Organic food has grown into a $14 billion market and represents the fastest-growing segment of the grocery industry. That's heady stuff for a movement that champions sustainable, small-scale food production and rejects industrial agriculture.
A Movement Gets a Makeover
When you think organic food, do you envision tie-dyed hippies in scruffy beards and sandals at a dingy co-op, or do you picture luxury car-driving elites parked outside an upscale suburban market? In this game of word association, there is no wrong answer.
Today, organic food has grown into a $14 billion business and represents the fastest-growing segment of the grocery industry. In 2005, two-thirds of American consumers bought organic food at least once. That’s heady stuff for a movement deeply rooted in the 1960s counterculture that championed sustainable, small-scale food production and roundly rejected industrial agriculture.
So how did a movement that began by emphasizing the virtue of small grow so big? Simply put, people caught on.
Health and Food Safety
Peace of mind has certainly played a part in the growth of organics. Concern about the long-term health effects of the pesticides, chemicals, growth hormones and antibiotics used in conventional farming convinced many people to seek out alternatives. Outbreaks of "mad cow" disease and E-coli raised consumer awareness about the conditions in factory feedlots, inspiring some buyers to turn to organic and grass-fed meats and poultry in an effort to buy "safer" foods.
Of course, it’s not only what's left out of foods: what's in them has been equally important in swaying consumer opinion. Many people believe organic food is just plain healthier. A 2003 study from the University of California at Davis found that organic produce includes significantly higher levels of vitamin C and a greater variety of micro-nutrients than conventional produce. A Danish study released in 2005 concluded that organic milk contained significantly higher levels of vitamin E, antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids. Other studies have shown that grass-fed animals produce meats, milk and eggs with more vitamin E, folic acid, beta-carotene, and omega-3 fatty acids and less saturated fat and cholesterol than corn-fed animals.
Environmental and Social Issues
Some consumers have turned to organics because they are concerned about the environmental impact of industrial farming practices that degrade soils, contaminate waterways, increase greenhouse-gas emissions, contribute to a dependency on fossil fuels, and encourage bacterial resistance to antibiotics. Others disapprove of their tax dollars subsidizing a system that forces farmers to produce more and more for increasingly less profit. Still others bemoan the loss of independent and family farmers at the hands of big agriculture and the effect that this agricultural consolidation has had on rural economies and the rural landscape, shifting it from one of rich, biological diversity to a monoculture that teeters on the edge of sustainability. They consider these the "hidden costs" of cheap industrial food.
Questioning the Logic
More than ever, consumers are asking questions about the food that sustains them and their families. Where does my food come from? Is it local or is it trucked in over vast distances? How does it taste? Is it bred for best flavor or primarily for uniformity of size and color and increased yield? How is it grown? Is it part of a system that works in harmony with nature, or is it grown with synthetic chemicals and fertilizers? Is production sustainable? Do the conditions in which livestock are raised reflect a measure of respect for the animals' natural instincts and well-being or are speed, efficiency and the profit margin the primary concerns? Being able to answer these questions has led many people to choose organics.
Are There Two Organics?
As organic food began to appeal more and more to the mainstream, it was only natural that big agribusiness should take notice. Indeed, today there is something called "industrial organic." To the original, smaller-is-better organic crowd, the phrase "industrial organic" might sound as oxymoronic as "jumbo shrimp." But if the word "organic" evokes placid pastoral images of cows grazing languidly over lush green pastures, of clucking chickens scratching at the earth and plump pigs rooting about in the mud, then the rise of factory organic farms has created a competing vision, one that mimics large-scale conventional agriculture’s emphases on efficiency, speed and reliance on monoculture.
Yet for all the knocks against it, industrial organic production puts increasing amounts of land under organic cultivation, reducing the amount of chemicals being unleashed on the environment and limiting the quantity of antibiotics and growth hormones given to livestock.
Pinning a Label on It
The USDA currently defines organic this way: "Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation." These foods receive the official USDA seal of approval:
Food labeled 100% organic is entirely organic whole food or is processed from entirely organic foods.
Food labeled organic describes food that is no less than 95% organic (an organic soup, for instance, might include a small portion of non-organic ingredients).
Food labeled "made with organic..." indicates that a specific organic ingredient is included in the processed food. (Tortilla chips might say "made with organic corn," for example.) In this category, the product must contain 70% organically grown ingredients to receive the coveted USDA seal.
Organic Bones of Contention
USDA decisions have proved fertile ground for critics, who contend that USDA regulations and rulings repeatedly favor big agribusiness and are watering down the meaning of organic. Some argue that allowing processed food, including TV dinners, to be called organic strips the word of any real significance. Critics also contend that it is difficult for smaller organic farmers to wade through new paperwork, inspection requirements and other regulations--including costly fees--necessary for their food to receive the distinction "certified organic." Many smaller-scale farmers have opted out of the program, even though their farming methods are organic and may be even more sustainable than those certified as organic.
Going Beyond Organic
In the wake of these developments, some producers and consumers are looking to go "beyond organic," as it is currently conceived, to reclaim what they consider organic's original intent by emphasizing such virtues as "local," "small-scale," "pastoral" and "sustainable." The increasing popularity of farmers' markets suggests a trend in this direction.
A Few Suggestions from the Editors
* Pick and choose Organic foods can put a real dent in the grocery budget. If you choose organics to limit pesticides in your family’s diet but are concerned about cost, know that USDA testing reveals some conventionally grown produce contains more pesticide residue than others: spinach, pears, nectarines, peaches, apples, strawberries, raspberries and potatoes contain high levels of residue. Produce that is typically “unwrapped” before being eaten--bananas, corn, onions, mangos, avocados--has lower levels of residual pesticide. Try choosing organic for those foods at highest risk of containing pesticides (like spinach and strawberries) and stick to less-expensive conventional foods for others. * Put local ahead of organic Twenty percent of America's petroleum output goes toward transporting food around the country. The average food item travels 1,500 miles from source to table. This fact has led many people to seek alternatives closer to home--so no Argentinean asparagus in January. Consumers interested in small-scale, sustainably farmed, locally produced, organic whole foods and meats derived from pastured animals can explore their local farmers' markets. Many farmers are eager to discuss their philosophies and farming practices. They may also provide fresh food subscriptions during the market off-season. * Consider grass-fed beef Corn feeds conventionally raised cattle. But grass, a cow's natural food source, contains valuable nutrients that corn lacks, such as vitamin E, beta-carotene and folic acid. Meats from grass-fed animals contain more of these nutrients, too. Grass-fed beef also includes higher levels of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids and less saturated fat, cholesterol and calories than grain-fed cattle. What's more, because cattle's complex digestive systems did not evolve to eat corn, many corn-fed cattle develop serious digestive problems and infections, which in turn require treatment with antibiotics. Grass-fed cattle also have been shown to have far fewer E-coli bacteria in their digestive systems, and those that are there are less likely to be dangerous to humans.
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