Friday, November 18, 2011

O Christmas Tree!

We found the perfect tree!
As I was merrily surfing the other day, I came across an entire new organic issue for me to worry about! Christmas trees! Cue the eye roll from my husband. See, I thought we’d settled this issue long ago when we chose a real Christmas tree rather than a fake one. We didn’t want that big plastic conifer outgassing PVC all through our house, so we developed our tradition of selecting a tree at a nearby farm and cutting it down ourselves. A fresh, live (for now) tree! Love the pine scent, don’t mind the needles too much. We always have fun picking the tree and gather plenty of pictures and memories. But now a shadow has been cast over this lovely family adventure.

Is this pungent pine beauty scenting our house not only with its own perfume, but also pesticides? Or for that matter, has anyone applied a toxic fire retardant spray to prevent it from igniting in my house? These questions had never occurred to me.

When I was a child, I have vague memories of returning from our Christmas tree harvest and waiting impatiently while my father (the chemical engineer) applied some kind of fire retardant spray to our tree. That was just what you did. When my husband and I bought our first tree (from a neighbor), we never even thought to douse our prize with chemicals even though we lived in a 150 year old farm house (that hadn’t been updated). Was I naive not to worry?

The National Christmas Tree Association has this to say about the danger of real trees igniting in your home:

A) Less than 0.0004% of Real Christmas Trees used each year are ignited in home fires and NEVER has a Real Christmas Tree caused or started a fire. Even though the chance of a Christmas Tree fire is very slim, you can ensure that your Real Christmas Tree stays fresh and safe by following the NCTA recommended care tips. Anyone who has ever tried to start a camp fire with green wood understands how flame resistant a properly watered tree is.

Don't believe us? Watch this clip shown on the NBC Tonight Show with Jay Leno in December, 2004

The clip is kind of fuzzy, but it’s funny. Every year, the press warns us about the danger of Christmas trees and fire, but I have to wonder how much of that hype isn’t generated by the Artificial Christmas Tree manufacturers. Seriously. I never realized that the real vs fake tree dilemma is such a battleground. I found two sites while looking in to this Christmas tree issue – The National Christmas Tree Association, which takes the side of live trees, and the American Christmas Tree Association, which promotes the use of artificial trees.

The American Christmas Tree Association website is a pretty scary place to visit if you’re planning on a live tree this year. There are all kinds of dire warnings about the hazard of a real tree inside your home. Still, I can’t help wondering why my dead, dry tree (their words, not mine) is any more a fire hazard than the papers my kids leave everywhere. When I light the fires in our woodstoves, I never having any trouble getting paper to light, but I’ve spent some pretty frustratingly cold mornings struggling to light the 2 year old dead wood placed in the stove. There is enough intrigue, deceit, and raw material here for a movie, or at least a Michael Moore documentary. But I’ll leave these issues, fun as they are, so I can get back to discussing organic Christmas trees.

Most Christmas tree farms use some kinds of pesticides, although the only way to know for sure what and how dangerous they are, is to ask the grower. You can also buy Christmas trees infused with other scents (orange, spice, etc.), although I’m not sure why you wouldn’t want that refreshing pine scent the tree produces naturally. There’s no data on how scents are ‘infused” or whether they are natural or artificial. You do have the option of certified organic Christmas trees (of course!), but I’m willing to bet they don’t come cheap. You can find a local organic tree farmer through Local Harvest.

I’m still committed to a live Christmas tree. I just can’t imagine a plastic one, convenience or not. And it’s not just the outgassing or the fact that plastic trees are not recyclable, it’s the smell. I love the smell of a pine tree in my living room. And I love trooping all over the tree farm arguing about the perfect tree. And I love coming home and decorating it together. This is one of the few things we do as a family anymore.

This year I might ask my tree grower a few questions. But he seems like a nice guy and the trees are literally in his front yard, plus the yard is definitely not weed free and the trees are cheap ($40 bucks any size), so I can’t imagine he’s heavily invested in expensive chemical pesticides.

Like so many other organic issues, it comes down to trust and your best speculation. You have to trust the person you’re buying from and you have to speculate just how much risk there is in bringing a live, possibly pesticide-coated, tree in to your house. We can’t know for sure that pesticides are a definitive danger to the health of your home’s inhabitants, but we can’t know for sure that they aren’t. I’m not sure we will ever sort out the effects of the chemical soup ingested by all of us over the years.

I suppose the only way to truly know that my Christmas tree doesn’t pose a danger to my family is to grow it myself. I’m sure my husband is groaning as he reads this, but next spring you know what will be gracing the back edge of our property.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Define 'Organic'

I’ve had the opportunity to lead several workshops on eating organically recently, and it has led me to think long and hard about the definition of organic. Here's Webster's take on it-

Organic, adj. 1. of or having to do with an organ 2. inherent, inborn 3. systematically arranged 4. designating or of any chemical compound containing carbon 5. of, like, or derived from living organisms 6. grown with only animal or vegetable fertilizers

I’m not sure any of those definitions fit with the generally acknowledged definition most people acknowledge these days. The first comment I run in to most often, is “too expensive”. And many people, my children included, can’t help but say the word organic without a slight sneer, kind of the way Nellie Olsen talked on the original Little House on the Prairie series. Somehow organic has gone from a good idea to a trendy idea to a snobby idea.

As I thought through the message I was trying to convey at the workshops, I kept coming back to the word ‘organic’. I think there is a danger in defining ‘organic’ as the food that has received the government’s little green label. In fact, I might even venture to speculate that most of the certified organic food you find in the grocery store isn’t nearly as organic as the food you’ll find at your farmer’s market or roadside stand.

The people defining the word ‘organic’ are the people with the most to gain from that definition (and that wouldn’t be you and me). The food manufacturers have loads of money to spend on lobbyists and plenty of political power to ensure that the definition is watered down enough to make mass production of ‘organic’ food possible and profitable. If you do a little research, you’ll quickly discover that just about all of the organic brands you find in the grocery store have been bought up by conventional food manufacturers. It’s a bit of a curse to be successful at an organic start up; it virtually guarantees your days are numbered.

Truly it’s a free for all. Just about anything can be twisted in to acceptance with the right amount of influence and legal documents. There are over 500 exceptions (probably hundreds more since my source is over a year old) for pesticides, preservatives, additives, food colorings, artificial flavorings, and stabilizers in organic food. At a workshop I led for young mothers, I was hard pressed to come up with an answer to the question, “What kind of organic snack can I give my toddler?” Fruit, being my first response, isn’t always practical. And the overpriced organic snack food being hoisted on well-meaning mothers, isn’t necessarily any better than the goldfish crackers and cheezits I raised my children on. It’s a tough call. And there is no simple answer.

Until we are all ready to go back to growing all our own food or knowing the person who grows it for us, the best we can do is the best we can do. I still keep harping on label reading. It’s pretty much your only weapon against the marketing. Much of the “organic” processed food you find in the grocery store has only a few organic ingredients, most likely just enough to qualify for the little green and white seal.

I was reading today that Horizon organics, who own more than 50% of the market on organic dairy products, keep their cows in a grassless feed lot and stuff them full of “organic” feed. They have so many cows at their manufacturing facility in southern Idaho, it’s a statistical impossibility to keep them on grass (the acreage they would cover would make it impossible to gather them in to the milking barn three times a day). I’m guessing it’s the same situation at their international facilities too. And I have to stifle a giggle at the idea of “organic” cow feed. With all the shenanigans involved with certifying organic people food, I have to wonder who’s certifying organic cow food? My guess it’s pretty much a fox guarding the hen house.

So which is better - milk you buy from local farms who don’t proclaim to be “organic” but graze their cows on fresh grass every day, or certified “organic” milk shipped to you from across the country or continent?

I’m truly getting tired of the “organic” label. I’m not sure it means anything anymore. I think we need to talk about ingredients and processes because they mean much more than the indulgent, expensive certification process that costs us as taxpayers and as consumers.

No one wants to hear this, but it’s the message I have to keep spreading – make your own food. Don’t groan and roll your eyes at me. It’s not difficult and many times it’s not even very time consuming. And for sure, it saves you money. Deciding to make your own food is a mind set. It requires moving beyond the part of you that says, “I can’t do this.” Sure, in the beginning it will take a little work, some serious research, and a rearranging of priorities.

It seems to me, as I watch the lines at the fast food drive through and the overflowing carts at Walmart, that most people are sheep. They are following everyone else, trusting that if they are eating it and the store is selling it and the government is allowing it, than it must be OK.

Sure, it won’t kill you, at least not today. All you have to do is look at our ever-expanding population to know that we can survive on artificially colored, chemically-created, pesticide and preservative laden food. We can live just fine. All we’ll need is seriously good health insurance and some major savings to support us when our bodies finally max out on the toxins and we have to pay the piper. Not to be all doom and gloom, I’m just saying.

My mother-in-law tells me that I need to be sure my readers know that I’m not super-woman, that I truly don’t get it right all the time. So let me tell you what I brought home from the grocery store last night for my 15-year-old’s upcoming birthday gathering this weekend. (he chose the menu) – cheezits in multiple flavors, tortilla chips, pretzels, mountain dew, sierra mist in that bright red color you know is laden with Red No. 5, and several ridiculously impossible “fruit” juices that claimed to be “100% from concentrate” (which means, what?). And on Saturday I will bake a cake laden with fat and chocolate and real cream and then we’ll order pizza from a parlor. And I promise that not once will I say “you shouldn’t eat that”!

I don’t want to be the “food nazi” as Stephen Colbert accused Michael Pollan of on his show this week. My oldest son is a huge fan (of Colbert, not Pollan) and enjoyed sharing the clip with me. Pollan took the chiding very well, but he also made his point – people need to eat real food. He didn’t talk about organics, he talked about common sense.

I think we need to remember that eating “organic” (for lack of a better word) is not an all or nothing venture. Every change we make that moves us towards a healthier life is progress, however small. It’s time to take responsibility for our food. It’s dangerous to trust our family’s health to the government, the food manufacturers, or the grocers. We need to know what we are eating. Or as my favorite quote says, “If you are what you eat and you don’t know what you’re eating, how do you know who you are?”

Defining the word ‘organic’ in terms of our food system is difficult, as it seems to be an ever-evolving claim, but defining organic as food that is real, honest, and good for our bodies might be a step in the right direction.