The Organic Conundrum
By Neil Zevnik
Discover the how, what, where, why, and when of eating green.
I have a confession to make: until recently, my love for all things organic was as much affectation as inclination. Hazy remnants of my hippie days dictated my relentless championing of anything and everything organic. Then, I decided to educate myself a bit, just so I could be sure I was right.

Man, my head is spinning. Talk about having your assumptions turned upside down. There are so many complex considerations, so many vastly differing viewpoints and “facts,” so many passionate people urging mutually exclusive choices—I hardly know where to begin to make some sense of it all.

First off, I discovered that it’s important to distinguish between “organic” the philosophy and “organic” the marketing label. Organic as a philosophy speaks to a worldview, a set of feelings about how humankind should relate to our immediate environment and the planet; organic as a marketing label has simply to do with a set of requirements and restrictions implemented by the government to provide a basis for consumer comparison and to prevent outright fraud.

Let’s try to get a simplified picture of the marketing term. The basic requirements for organic labeling are avoidance of synthetic chemicals, genetically modified organisms, irradiation, and the use of sewage sludge; farmland that has been free of chemicals for a prescribed number of years; detailed written records; and periodic on-site inspections.

Making Sense of Organic Labels
For single-ingredient foods (think vegetables, eggs, milk), the organic label may be used when these conditions are met. For multi-ingredient foods, the labeling becomes a bit confusing: “100 percent organic” means just what it says; “organic” means that at least 95 percent of the ingredients are organic; “made with organic ingredients” means that at least 70 percent of the ingredients are organic. And now let’s complicate it further by noting that the USDA currently allows 245 nonorganic additives in “organic” foods! You’ll practically need a scorecard—and definitely your reading glasses—the next time you go grocery shopping.

“Organic” used to connote small and personal, but now it is a big and impersonal business. One of the most telling indications of this is a comparison of statements on the USDA Web site, and how they have changed in a mere 14 years. Consider this from 1995:

“Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony.

“What is organic food? 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.”

Now consider this from the 2009 Web site:

“U.S. producers are turning to certified organic farming systems as a potential way to lower input costs, decrease reliance on nonrenewable resources, capture high-value markets and premium prices, and boost farm income.”

Big business indeed, with consequences for farmer and consumer alike.

Organic as a Philosophy
But let’s talk for a moment about “organic” as a philosophy—this is where the discussion tends to get emotional and heated. It ties into the whole green movement, and suddenly becomes entwined with carbon footprints, sustainability, pollution of all sorts, and the very way that people choose to live their daily lives. There is no unanimity of discourse, no chorus of agreed opinion, and no solution to make our choices straightforward and clear. Consensus among the green and scientific communities is about as likely as a snowball’s chance in the hot place.

Most can agree that ingesting pesticides is not a great idea, but beyond that it’s chaos. Are organic veggies more nutritious? Depends on whom you talk to. Is organic asparagus flown in from Ecuador better for the environment than nonorganic trucked in from the next county? That’s iffy. If Wal-Mart is selling organic products, are we selling our “green” souls to big business? Some would argue yes, some would claim it spells salvation.

Organic vs. Local: What’s Ideal?
To me, the most intriguing aspect of the current debate has to do with organic versus local. The rallying cry has always been “You are what you eat.” But in terms of considering the origins of your food, not simply the manner of production, could it be that “You are where you eat” as well? This seems to be the latest twist in the ongoing discussion.

Does eating local trump eating organic? Are fruits that don’t have to travel far and are thus picked closer to ripeness, more nutritious and delicious than organics that traverse the globe and consume resources in so doing? There is a growing clamor, from restaurateurs to food writers to scientists, that answers yes to localism, and an equally emphatic group of environmentalists and advocates who trumpet the enduring and superior virtues of the organic movement.

So what to do?
There’s just no way to reconcile all these conflicting opinions and studies and passionate discourses to accommodate them all—and yet one must eat, and eat healthfully and well. As a private chef, I have a responsibility to provide my clients with the best food and most current information I can, to better their health, and to enhance their culinary pleasure.

I still absolutely believe in the virtue of going organic, despite the conflicting dynamics of the issues surrounding it these days. So here’s my take on the matter, for what it’s worth: do what works for you, do what fits your life and times, do what you can.

Ideally, a mix of local and organic, with plenty of overlap between the two, will fit the bill. Your neighborhood farmers’ market is of course indispensable; and as you come to know your local purveyors, you can not only be confident about the foodstuffs they provide, but you can feel closer to the actual source of your food—and that can be so satisfying. And many supermarkets now identify the source of their produce and meats, allowing you to make the local choice there as well. And as you may have heard before, organic junk food is still junk food, so keep it clean and try to cook from scratch more often.

These are tiny steps, and they don’t even begin to encompass the overwhelming complexity of the organic issue. But we must begin somewhere, right? And it’s the small brush strokes in life that finally create the big picture. Buy organic. Buy local. Love your food, love the earth that provides it, love your family and yourself by paying attention and making the best choices you can.




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