Beyond Organic

Good food is about more than standards: It’s a state of mind

Most people who buy organic see their purchases as the healthy choice: for their bodies, for farmers, and for the land. Spend some time browsing the food and beverage trade journals, though, and you’ll soon discover that the industry values organic foods for a different reason. Sales in the category have grown at an average rate of 20 percent a year, compared to 2 to 3 percent in the industry overall. Which is why the National Restaurant Association, among others, has concluded that organic foods are a “potential emerging opportunity to increase profits.”

And while you won’t find their names emblazoned on packaging at your local co-op, America’s top agricorporations, including Philip Morris/Kraft, General Mills, and Dean Foods, are scrambling to get in on organic profits, often by purchasing familiar brands that pioneered the organic movement.

For example: General Mills bought Muir Glen and Cascadian Farms in 1999; Philip Morris/Kraft purchased Boca Foods and Back to Nature in 2000 and 2003; Dean Foods bought Horizon Organic Dairy in 2004; and Heinz, through its subsidiary Hain-Celestial, owns some two dozen brands including Little Bear (since 1997), Arrowhead Mills (since 1998), and Celestial Seasonings (since 2000).

As a result, mom and pop brands are moving from co-ops to big-box grocery stores. Fifty percent of U.S. consumers have tried organics, while 10 percent buy them weekly, and for the first time in 2004, supermarket chains surpassed natural food stores in sales of organic foods. Wal-Mart is aggressively pursuing organic suppliers. McDonald’s is piloting organic fair-trade coffee.

To many in the organic community, this trend is welcome news. “Organic isn’t size tested, it’s environment tested,” says Kathleen Merrigan, director of the Agriculture Food and Environment Program at Tufts University, who, as an aide to Democratic senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, wrote the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990. “If someone comes up with management standards that are environmentally sound for a farm that’s bigger than 50 acres, that’s a win. The more acreage we get into organic cultivation, the better.”

A number of organic stalwarts warn, however, that powerful corporations and their K-street lobbyists want to water down the legal definition of “organic.”

At the heart of these standards is a list of substances allowed in organic farming. And like all regulations, the list is subject to interpretation, revised by horse-trading pols, and enforced by Washington patsies. Already, they permit chemicals like chlorine, antibiotics like streptomycin, and annual applications of chemicals such as copper sulfate — a fungicide that the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety “strongly advise[s]” be prevented from entering the environment. And the big boys are lobbying hard for looser standards.

“A lot of these corporations want to hijack the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s organic standards,” says Mark Kastel, co-founder of the Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin organic watchdog group. “Why? For the same reasons that they’ve industrialized farming in the first place: to reduce their costs and increase their profits.”

Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association, says that corporate processors and supermarket chains have launched a series of efforts that would effectively gut the standards: in 1998, to allow genetically modified feeds and irradiation; in 2002, to allow chemically raised animal feed if organic was too expensive; and in 2004, to expand the USDA list to include several prohibited substances. So far, Cummins says, grassroots activists have beaten back these assaults. But last fall, Congress voted to allow a number of synthetic additives previously prohibited under the law.

The fight over organic standards tends to hinge on the purity of the “inputs” (such as fertilizers) that farmers apply to their fields. It’s an important consideration: Chemical farming is harmful to both people and the environment. But sectarian debates over guar gum miss the broader point: To many of us, organic means more than “chemical free.” Joan Dye Gussow saw the writing on the wall three years ago. “This isn’t what we meant,” she wrote in the magazine Organic Gardening (Sept./Oct. 2002), speaking for a whole generation of organic founding farmers. “When we said organic we meant local. We meant healthful. We meant being true to the ecologies of regions. We meant mutually respectful growers and eaters. We meant social justice and community.” In other words, industrial organic farming isn’t really organic.

For those who take Gussow’s view — that small farms, regional markets, and reverence for the land are the true tenets of organic food — there’s an alternative to corporate organics: a ragtag movement that is raising the same challenge to agribusiness that organic farmers did 20 years ago. Actually, it’s not a movement so much as a creeping sense that growing, buying, and eating food is more than a business transaction. Its proponents are often longtime organic activists, like the writer/farmer Michael Ableman (see page 72), who writes that “the most important aspects of a healthy food system are relationships — interpersonal, biological, and ecological.” That “growing and eating food are sacred acts” we need to reclaim “from the scientists and the industrialists, the bureaucrats and the organicrats.”

Politicos and pragmatists are apt to dismiss dreamers like Ableman, of course. “Put a martini in front of me and I could discuss for hours how I would reform the agriculture system in America,” quips Merrigan, “but do I think I’m going to get there in my lifetime? I’m not that optimistic.” The wild growth of the original organic movement, however, proves that change is indeed possible in our lifetime. Especially if we get the pragmatists and the dreamers on board.

And we should. Industrialized food, organic or not, robs farmers of a living wage, just as it robs the soil of its health and food of its nutrition.

What follows, then, is a loose manifesto for sustainable and sustaining agriculture. The underlying principles include Ableman’s honoring of relationships, along with a living wage for small-scale farmers; a farming approach that values biodiversity, soil health, and a sustainable, closed loop; and a physical and — let’s say it — spiritual joy in growing and eating great food.

The Utne Manifesto for Local Food

1. Know your farmer
The most promising developments in agriculture involve stronger relationships, even collaboration, between “producers” and “consumers.” The number of farmers’ markets in the United States has more than doubled in the past decade, while countless smaller informal distribution networks have sprung up. Chief among them are farms based on community-supported agriculture (CSA), where consumers make an up-front financial investment in the growing season in exchange for a weekly box of veggies. Some CSA farmers involve members in farm festivals or even chores. CSA projects are growing at a rapid clip. Writer Steven McFadden counted 60 in 1990 and estimates that there are at least 1,500 today. Many organic farmers who sell directly to consumers are opting out of USDA certification altogether. “If you know your farmers and you know they’re organic, it doesn’t matter if they’re certified or not,” says Ronnie Cummins.

2. Do your homework
Don’t assume that a brand with the USDA organic seal represents your values. Cummins’ Organic Consumers Association is working on a fair trade label that would certify that a grower pays fair wages, uses sustainable practices, and meets other requirements. Check out our resources on page 75 as you move beyond organics.

3. Fight for better policy
Anyone interested in sustainable agriculture should support organizations lobbying to preserve organic standards. But you don’t need to wait around for Congress. State and local governments can fill the void left by federal agencies. Recent initiatives range from Woodbury County, Iowa, where farmers who convert to organics get a substantial tax rebate, to San Francisco’s city hall, where catered affairs are predominantely organic.

4. Love food
Sounds simple, but in our fast-track, fast-food nation, we seldom take time to prepare food and enjoy it in the company of friends. And someone is buying up all those organic frozen dinners. Recent scientific research has shown that the simple routine of preparing and eating a meal with your kids can improve their school performance and lower their risks for substance abuse, depression, and eating disorders. Of course, research like this can turn eating into just another self-improvement project. So we also need to embrace the spirituality of food. The slow-food movement, with its celebration of creativity and community, is a good place to find this reverence. But you don’t have to go to Europe to forge a healthy relationship with food. Thanksgiving possesses the same gemŸtlichkeit. For that matter, so does the Eucharist: Bread, wine, and communion is decidedly not the same as frozen pizza and Coke in front of the TV.

5. Grow your own
The ultimate sustainable agriculture project is right in your own back yard. Growing and preserving food takes time, but good food is worth working and waiting for. Beyond the back yard is a growing network of community gardens and urban farmers with a radical potential to transform the food system. Because most people live in cities, urban farming is everything that sustainable agriculture should be: It reduces travel time for food; it sustains, and even heals, the land; it connects people; and it provides jobs in communities that desperately need them.

Start Small, Start Today

If you want to change 100 years of farm policy, devastating environmental damage, and ingrained food habits, start with today’s lunch. Spend your food money on farmers, and you’ll be making a big difference.

The average annual food budget per U.S. household is $5,340, according to a recent report by the U.S. Department of Labor. Divide that by three squares a day, and a single meal costs a measly $4.88.

If the community of Utne subscribers — all 225,000 of you — made a commitment to purchase just one meal a week directly from local farmers, more than $57 million would shift out of corporate coffers into the pockets of real people.

Not convinced? The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports an average farm business income of $20,663 in 2004. At that price tag, the one-meal-a-week plan would support almost 3,000 farming households.

Class Act

Local organic food isn’t just for the wealthy. Marketing studies show that as much as half of all organic purchases are made by average or lower-income households, including a significant number of low-income African Americans, Asian Americans, and Hispanics.

Now chew on this: A study of Chicago food stores found that Whole Foods Market costs about 35 percent more than the average supermarket. Meanwhile, the average inner-city corner store charges as much as 40 percent more than a suburban supermarket. The upshot? A community-based urban farm project that supplied inner-city markets with fresh, local organic foods could conceivably thrive as a for-profit enterprise. Investors take note.

Busting the Food Bank

Americans pay less for groceries than nearly any other nation, but more for our food. That’s because factory farming degrades our environment, burns up fossil fuels, devastates our rural economies, and harms our health. Who picks up the tab?

  • Agricultural pollution accounts for 70 percent of all problems in U.S. rivers and streams, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
  • Environmental damage caused by industrial farming costs the United States $34.7 billion a year (more than $300 per U.S. household).
  • Seventeen percent of U.S. fossil fuel consumption is used in food production.
  • Farm subsidies in 2004 totaled $12.5 billion, and 62 percent of the money went to 10 percent of the recipients.
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