Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Whole World's Goin' Organic, Tom!

Years ago, we knew an old gentleman who insisted that the title of this piece was true.  Without fail, he made the comment during every conversation.  As a matter of fact, it became a game to see just when he would say it and how many times it would happen during our talks.  It never took more than fifteen minutes…and occasionally he said it repeatedly during a conversation. He has since passed on, but the comment lives on in infamy.

A great many folks think that if the “O” word is on a product or farm, that product or farm must be better than conventional.  They think “O” means green, environmentally friendly, more nutritious, better for the consumer and the world. They believe that “O” means pesticide-free. That would be completely incorrect. The “O” word is NOT a guarantee of anything…it is just a word used to convey an image that may or may NOT be what you (the consumer) think it is.

Before anyone calls for my lynching…please consider the following
Here is the definition of ORGANIC from the USDA.
Organic is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods. These methods integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.

Could anything be more vague? Note that nothing is said about pesticides and/or herbicides.  Another item of note is that the products have been “produced through approved methods”. This leaves a great deal of room for interpretation and definition and National Organic Standards Board changes the rules from time to time. Those on the NOSB are hand-picked by the Secretary of Agriculture, and from what I understand, there is more than a little controversy regarding the appointments. The NOSB decides (arbitrarily in some cases) which inputs are allowable and for what uses. The Organic Materials Review Institute publishes the information for farmers and allows for enforcement of the regulations. One other thing to note…the OMRI board is made up of a lot of industry folks, and Whole Foods was among the founders of this group.Whole Foods who was investigated earlier this year for questionable labeling usage.  All of this seems more than a little ironic to me.

In order to use the “O” word, certification is required if the producer makes over $5,000.00 a year in sales.  It is recommended in ALL cases. Fines are levied for usage of the word without certification. Certification is a lengthy process that can be costly in many ways. Time and meticulous record-keeping are among the drawbacks...and then the cost of the allowable inputs....!  Many growers that had used organic methods for years, felt cheated when the USDA took over use of the word…leaving the farmers unable to use the one word that truly described their operation. Now, these farmers struggle to find a proper word to define their growing methods and products in order to set them apart from the conventionally produced items.

Back when we first started the farm, we felt that it was imperative to become “ORGANIC”.  That would be the one thing that could set us apart from the other small producers in the area. So, we applied, complied and obtained certification.

A great deal of record keeping is required.  Inputs must be tracked, and only certain ones are allowed for certain uses by the OMRI board. These can be quite expensive. They are not necessarily less toxic, or more earth friendly…they are just what is allowed. The farm is to be open for inspection at any time.  This is a “privilege” for which the farm must pay.

We jumped through all the hoops, we kept the records, and we paid the fees.  Then, the USDA got into the act.  By granting federal government oversight, it was suggested that a level of continuity in the administration of the rules would become possible.  With the great number of farms vying for certification, the rules became more cumbersome, the inspections more difficult to get, the hassle factor began to grow. Our biggest concern was that the word would no longer have any credibility. The demand for “ORGANIC” was becoming attractive to many producers as it seemed that there was much money to be made through the use of “O” in labeling. We left the “O” word behind, focused on being responsible farmers and began the arduous work of educating the consumers. 

When a consumer encounters the word ORGANIC, they get a pleasant mental picture. It might be the Garden of Eden, a lush pastoral scene, or abundant, verdant crops. None of these are guaranteed…nor even suggested by the word. Go back and read that definition again. Pests, disease and crop failure never figure into the picture.  Toxic products ARE indeed allowable.  A pesticide…be it organic or conventional KILLS pests (and in most cases, some beneficials as well). Organic is not the equivalent to the “fountain of youth” for which Ponce de Leon searched in vain. 

I have been aware of “healthy”, “natural”, “organic” food for most of my life, long before it was trendy and cool.  My grandfather was a devotee of health food stores and supplements back when they were THE place for the young, long-haired hippie types.  Granddaddy wasn’t young, had no hair, and was definitely NOT a hippie-type.  He was just concerned about his health.  Nearly everyone we knew had a garden of some sort.  Fertilizer was straight from the farm or compost pile.  There were products for pest control, but they weren’t used much…and they were known to be toxic. A garden was a necessity to keeping the family on budget, not because anyone had any thoughts of being trendy. Organic Gardening was a well-read magazine in our household.  It was a plain publication, printed in black and white on newsprint paper.  
Presently, it is a full-sized glossy magazine loaded with ads…with an on-line version and smartphone app.    “Organic” has gone mainstream and high-tech. In some ways, this may have been its downfall.

“Back in the day”, it wasn’t organically grown, it was just plain grown.  The natural way was the only way that folks knew to grow their food products.  It wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution swept through all the other industries and began to affect agriculture that the commercial fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides became available.  The assembly-line mentality of produce more, more, more and cheaper, cheaper, cheaper led to new and innovative inputs (that in some cases are by-products of other industries). Which, I might add, are not always the anathema that some would try to have you believe. What we are seeing now is the swinging of the pendulum from one extreme to the other. At one time commercial fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides were touted as the panacea to agricultural ills.  Now, everyone wants to return to the old ways and heirloom breeds…(and I am NOT saying that is necessarily a bad thing)
The sad thing about all this is that there is money to be made in this new trend…lots of money! ...and this leads to all types of corruption.  Any time money is involved, there is some type of corruption following on its heels.  Since the consumers are so far removed from the knowledge of food production, mental imagery sells products. There are those who capitalize on this lack of knowledge, easily coercing the unknowing public to buy into a lovely mental image that has no basis in reality.

The whole world may be “goin’ organic”.  But, that’s only because the definition of the word has been changed and cheapened in order to make a sale. Consider for a moment, if you will, the dictionary definition of “organic”:  Back in 1828, Noah Webster’s dictionary referred to it simply as “consisting of organs”.  The next reference I found (New World Dictionary, 1983) defines it as “of or involving the basic makeup of a thing” with a further explanation of an Americanism “grown with only animal or plant fertilizers”.  Wikipedia holds to this definition as well.  The USDA (the one agency responsible for certification) does NOT!

The word “organic” has been completely corrupted.  The standards to which the US producers are held are not global in their enforcement.  I would contend that the regulations are not always reality even within our own borders. (that, of course, is strictly MY speculation)  When those packages at the grocery have travelled around the world the consumer will never truly know how they were produced.  The stores and producers are relying on third party certification which only opens the door to more possible corruption. “O” can be fairly meaningless anymore, unless you are the seller of some input product and can command up to three times the price of the same conventional product. As the consumer, you are guaranteed nothing except a mental image.

So, it all comes down to what I have said before…



We need to educate ourselves as to what we are putting in our bodies…how that product has been handled and produced…and not rely on what has become a marketing tool. Postharvest handling may be more important than the actual production method in some cases.

**This is in no way dismissive of those who do hold themselves to “organic” standards, but should serve as a wake-up call or warning to those who would put their trust in labels.**

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