Hopefully anyone who enjoys Bill Murray movies will recognize the title of this article, as it is printed on an oversized t-shirt that Bill Murray wears in the movie What About Bob?. It must be noted that I own one of these t-shirts (one size too big, naturally) and wear it to the gym. The title may not make sense right now, but by the end of this article, it should or I have failed to do my job. One thing that really irks me is being lied to. I mean, REALLY irks me. I would always rather have the harsh truth than be spared my feelings just so I can feel good in bliss. So I am naturally quite irked with grocery stores, advertisers and food distributors for blatantly lying about organic food. Before this turns into an “organic food doesn't matter” rant, let me say that I do believe organic food does and should matter, but the line is becoming so blurred between conventional factory food and organic factory food that with some products, its almost a moot point.
I really loved the organic movement, I did. I was excited when McDonald's decided to serve Newman's Own organic and fair trade coffee as it brought attention to organic products to a population of consumers that might otherwise never buy an organic product. Then I was let down when the quality of that coffee dipped so much. I remember being truly impressed with the flavor and body of Newman's Own and then one day it was back to being watery, burnt coffee albeit with an organic label. I remember being impressed with Stop and Shop organic produce for a time, too. The kale was crisp and fresh, the yams sweet and fruity and the avocados were creamy and buttery. Then, one by one the kale was no longer USDA organic and only labeled “organic”. The yams were flavorless and tough, the avocados soapy tasting. What happened?
While I can't speak for each produce grower and company individually, I can say in general that companies have moved what it means to be organic as close to what it means to be conventional as possible. Organic labeling has many qualifications for chemicals that are allowed under certain amounts and still labeled organic( up to 5%), they can still grow out of season, ship across multiple countries and use otherwise low-nutrient value foods as long as they are organic.
This is the often debated subject of feeding organically labeled beef and poultry organic corn. While chickens do eat some grains as part of their natural diet, cattle certainly don't, so it is all well and good that their corn is organic but we are still getting meat products with the wrong fatty acid profile, growth rates and micronutrient content. Furthermore, organic labeling of animals such as poultry allows them slightly more square footage per bird in the warehouses and limited access to the outdoors, but it isn't a natural environment. 10,000 birds in one giant warehouse will never think to mosey on out to the 10 by 10 patch of grass connected to the back of the warehouse, nor will they thank us for the extra square inches in spaced allotted to each of them.
The Downward Spiral
What happened to us? Organic food started small, it was a hippie movement. Earthbound Farms, the now largest USDA organic producer in the US started very small. But small isn't profitable, nor is it very sustainable when trying to market to grocery stores. This is because small independent farmers could never make enough of one product under truly organic and natural circumstances to survive the demand of the consumer. A small display of organic greens would go up, the all 100 heads of the lettuce would be gone in two days, and there would be no more for weeks. This does not satisfy the customer nor does it profit the grocery store with consistent product. The only choice, then, is to take one of two roads: stretch what it means to be organic and take some liberties in how food is organically grown, or be content to peddle your wares at farmer's markets and roadside stands for much less money. Unfortunately, as farmers are deciding what path to take, consumer demand has steadily risen for organic food as word got out that it was delicious, better for you and profited small farms. With greater profits on the horizon, the organic food movement really had a no-brainer on their hands, and this was to modify the organic label to adapt to the growing demand for organic. This means lower quality of organic food, and mass production relying on not-so organic growing techniques such as heavy tilling, machine picking and plant-derived pesticides. These last three things don't even bother me so much as I realize that on a thousand acre organic farm, no one could ever plant, pick and bug-control that sucker by hand. What the organic growers do, however, is portray the idealistic image of a husband and wife farmer growing an acre or two of produce, picking bugs off of plants by hand and driving it to market in their beat-up Dodge pickup truck. This is not the reality for most organic farms and it should be realized that it would never be sustainable that way if we want Stop and Shop to continue to carry our beloved organic yams and greens.
Are we relegated, then, to only slightly better organic products at much higher prices? I think and hope not. The only truly sustainable form of quality, nutritious, affordable and safe produce, meat and dairy is by buying locally. Why? (Now pay attention) Because big agro-business only grows corn that is completely inedible for humans at a government subsidized rate, to sell for animal feed. They also overuse growing soil for vegetables so much that Nitrogen, Phosphorous and Potassium have to be added for the food to grow, but ignoring all the other inherent protective micronutrients like magnesium or vitamin C leaves the plants vulnerable to insects, weather and disease. So the crops are sprayed and sprayed and sprayed. And for one or two giant companies to grow enough organic food to fill our grocery stores would require similar measures.
The term organic has been elevated above the level of all other food labeling and now the tomatoes your grandfather grew in his backyard after fertilizing with goat poop, tilling by hand and watering dutifully wouldn't be considered organic enough.
But would it matter, since it was grown in a way that provides nutrition and sustainability?
What Actually Matters
Organic farming should not be thought of as specific guidelines that we either meet or we don't. For national sales obviously there must be standards set but we know even those standards are not the organic we all have pictured in our minds. To that end, I am content with locally grown and unsprayed produce, and here are a few of my top reasons:
- Very short travel for food, resulting in no need for artificial preservatives or gases to keep fresh
- Accessibility for the consumer to visit the farm to survey how things are done
- Unsprayed means no chemicals added during growth
- Properly tilled and rotated fields provide the FULL spectrum of flavones and nutrients in produce from healthy soil, which are necessary for both the plant's health and our own.
- Supporting small(er) farms, meaning I don't mind paying an extra $1 for lettuce grown by someone I can actually visit face to face.
The final test of whether a product is superior over another is taste. I am including texture, freshness, water retention and so on all under the umbrella of how a food tastes. Taste means different things to different people and it is easy to develop a taste for a poorly made food (Hungry Man dinners?). You know that example you give when someone says “I hate beets”, and you respond with, “Well, have ever had them this or that way?”. If a consumer has only been exposed to one type of product for years and years, then they become programmed to how it tastes. So, a potato is a potato is a potato.
Until you have a really good potato.
This is what separates the factory organic from the local food. I use the potato as an example because this is what I conducted my own personal test on with many, many yams and sweet potatoes.
- First I tried a few weeks of the standard un-organic yam; a dry, somewhat woody/stringy texture, scarred and pockmarked skin and when cooked, the only thing I tasted was sweet.
- Second, the factory organic yam. Healthier skin, smoother flesh and consistent texture, but the only thing I tastes when cooking it was sweet.
- Third, the local and unsprayed yams from my local co-op. Very healthy skin and flesh, smooth and buttery when cooked and sweet but not just sweet. This potato tasted fruity, caramel, tangy and sweet. Like the potato version of a ripe mango.
Oh, and for the haters out there, plant health is directly related to plant taste. Those wonderful little flavones the plant develops to protect itself from disease and predators? Those are the same elements that give the plant its characteristic taste. Healthier soil=Healthier plant=more flavones=better taste. And a plant unaided by heavy spraying must develop its own phenolic compounds for survival. These same phenolic compounds at as antioxidants in our bodies, protect from DNA damage and reduce inflammation.
Overall, I would still choose factory organic food any day over conventionally grown food. But given the added flavor, health and economical benefits of buying from local vendors who grow smaller, unsprayed and well tended crops outweighs even the organic in my mind. Co-ops, farmer's markets and CSA's (community agriculture programs) are the main line to these local purveyors. Do yourself and your community a favor and choose to support smaller farms. And when someone calls you on walking out of the grocery store with no sign of produce in your cart, just tell them, “Don't hassle me, I'm local!”
Mcgee Harold (2004) On Food and Cooking. New York: Scribner.
Pollan, Michael (2006) The Omnivores Dilemma. New York: Penguin.