this industry that reached 23 billion in food sales in 2008 and is projected to grow by at least 18% each year.

Now here’s what bothers me the most. (And I don’t need you to tell me that this was the obvious thing that would happen if organics became profitable). Just about every one of the top food manufacturers in North America (think Kraft, Nestle, Kellogg, Coca-Cola) have all acquired one or lots of the top organic companies. Kelloggs owns Kashi and Morningstar Farms. Heinz owns Earth’s Best, Celestial Seasonings, Health Valley, Walnut Acres, and Spectrum. Probably since I started preparing this post even more successful organic companies have been bought up. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with this. Maybe these companies will support the original intent of a brand like Spectrum. Maybe these companies won’t be petitioning the FDA to add even more exemptions and loopholes to allow them to make more money and pay off more congressmen. Maybe. We just have to hope for the best, because the 30 people who are charged with supervising these companies are only human and have an entire budget worth about 5% of the annual profits of any one of these companies.

The impact of these large corporations’ marketing reach can already be felt in the organics aisle of your neighborhood grocery store. There you find an amazing number of new organic “convenience” foods, with new products coming to market almost weekly. I’m not sure if this is a good thing. Most “convenience foods” are processed food and like it or not, organic processed food is still processed food. I would imagine it’s very easy to hide two or three or ten “exemptions” in a list of complicated ingredients and it might be necessary to hide behind a loop hole or two when you’re trying to manufacture vast amounts of food at once.

What it comes down to is something I found scrawled on a piece of paper in my files – Farmers need to respect the land. Manufacturers need to respect the customers, and customers need to respect the farmers. I wish I knew if this was an original thought or something I read somewhere (I’m guessing the latter), because it gets to the core of the fundamental problems in our food industry. If farmers would farm in such a way as to respect the land for what it is and can be, the food they produced would be the better for our collective health and the health of our planet. If manufacturers would produce food in a way that respects the consumer, creating food they take care to make as safely, fairly priced, and healthy as possible (maybe imagining that this is the food they will serve their own children), we could trust the products on the shelves. And if the consumer would respect the farmer enough to pay him what his products are truly worth, the farmers could afford to raise food that is good for us.

So what’s a consumer to do (besides write your congressperson imploring them to add some teeth and funds to the agencies governing the organics industry)? The only thing you can do – get to know the farmers and food manufacturers near you. The only way you’ll ever know exactly how organic your organics are is to meet the person who grew them. And make your own food. Don’t give in to the convenience of organic processed food. Not only does organic processed food cost more than conventional processed food, it isn’t a whole lot better on anything except your conscience.

It’s easy for me to say, “Make your own foods,” but I know for many people this just isn’t feasible, so we do the best we can with what’s available to us. I implore you to find out what’s available to you. There are farms and companies all around us who grow and create healthy, whole food. These farmers and local companies don’t have the advertising budget, the lawyers, or the influence that the big corporations have in spades, so you have to do your homework and seek them out. The web is a great resource for finding them, but just talking to people is another. And once you find a local source of good food, support them. I will tell you upfront that local, handmade, homegrown products sometimes cost more than the food you find in the grocery store packages. But the reason we have such unhealthy, empty caloried, cheap food in the store is because we won’t pay the cost of real food. Maybe what we need to do is pay more and eat less. I’m just saying.

In Pennsylvania we have a great resource in the website www.buylocalpa.org where you can find lists of restaurants, wineries, caterers, farms, farmers markets, and shops that sell local and sometimes, but not always, organic food. You can find a Buy Fresh Buy Local chapter of your own by logging in to the website at www.foodroutes.org and click on the Buy Fresh Buy Local button. Buy Fresh Buy Local is a powerful movement that is growing fast. Be a part of it and begin to bring change that benefits your community and your health.

www.gowild.com is great resource for finding locally grown grass fed meat and dairy products, including eggs, cheese, milk, pork, beef, lamb, and chicken.

www.localharvest.org is another site that helps connect you with local farmers, CSAs, and producers in your area.

www.eatwellguide.org will help you find local healthy food where you are or wherever you travel. They have an excellent blog called GreenFork.

www.organicconsumers.org will keep you informed on the organic industry and ways you can get involved. This site will alert you to what’s going on in the industry near and far, in addition to helping you find the organic products you need.

In all my surfing I even discovered a delivery service that delivers local, organic products to your door (for a price I’m sure), plus green gifts and “plantable gift cards”. Since I survive with dial up, I can’t follow every link I encounter, but you can at www.greenling.com.


  1. It may reduce allergic reactions to the chemicals used to aid in preservation of the food item. For example, one may not be allergic to apples; however, one may be allergic to the wax coating added to preserve freshness and appearance of the apple.

  2. I had no idea that the "organics" I'd been purchasing, thinking to both to assuage my conscience and to better my body, were not the same "organics" that you and other wise proponents of green living (think Mr. Pollan)would support! OK - I guess our ancestors spent goodly amounts of thier life energy obtaining food, I'm going to have to accept that researching my food is as necessary as forking over the green for it. Thank you for the links - those tools will make my search easier :)