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.

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