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Organic Is Not Enough

Organic food. It sounds so safe. So wholesome. So good for the environment. So good for our health. Doesn’t it?

At least until you realize that the Texas and Georgia peanut plants that were sending out salmonella riddled peanut butter also had federal organic certification.

It’s what happens when you put “organic” labeling in the hands of giant agribusinesses. They cut corners and fall through the regulatory cracks just like everybody else.

An article in The New York Times recently asked if Organic food was safer. Their answer? No. It’s just as likely to be contaminated as the conventional food supply.

And they’re right.

We ought to be asking a different set of questions altogether. Questions like why is our food supply so susceptible to contamination? Does scale have anything to do with it? Should we be opting for a more localized food economy?

Small farmers and backyard gardeners are directly accountable to people who eat the food they raise and grow. I can visit the ranch where the chickens that lay my eggs are raised, the dairy where my raw milk is collected, or the farm where my vegetables are grown. I can meet the animals, see how sanitary the conditions are, question the farmer about his practices.

If the quality of the vegetables, dairy, meat, or eggs suffer, I can take my business elsewhere. Not so with industrialized agriculture — even organic industrialized agriculture. They are protected from me by a shield of middlemen, buyers, sellers, co-ops, packagers, manufacturers, retail chains, and more.

Plus, if — heaven forbid — the products I buy from local sources are contaminated, the ripple effects will be considerably smaller. Rather than having 700 people fall prey to illness and 9 people die (as in the most recent peanut scare), only a handful of people will be affected and the source will be easy to track.

In this day and age, “organic” doesn’t mean as much as I would like it to. It doesn’t promise food that’s:

  • locally grown
  • humanely raised (animals on pasture, not in factories)
  • whole and unrefined
  • processed as little as possible
  • nutrient-dense (enzymes, vitamins, minerals, probiotics)
  • free of additives or preservatives
  • traditionally produced or prepared

In other words, it doesn’t promise me Real Food. That’s why we need to move beyond organic and take back control of our food supply — one forkful at a time!

This post is part of today’s Fight Back Fridays blog carnival. To learn how to participate, or to discover more tantalizing tid bits from Real Food lovers around the web, check out the carnival.

(photo by Darwin Bell)
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I am a passionate advocate for REAL FOOD -- food that's sustainable, organic, local, and traditionally-prepared according to the wisdom of our ancestors. I'm also an author and a nutrition educator. I enjoy playing in the rain, a good bottle of Caol Ila scotch, curling up with a page-turning book, sunbathing on my hammock, and watching my three children explore their world.
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15 Responses to Organic Is Not Enough
  1. Organic Trade
    March 13, 2009 | 3:00 pm

    Food safety has been and continues to be a top priority in the organic industry, as evidenced by the tough stance that the National Organic Program (NOP) has taken in response to recent concerns about the organic certification of certain production facilities. Barbara Robinson, Deputy Administrator of NOP, stated

  2. KristenM
    March 13, 2009 | 8:22 pm

    I am glad for what Organics do — as far as they go. But we need to move “beyond Organic” if we really want to reclaim a safe and nourishing food system.

  3. Linsey
    March 13, 2009 | 8:40 pm

    I think what you are seeking is both a term and a standard that others are seeking, at this moment, to define.

    There’s an interesting discussion here around this topic: http://bostonlocalvores.org/blog/?p=189

    I think it is easier to eat real than define what ‘real’ is in a single term or even sentence, the way “organic” defines a specific way a product is grown or raised.

    Linsey

  4. Annie - Hip Organic Mama
    March 13, 2009 | 8:58 pm

    Just my thoughts on this as a former grocery store owner watching consumer’s misunderstanding of our food system and what is real food. You are right, organic does not guarantee “real food” and the label, the system, has fallen victim to the same agri-biz issues. However, organic DOES guarantee certain safeguards, that it’s not GMO or rBGH, for example, without having to look for other labels. Believe it or not, many consumers do not understand what the label stands for and I’m afraid that reading an article like yours may confuse the issue a bit since the label does indeed offer some safeguards of certain things. Because of this, the label actually does offer consumers an easier option.

    Of course, whenever money is involved, some will try and cheat the system and that has happened too in the organic business. I do not buy all organic brands nor do I buy it just because it has the label, but I know some things from the label since I understand how to read the label.

    And while money is to be made with the organic label which IS regulated, even more money is to be made of the unregulated label “local” where people set up tents saying it’s local, or even rip off or exchange tags for their own. They are under the radar and cannot get caught at a road side stand. Organic at least assures us a guide when we purchase it from a reputable market.

    I think as consumers “beyond organic” and biodynamic are great, no argument there. And local is wonderful when you KNOW your farmer and best if you’ve visited her farm and have spoken with her. However, just as organic is not what we perceived, as you describe, as:
    * locally grown
    * humanely raised (animals on pasture, not in factories)
    * whole and unrefined
    * processed as little as possible
    * nutrient-dense (enzymes, vitamins, minerals, probiotics)
    * free of additives or preservatives
    * traditionally produced or prepared
    so too, LOCAL does not promise that it is:
    * organic
    * not polluting our environment with heavy pesticides & chemicals
    * working with nature and our ecosystem in a sustainable way
    * humanely raised (animals on pasture, not in factories)
    * whole and unrefined
    * processed as little as possible
    * nutrient-dense (enzymes, vitamins, minerals, probiotics)
    * free of additives or preservatives
    * traditionally produced or prepared

    Where there is money to be made, on both sides, these labels can be exploited so it’s incumbent upon us, once again, to learn and choose consciously instead of simply perceiving what is better based upon a word or a person at a stand with a sign.

    In addition, I think many consumers get hung up on getting a local tomato and perceive a local tomato to be better than one labeled “organic” shipping in from out of state, or perceive that is it less expensive than one shipped, or perceive that the impact on our environment is lower because it is local. That is not always true. That is a misconception. We know things can be shipped in for less. The best example is Walmart where things are sold “made in China” and are cheaper than those made locally. And speaking of that, I see a great irony in consumers going out of their way to buy a local tomato yet going to the nearest store to buy a gadget “made in china” simply because it’s cheaper and close

    Look, I am a fan of truly real food. I am a consumer who makes real choices. I think we need to take back our food. I think we need to really learn about the reality of our food system and the impact every purchase makes on our world and upon other people in the world. We are very disconnected in today’s world because things come in from so far away and I guess that’s why “local” makes us feel better but the truth is, that is not enough either.

    I love your blog and what you stand for and dont’ mean to offend you or anything so please don’t take offense, it’s just another phase of this discussion really and I am concerned that someone who may just be getting into choosing organics will be quick to turn from it without understanding the entire picture. I’m sorry for the long post.

    Annie – Hip Organic Mama

  5. KristenM
    March 13, 2009 | 9:14 pm

    Linsey — You may be right. I’ll go check out your link next.

    Annie — Oh, I completely agree. No offense taken! “Organic” is good as far as it goes, but it has limitations (which we both pointed out.) And I don’t intend to raise the label “Local” up as a better alternative to Organic. I want to raise up “Real Food” as the standard, and I define that in my bullet points.

    The trouble is, “Real Food” isn’t a label that can be regulated. Plus, it’s not one easily definable idea. If a person wants to eat Real Food, they’re going to have to start being educated about labels and what they mean. They’re going to have to start asking LOTS of questions, and they’re going to have to start making tough decisions based on the order of priorities they set down for themselves. My goal is to help empower people with the information they need to judge for themselves.

    For me, the easiest test of Real Food is this: would my great-grandmother have recognized this as food (particularly when she was my age — the shape of food started changing pretty early on in the last century)? Would this be the sort of thing she would have eaten?

  6. lo
    March 14, 2009 | 12:35 pm

    AMEN! This post is great, not only because it brings some really important aspects of “conscientious eating” to the fore — but also because it has invoked such great conversation. What a great way to share and educate one another!

    lo

  7. lo
    March 14, 2009 | 12:39 pm

    Gotta come back to comment about one more thing — I think the best thing about the conversation that’s been started here is that it highlights the element of PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY. We each need to be responsible for our own purchasing decisions — and sometimes that’s not easy. It’s important to know the companies/farms we’re buying from… and that we make an effort to know what the impact of our buying decisions is.

    In other words, thoughtlessly picking up a container that says “organic” on the label isn’t the best way to make a difference. There’s more to it than that.

    For me, buying LOCAL is a huge piece of this picture. Sometimes that means I’m buying organic, sustainable products. Other times, it means I’m buying Honest Food from an Honest Farmer who espouses my values and lives within 5-10 miles of my house.

    lo

  8. Helen
    March 14, 2009 | 3:03 pm

    According to Doug Kaufmann’s http://www.knowthecause.com website and books, peanuts and corn are universally contaminated with mold.

    Helen

  9. Michelle
    March 14, 2009 | 3:23 pm

    Can Organic and Big Business go together is the question I ask myself? They are opposites, in a way. Plenty of food labeled Organic out there I wouldn’t touch with a 10 foot fork! I think the marketing term “organic” is one reason why people hate spending money at health food stores. They buy organic cookies, crackers and mac-n-cheese and wonder why eating healthy has to be so expensive. They’re just getting duped.

    Michelle

  10. Organic Products Online
    March 14, 2009 | 10:14 pm

    Love your post!! Finally someone got it right!!! Would you mind if I put a blogroll link back to your post? :)

  11. Lori
    March 15, 2009 | 9:49 am

    Couldn’t agree more. I like your term “beyond organic”. The term “organic” doesn’t mean a whole lot to me. It could be a better choice, yes, but it isn’t completely without problem. We’ve got to take a closer look at our food sources for sure.

    Lori

  12. KristenM
    March 15, 2009 | 4:20 pm

    Helen — Thanks for the link. Checking it out now.

    Michelle — I think the marriage of organics with big business is a blessing and a curse. It’s good that organic practices are becoming more popular, that Big Organic is taking off and becoming something even the average consumer might be able to afford. But it’s downside is what we’ve been talking about here.

    Organic Products Online — Who ever minds getting links back to their site? The more the merrier!

    Lori — Right. Many of my food choices are made on a scale of priorities. I do the best I can with the budget I have. Organic is important for somethings to me (a guarantee that animals were raised w/o growth hormones or antibiotics, or certain thin skinned fruits & veggies), but if I can get that guarantee w/o the “organic” certification and it saves me money, I jump at the chance.

  13. Ranee @ Arabian Knits
    March 16, 2009 | 1:31 pm

    I agree! We buy locally raised and made as much as possible, as well as raising our own chickens and eggs, harvesting our own honey and growing much of our herbs and vegetation. Organic comes after locally raised in our economy scale, and even that we try to get locally. Also, although some of our food doesn’t say organic, it is raised that way, they just can’t afford/don’t want to go through the rigmarole and paperwork to be certified.

    I saw your other post about Leslie Stahl. It is insane how people think that eating actual food takes so much money. We feed a family of eight, get cleaning supplies, paper products, feed for our chickens and a cat all for between $600-700 a month. Also, how hard is it to fry an egg and make toast? We do that just about every morning. It really doesn’t take that long. People are lazy and have lost their taste for food, I think. I have met people who prefer box cake to homemade, or pancake mix to the real thing. Something is wrong with our tastebuds if that can be true.

    Ranee @ Arabian Knits

  14. KristenM
    March 16, 2009 | 2:00 pm

    Ranee — I’m sooo jealous of the honey! How wonderful. And yes, our tastebuds are whacked. No other way to describe it. I posted a link in my Thursday Link Love post that goes to a study done on tastebuds, nerve centers in the brain, and our sweet tooths. It’s worth reading!

  15. Fred Smith
    January 26, 2013 | 3:54 am

    Total crap, which agrochemical company is paying you?

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Who Am I?

My name is Kristen Michaelis. I'm a nutrition educator, author, and mother of three. I adore hats, happy skirts, horizons full of storm clouds, the full-bodied feel of wind as I ride motorcylces, reading in my hammock, and a hearty shot of Caol Ila scotch. I'm also a rebel with a cause.
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