What started out as a movement against the industrial control of our food system, "organic" has become a term just as industrialized as the very system it was meant to unseat.
"The organic movement, as it was once called, has come a remarkably long way in the last 30 years, to the point where it now looks considerably less like a movement that a big business." (Pollan, 2006). According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the organic food industry is the fastest growing agricultural segments in the United States, with sales just under $35 billion in 2012 (USDA, 2013). The term “organic” in respect to agriculture is used to reference products produced without the use of synthetic chemicals such as pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers while “conventional” refers to agricultural products that are produced in a traditional manner, typically with the help of chemical treatments. The word usage can become confusing if not standardized (read: industrialized). For example, some small agricultural communities, especially those in remote or third-world regions, have never used chemicals in their production, therefore their traditional methods might be considered organic. Also, some companies hoping to tap into the market for natural products might attempt to use certain words in an effort to gain more customers. In the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia, most of Asia and in many other markets, there are standards that set strict guidelines for what can be labeled organic.
In the U.S., the organization responsible for this regulation is the Department of Agriculture but there are also internationally recognized organizations not associated with any particular country. Not only do they require organic farmers and processors to withhold the use of synthetic chemicals, but they also set standards such as preserving natural resources and biodiversity, providing outdoor access to animals and prohibit genetically modified ingredients. Organic producers must undergo annual onsite inspections to continue using the organic label on their products. For all of this regulation, one would assume there must be significant benefits.
So is organic the best solution to all of our agricultural, environmental, and human health problems?
Let's start by laying out all of the benefits. While organic food may not be entirely pesticide free, organic fruits and vegetables “can be expected to contain agrochemical residues much less frequently and at lower levels than their conventional alternatives” (Magkos, et al, 2007). There is also no denying the environmental benefits of organic agricultural production. Excess chemicals used in traditional conventional agriculture are a large contributor to non-point source water pollution through runoff and leachate as well as a contributor air pollution drift. Organic agriculture is also associated with conservation of soil moisture and water resources due to production practices and generally smaller scale production, which reduces input needs. Integrated pest management practices can further reduce the need for artificial and synthetic chemical inputs. Organic agricultural production is more energy efficient than conventional crop production, using thirty to fifty percent less energy, and this can be attributed in part to the immense fossil fuel resources needed for production and transportation of synthetic chemical typically used in conventional agriculture (Ziesemer, 2007)
So what's the problem with industrialized organic?
In the industrial food economy, virtually the only information that travels along the food chain linking producer and consumer is price. Tomatoes, $1.69/pound; Eggs, $2.79/dozen. Is there any other category of produce sold on such a reductive basis? One of the key innovations of organic food was to allow some more information to pass along the food chain between the producer and consumer-an implicit snatch of narrative along with the number. A certified organic label tells a little story about how a particular food was produced. Yet the organic label itself-like every other such label in the supermarket-is really just an imperfect substitute for direct observation of how a food is produced, a concession to the reality that most people in an industrial society haven't the time or the inclination to follow their food back to the farm, a farm which today is apt to be, on average, 1500 miles away.
The organic label may conjure an image of a simpler agriculture, but its very existence is an industrial artifact. Many organic milks come from factory farms, where thousands of Holsteins that never encounter a blade of grass spend their days confined to a fenced "dry lot", eating (certified organic) grain and tethered to milking machines three times a day. The reason much of this milk is ultra-pasteurized is so that big companies can sell it over long distances. Several ingredients found in organic products are synthetic additives permitted under federal organic rules. What about the "free range" lifestyle promised on the label (of chickens)? True, there's a little door in the shed leading out to a narrow grassy yard. But the free-range story seems a bit of a stretch when you discover that the door remains firmly shut until the birds are at least five or six weeks old-for fear they'll catch something outside-and the chickens are slaughtered only two weeks later.
It would be a mistake to assume that the word "organic" on a label automatically signifies healthfulness, especially when that label appears on heavily processed and long-distance foods that have probably had much of their nutritional value, not to mention, flavor, beaten out of them long before they arrive on our tables. (Pollan, 2006).
Why is organic so much more expensive?
The estimated environmental and health care costs associated with pesticide use at EPA recommended levels is nearly $12 billion annually and the public and environmental health deficits from soil erosion alone are over $45 billion each year (Pimentel, 2005). In the U.S., there are subsidies that benefit most types of conventional, pesticide-dependent agricultural production, and when combined with other externalized costs, the result is a pricing system that makes conventional food less expensive for consumers (Seyfang, 2006).
One of the major arguments by advocates of the organic market is that conventional production externalizes social and environmental costs while organic internalizes these costs, resulting in higher, more accurately priced food.
Beyond organic is an idea that espouses the importances of energy, seasonality, and bioregionalism (Pollan, 2006). There is a sub-market for local-organic foods which is part of the desire for consumers to maintain eco-citizenship within the realm of sustainable consumption (Seyfang, 2006). Urban Oasis Hydroponic Farm, the farm I currently work on, is not technically an organic farm by USDA certification, though by any standard it is probably more sustainable than most certified organic farms. The farm's produce is grown using organic methods with no chemicals. Additionally, seasonality and polyculture play a huge role in the sustainability of the farm. Growing produce in the appropriate region and season means it needs less resources to thrive. Polycultures are more productive and less prone to disease than monocultures. Currently, the farm has 31 different crops growing on under 3 acres. "Study after study has demonstrated that, measured in terms of the amount of food produced per acre, small farms are actually more productive than big farms." (Pollan, 2006). If you want to to talk energy, conventional and industrial organic are gas guzzlers. "A one-pound box of (organic) prewashed lettuce contains 80 calories of food energy. According to a Cornell ecologist David Pimentel, growing, chilling, washing, packaging, and transporting that box of organic salad to a plate on the East Coast takes more than 4,600 calories of fossil fuel energy, or 57 calories of fossil fuel energy for every calorie of food. These figures would be 4% higher if the salad were grown conventionally." (Pollan, 2006).
So if you want to truly eat sustainably, you must move beyond organic. Local and conventionally grown is more sustainable than organically grown 1500 miles away, while local and organically grown is the most sustainable food you can buy other than growing it yourself. And don't just take our word for it. Get out and meet the people who are behind the farmer's markets, the ones who are growing your food. See the farms in action. Smell the fresh air...and taste what eating beyond organic is really like.
EPA. (2012). Organic Farming. United States Environmental Protection Agency. www.epa.gov/agriculture.torg.html
Magkos, Faidon, Fotini Arvaniti and Antoniz Zampelas. (2007). Organic Food: Buying More Safety or Just Peace of Mind? A Critical Review of the Literature. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition. Vol 46: 23-56.
Pollan, Michael. (2006). An Omnivore's Dilemma. Penguin Group.
Seyfang, Gill. (2006). Ecological Citizenship and Sustainable Consumption: Examining Local Organic Food Networks. Journal of Rural Studies. Vol. 22: 383-395.
USDA. 2013. Labeling Organic Products. United States Department of Agriculture.
Ziesemer, Jodi. (2007). Energy Use in Organic Food Systems. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Natural Resources Management and Environment Department.
*Originally written and published for Urban Oasis Farm.