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Green Living

Get Into the Spirit of Organics

In the 30 years since the National Organic Program was established, everyone from Costco to Walmart has rushed to get involved in this growing food movement. But is bigger necessarily better?

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The organics movement actually began in the early 1900s, but it didn’t really take off in America until the USDA National Organic Program was established in 1990. Now, some 30 years later, Costco boasts a broad selection of organic coffee beans, salad greens, and deli foods; Safeway carries its own organic brand; and Walmart’s shelves groan under the weight of organic goods.

Supporters of mass organics say this is a positive development: More farms converting to organic means fewer pesticides, lower prices, and greater availability of organic goods. But opponents object to large-scale farming and the potential softening of organic standards that they fear may follow in the wake of Walmart’s organic crusade.

“It all depends on your perspective,” says Bob Scowcroft, founder of the Organic Farming Research Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Santa Cruz, Calif. “If you’re an environmental activist, you might say ‘What’s wrong with a 10,000-acre operation going organic? You’ve just removed tons of pesticides from the environment.’ If you’re a family farmer who’s struggled for 20 years, and suddenly your highly valued apple is being underpriced by superstores, you’ll be concerned.”

On the positive side, the presence of mainstream outlets in the organic arena helps educate consumers who know little or nothing about organic foods. As more people become aware of the benefits of organics, demand will increase. And as demand increases, more acres of farmland will ultimately be converted to organic, thereby removing countless pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and other dangerous chemicals from the environment. The use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs)—the effects of which are not yet known—is guaranteed to decline as well, since GMOs are prohibited in organics. Additionally, efficiency and buying power will allow stores to substantially lower the price of organic foods, making them available to Americans of all income levels. 

On the other hand, while large-scale organic farms follow the letter of the law, they may stray from the original ideals of organic farming. Critics point out that the spirit of organics includes a philosophy of food production that promotes ethical treatment of workers and livestock, emphasizes locally grown produce (thereby reducing the amount of fuel required for transportation), and supports small farms. Such ideals may have fallen by the wayside in today’s large-scale organic production.

Take organic yogurt as an example. The organic milk used to make it may be powdered and shipped from New Zealand and then reconstituted in a large-scale U.S. production facility. Alternatively, conventional yogurt made with locally produced ingredients could contain milk from one of thousands of cows, crammed into an industrial feedlot, that spend their days hooked up to milking machines, and may never see a blade of grass. 

From Local to Global  

As the demand for organic increases, U.S. producers are less able to keep up with production; therefore, organics have become an increasingly global enterprise. Importing organics isn’t all bad. When you buy organic bananas from Costa Rica, for example, you’re supporting developing farmers who depend on international trade for their livelihoods, says Steven Hoffman, president of Compass Natural Marketing in Boulder, Colo. “You may use a lot of fuel transporting those bananas,” he says. “But you also have to consider how much fuel is used in a large-scale agribusiness operation, versus a small-scale farm in a developing nation.” 

One worry: We may be importing products from far-flung regions such as China and Sierra Leone, where workers’ wages and living conditions are cause for concern. “I don’t see any evidence of that,” says Barbara Haumann of the Organic Trade Association in Greenfield, Mass. “Although organic standards don’t address living conditions per se, consumers can seek out fair-trade products, which ensure certain standards in terms of working and living conditions.” 

And some worry that the presence of superstores in the organics arena may lead to an eventual softening of organic standards for both imported and domestically produced food, allowing, for example, higher percentages of detectable pesticide residues. “No way,” says Haumann. “That’s just not possible. There’s a long, specific process for creating organic laws. It’s not like people can squeak through the standards, or alter them.”

Others agree with Haumann and believe the argument of less stringent regulations is without merit. “If anything, the big superstores have a lot to lose if they attempt to soften organic standards,” says Scowcroft. “The organic community will be watching them, and with great scrutiny.”

The bottom line? Know where your foods come from and be conscious of all your purchases. Buy locally from small-scale farms every chance you get, and supplement those purchases with organic foodstuffs, especially fair-trade items produced under fair working conditions. Buy from health food stores, as well as farmers’ markets, where you can meet those producing your meals. Research how the companies supplying your dairy, eggs, and meat raise their animals, and buy those with Certified Humane on the label. 

Organic Livestock: How Humane Is It?

When we buy organics, many of us do so to avoid hormones and antibiotics—but most of us are equally comforted by the idea that the animals that have provided our food have been treated well. And it’s a lovely image: Happy milk cows roaming freely across lush green pastures, munching on organic grass, and returning to their roomy barns in the evening to be lovingly milked. But with the advent of large-scale organic dairy production, that pastoral image is a wistful memory at best. 

While national organic standards include provisions that ensure humane treatment of animals, animal treatment is not the organic industry’s primary focus. Organic dairy cows, for example, may be kept tied in cement-floored stalls or confined to dirt lots with little or no access to shelter—hardly the happy cow home we’d like to picture.

As a result, several voluntary certification programs aimed at ensuring humane treatment of farm animals have gained prominence. The Certified Humane label, for example, is a voluntary, user-fee-based service available to producers, processors, and transporters of animals raised for food. The Certified Humane standards were created by a team of scientists specializing in farm-animal issues. The program requires annual third-party inspection of farms as part of the certification process and requires that farms be willing to undergo spot checks. Other humane certifications you might see include Certified Animal Welfare Approved by A Greener World and the American Humane Certified program administered by the American Humane Association.

If you’re concerned about more than antibiotics in your organic animal products, in addition to seeking out the certifications mentioned above, you can purchase your eggs, dairy products, and meat from small, local farmers—many of whom will answer questions personally, and may offer tours of their farms, which can be fun for kids and adults. What better way to know the animals that provide your food are treated well?