A Digest of The Omnivore’s Dilemma Part 4: Big Organic and the Supermarket Pastoral
“The Proof is in the Organic, Natural Flavor, No-Preservatives-Added, Corn-Syrup-Free Pudding”
“Organic.” “Natural.” “Sustainable.” “Free range.” “Vegan.” “Gluten Free.” “Diabetic friendly.” “No preservatives.” “Low Carb.” “Contains no added elements.” “Kid tested; mother approved.” Lots of labels out there these days that are specialized. What do they mean, and can we trust them?
Raise your hand if you’ve ever bought something labeled “organic” at the store because it was the “organic” kind, without looking at what about the product made it organic. I’m raising my hand. As you might have also heard, the label “organic” doesn’t always mean what you think it means. But it’s not because organic food isn’t better, but because “organic” labeled food isn’t better. Or isn’t always. In other words, often the label means nothing, or next to nothing, especially if you’re at a consolidated grocery store. You can go to stores Wal-Mart and see big landscape pictures of amber waves of grain and happy farmers with baskets full of apples freshly picked. But is this “story” they’re telling you truthful at all?
In the last post we looked Salatin’s sustainable grass farm. Do I have to buy from a farm like his if I want good, natural food? Can’t I just buy the organic stuff at Wal-Mart? You look at all the “organic” products provided as an alternative to the industrial food at the store, and it looks promising. But if all this stuff was really organic, local, and sustainable, would Wal-Mart even have it? Salatin calls this offering a “clash of paradigms“, an attempt by industrial food Inc. to please people who want to do right by food but don’t know what they’re buying. Instead of changing their ways, Big Food just makes us think we can change ours and still buy from them.
“Hey, boss. These people are really into this organic stuff.”
“Are they willing to spend more?”
“Some of them.”
“Great. Slap a label on it and we’ll charge extra for it.”
“What will the government do if they find out our label is misleading?”
“I’m sorry—did you say you’re worried the US government might find out about someone being misled?”
“Right. I’ll get right on bribing them to lower the standards for their label.”
Since the USDA serves industrialized food, their standards for what qualifies as “organic” food are meant to serve industrial food. According to the USDA, “grass fed beef” means beef who have “access to pasture“, which means that all you have to do is open up the factory feedlot doors for a day before the cows are slaughtered so they can go out and graze (and they usually never go out, since they’ve learned to eat corn). It’s a joke.
The phrase “organic” was first used many years ago to mean truly natural, sustainable food. In the past couple decades, it’s taken on a much broader meaning. “Agribusiness fought to define the word [organic] as loosely as possible,” says Pollan, “in part to make it easier for mainstream companies to get into organic, but also out of fear that anything deemed not organic—such as genetically modified food—would henceforth carry an official stigma.” The government listened to whoever had the most money. Because of this, factory farms whose cattle don’t graze and processed food factories whose products contained additives and synthetic chemicals could not only be labeled “organic”, but be given a nod by the USDA as certified organic.
Salatin suggests that if you want to know whether a farmer is truly organic, don’t ask for a USDA certification. Instead, read his bookshelf. See what he really believes. Such reads might include JJ. Rodale, Sir Albert Howard, Aldo Leopold, Wes Jackson, Wendell Berry, or Louis Bromfield. Of course, Salatin calls his farm “beyond organic”, because he doesn’t give a flip about the USDA’s standards, standards that only apply to industrial farms, and that don’t really make sense anyway.
Fake Manure: NPK
If the fall of Adam and Eve from the garden was the eating of the fruit of knowledge of good and evil, I wonder if the fall of modern creation from natural agriculture was the invention of NPK. Some German scientist (why is it always the Germans?) invented a false manure made from Nitrogen, Sodium and Phosphorus. Apparently God messed up when he made animals poop. We found a way to do it better. Thank you, German Biblical scholarship. I only kid. But this fake manure is less nourishing to plants (it turns out plants draw more than three elements from manure), makes them vulnerable to pests and disease, and isn’t good for people either. This is one example of foods getting the “organic sticker” despite not being grown naturally. Use of NPK mixes pass under the USDA organic labeling rules. FAIL.
Pollan talks of the “supermarket pastoral” that’s full of “competing narratives“, meaning that, if you walk into a store like Whole Foods you see this lush, abundant store offering a tale of natural food compared to the typical grocery store. But the products don’t always match the story, nor do they match one another. In an “organic” section you’ll find ultra-pasteurized milk, for instance, which is silly. The best milk for you isn’t pasteurized at all, but since it doesn’t last as long, supermarkets carry pasteurized milk instead, drained of many of its nutrients. Oh, and then there’s the US laws against raw milk, which borders on being fascist. The govt. has no right to tell us we can’t sell cow milk that hasn’t gone through a machine. There is nothing wrong with breaking such a law and selling raw milk to one’s neighbor. If the laws of man deny nutrients, we have no duty to acknowledge them.
But don’t feel bad if you’ve fallen for “green tokenism” purchases before and bought a so-called “organic” product that was hardly better at all. I have too. It’s seductive. You really feel like you’re doing something better, and that attitude alone says something about your intentions, which is a good start. As Pollan says, we want to “engage in authentic experiences” and want to “return to a utopian past with the positive aspects of modernity intact.” We want to shop easy and eat consciously, and so we choose to visit the “organic aisle” rather than an actual farmer’s market or co-op. And the people selling to us have more resources and money to get us to choose their stuff. They advertise more than local farmers because they never have to see our faces to sell us our food.
It’s not the principle of organic-ness that’s bad/useless/dishonest, but the fact that the govt. has come to own the term and what it means. It used to mean truly going back to natural food, and even making a political statement out of it. As Pollan relates, “organic’s rejection of agricultural chemicals was also a rejection of the war machine, since the same corporations—Dow, Monsanto—that manufacture pesticides and also made napalm and Agent Orange, the herbicide with which the U.S. military was waging war against nature in S.E. Asia.” When you eat truly organic food, you not only sustain natural farming and put healthier food in you, you also defy the empire. It’s about your body, the land, the country, the world. You’re sticking it to the man!
So is Marketed Organic better than industrial or not?
Even if the organic labels aren’t what they say, isn’t it better to have an organic grocery list than than a non-organic one? Aren’t we doing better if we do that? According to Pollan, it’s not always that simple.
And I wonder about it too. For one thing, some Big Organic operations end up doing more harm than good, because the strange attempt to mix two different philosophies ends up costing more, and using more energy. An example would be how extra petrol is spent moving organic fertilizer made from compost and implementing complex irrigation systems, rather than relying on manure and elevation. Also, the conceit that things are being done in a truly organic way leaves much work undone, and many problems remain unsolved, in the same manner a dentist might fill a cavity when the problem is root damage.
Foods only passing as organic damages the reputation of the organic food movement, creating more disciples against it or indifferent to it. “It’s the same food; y’all are bein’ duped,” say many, and they’re right, but only half right. In other words, Wal-Mart’s “organic” aisle hurts the reputation of the farmer’s market, kind of like how Toby Keith makes country look bad. Some guy like Dr. Oz will tell you the whole organic thing is a shame, and you’ll believe it, and so you’ll buy like you always have, but maybe just pay more attention to calorie intake. Authenticity matters. Just because the facade is bad, does not mean the real deal is bad.
Ultimately, Pollan’s research leads us to conclude that when big grocery stores use the label “organic” it’s often merely as a marketing tool. With some products you may be getting what is ultimately something better for your health, but sometimes the descriptions are deceitful and if you’re worried about the environmental cost, those stats won’t be found on the label.
But that doesn’t mean that organic food in itself, when done by true organic standards, is not better for you. What research exists shows that there is.
In fact, the USDA did that kind of research for a while, until it didn’t like what it said. For example, it was found that carrots grown in Michigan have more nutrients than carrots grown in Florida, because that’s where carrots thrive. The USDA quit doing such research, and now carrots are just carrots, no matter where from.
The long and short of it is that buying organic food takes more research and consideration than just going to the big grocers like Kroger and looking for the organic labels. Pay attention to the ingredients and narratives, and shop at local farmer’s markets or hook up with a co-op to make these choices easier, as you will have access to local products and sometimes speak directly to the provider. We should put more thought into our eating than “what do I want to eat this week?” and “how much do I want to spend?” I am on this journey already, and am learning from my mistakes.
The USDA “organic” label doesn’t guarantee that no pesticides are used, among other things
The Bible says a lot about using wisdom when you go into the marketplace to buy things, the wisdom of knowing what to get and what not to get. Some have said the Proverbs of Solomon are framed in this kind of way, as if the father is guiding his son through the marketplace of wisdom and folly. How may wisdom and folly come in to play in the modern supermarket?
You Shall Not Lie
Lying and deceit are sinful. Whether you practice business, politics, or anything else, your duty is to be truthful, to preserve truth. The trick can come when playing around with words that don’t have solid definitions. But as with any sin, the line can always be drawn from the heart outward. If a customer base asks for a different kind of product and you want to reach them, your duty is to either offer that product or not pursue them at all. What you can’t do is merely re-label your product as the kind they seek. You are no better than a snake oil salesman.
Bribes are Wrong
It’s that simple. “Take no bribe,” God commands his people, “for a bribe blinds the clear-sighted and subverts the cause of those who are in the right” (Ex. 23:8). Every time a corporation bribes the government into creating laws and regulations that favor that particular company, a wrong is committed and much shame should be brought upon the heads of those responsible.
Christian Perspective: White-washed tombs
When it comes to the morality of organic food, and to the idea of doing a public and private good by making, buying and eating food done in a way that is respectful to creation, there is an appearance of morality and there is an actual morality. If and when we look at these decisions as moral acts, they must be done rightly. It doesn’t matter how “organic” we look if it’s not true. Greater responsibility lies on the producers (and their govt. cohorts) than the buyers, because the buyer is a weaker and more vulnerable position when buying what is advertised to them.
Even if we don’t look at food production as a moral enterprise with moral implications, many organizations are merely putting a facade up of what many look at with moral judgments. Under Old Covenant Law, would it have been okay for a Jew to put just a little bit of pork into a dish because some rabbi had ruled that a clean meal contained less than a gram of pork? It wouldn’t matter what the rabbi ruled: Pork is pork, and the Law said not to eat of the animal at all. Today, though there is no food that is ceremonially unclean to Christians, there is food that is physically unclean to the bodies as temples, and there are practices that are destructive to creation, and therefore make the land unclean as well. If we’re going to pursue making the land and our bodies cleaner and healthier, the change should take place on the inside, within these bio-systems, and not just on paper. We are not to be in the business of “white-washing tombs”.
In part 5, we seriously discuss the matter of killing and eating animals.
What about the global economy? What helps and what hinders?
For example, if the only way I can get truly organic, pesticide-free asparagus grown on a sustainable farm is to get them from Argentina, do I buy the Asparagus at my Green SuperGrocer?
On the one hand, buying it contributes to the culture of organic food growing, but on the other hand, that’s a long way to ship Asparagus.
And am I helping the Argentine economy by buying their export, or am I hindering it by purchasing a product they grew and their people should be eating? I mean, especially if an American business owns the farm that’s on Argentine land? It’s like I’m eating a food that belongs to another people.