As a consumer, one of my biggest, and most easlily controlled, impacts on environmental health (as well as my own) is the foods I choose to eat. As such, I have been completely sucked up in figuring out just what this whole "organic" thing is about, spending way too much time looking into it -and I still know way too little. Perhaps one day I will know enough to write an intelligent post or two about the topic. But for now... random bad logic is the rule of the day. I make no claim that the initial thoughts I will be posting over the next few days are worth a hill of beans (organic or otherwise). If I am wrong, tell me. If I discover latter on that I was wrong, I will tell you.
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As I started looking into this, I jumped right to the specific regulations regarding what can and can not be labled "organic". Later, when that proved confusing, I retreated back to a simper, broader question. "What is organic?". This is really three questions however, and the most important thing for me so far, in terms of framing how I view the specific details of organic certification, has been to consider not only the answers to these three questions, but how they relate to each other .
- What is the original meaning of organic?
- What does certified organic mean?
- What do people think organic is?
Why are these questions important? On the one hand, I only use the "organic" label as one indicator that a product might meet my criteria, so I am less likely to be tricked by loosened labeling standards. On the other hand, because I often use the word "organic", it is incredibly important that I understand what I intend it to mean, and what other people think it means, so I can better communicate.
What is the original meaning of organic?
Yeah yeah, "organic" just means "carbon-based". OK, now that that's out of the way...
From what I can gather, organic agriculture was originally about living in harmony with the environment, taking a holistic view of the biological system in which we live and get our food from, recognizing that our health is dependent on the health of the system. As such, we would naturally want our food production to be a positive part of this larger system we depend on, rather than a negative, destructive force.
One description I read a while back (forgot the name of the book) of the difference between organic and conventional agriculture highlighted how the goal of the organic farmer was not to feed the plants, but rather to feed the soil, and that good crops are a natural side-effect of healthy soil. In conventional farming, dirt is just a temporary holder for plants. Instead of paying attention to the health of the system, conventional farming is a reductionist, reactive approach, attacking one problem at a time without regard to upstream causes, or downstream effects of that action.
Or, in the words of Wikipedia:
Wikipedia Definition of Organic Farming
Organic farming is a way of agriculture that relies on ecosystem management rather than external agricultural inputs. This approach excludes the use of synthetic inputs, such as synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, veterinary drugs, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and usually subscribes to the principles of sustainable agriculture. Its theoretical basis emphasizes soil health as the foundation for successful production.
An important point to make, I think, is that the main point of organic farming is not "No pesticides or chemical fertilizers". Rather, the exclusion of synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers is simply a natural result of following the holistic philosphy of sustainable agriculture.
Somehow this seems important to me when the issue of certified organic comes up...
What does certified organic mean?
I'm not going to get into any specifics regarding the official regulations set by USDA in US and JAS in Japan (I'll intend to get into that more later). Instead, I'll just give you the short version from the USDA:
USDA Definition of "Organics"
Effective 21 October 2002, all agricultural farms and products claiming to be organic must be guaranteed by a USDA-approved independent agency to be meeting the following guidelines:
- Abstain from the application of prohibited materials (including synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and sewage sludge) for 3 years prior to certification and then continually throughout their organic license.
Prohibit the use of genetically modified organisms and irradiation.
- Employ positive soil building, conservation, manure management and crop rotation practices.
- Provide outdoor access and pasture for livestock.
- Refrain from antibiotic and hormone use in animals.
- Sustain animals on 100% organic feed.
- Avoid contamination during the processing of organic products.
- Keep records of all operations.
What seems more important to me at this level is that in creating the label, and a set of guidelines, the focus seems to have shifted from a holistic view of agriculture and food production, to a system whereby the goal is simply not to use products on the USDA list. The actual role that the product plays from a whole-systems perspective no longer matters, so long as the product doesn't violate the rules.
Certainly the regulations do lead to less environmental damage, and may even change some conventional agricultural practices that aren't explicitly regulated. For example, the USDA Certification does not specify that cattle may not be raised in tight quarters which causes tremendous stress not only to the cattle, but the ecosystem as a whole. Such environmental stress (for now we'll assume that no one cares about how the cow feels) is somewhat controlled however, by restricting the use of hormones and anti-biotics. Without pre-emptive use of anti-biotics to keep disease at bay, the rancher may be forced to "revert" to methods causing less stress and opportunity for disease to spread, such as keeping fewer cattle in a more open space.
Anther difference between the meaning of "Certified Organic", and the original concept of organic agriculture, is that processed foods are also referred to as "organic". Please make note as well, that when I say "processed food", I am not only talking about the packaged food you buy in the supermarket. I also consider a home-baked apple pie to be "processed". I would no more consider that such a pie can be "organic" as I would that a bottle of Heinz ketchup can be "organic". They can, however, be made with organic -i.e. organically grown- apples or tomatoes.
In the case of processed foods, the certification is presumably meant to let consumers know that the product lives up to their demands and expectations... but in order to determine if the certification really helps in that sense, or if allowing ** violates those expectations, I have to know what the consumer definition or expectations of "organic" are.
What do people think organic is?
I don't know what people think "organic" means. As far as I can tell though, there are three main reasons that people choose "organic".
- environmental / sustainability concerns
- health / nutrition concerns
- flavor / freshness concerns
Based on this, is it fair to assume that people assume "organic" means all three of these?
In the beginning, when buying "organic" veggies meant you were buying them from the farmer down the street, they were pretty much guaranteed to meet all three of these conditions. Because you knew the farmer, you presumably knew her philosophy and methods, you could be sure that she was not pouring on chemical fertilizers that would drain into the nearby river endangering the ecosystem. You could be sure that the veggies didn't contain pesticide residue, endangering your and your families health, and since you were buying it from the farmer down the street, you can get fresh-picked veggies which have been grown for their flavor instead of their shelf-life.
Now that the "certified organic" food on your super-market shelf might be shipped from around the world, the consumer has to decide which of these three reasons is most important. Say you are looking for potato chips. If you buy organic for environmental concerns, it may still be better to buy non-organic chips that have been grown, processed, and packaged locally. If you are most concerned about health and the dangers of the pesticides, you may still choose the imported organic chips. If your major concern is flavor, the processing of the organically grown, "fresh" potato probably did away with any noticable flavor difference, so you'll probably just buy Pringles.
If these three are what people look for when they buy organic, how capable can the certification guidelines be in protecting such a wide range of interests?
I don't think it can -at least not if the certification is used as the only criteria for buying the product. It seems that the whole organic movement took off so fast, that it lost it's most important aspect... the underlying philosophy. The thing that made it appealing in the first place, and what still makes it appealing for me, is the concept of knowing about the food and the philosophy behind which it is produced, not the specific list of methods. If I trust the farmer to follow his philosophy (or, in my case, trust the coop and other members, who like me, visit the farmers from time to time to talk about their philosophy and see how they put it into action), I don't care so much if they are certified.
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I sound pretty negative on the whole organic labeling thing eh? Well, this does not mean that I don't think "organic certification" can play an important role in moving toward a more sustianable society. I have still not made up my mind about that.
As rudimentary as this may be, now I am ready to go a little deeper into issues of what specific ingredients and methods are and are not acceptable by USDA or JAS, as well as contemplate wether or not the resulting label fits my needs as a consumer. It also helps me to better understand the various debates that are always going on about organic labeling. All of which are some topics that I may get in the near future.