The Organic Myth By Diane Brady
Pastoral ideals are getting trampled as organic food goes mass market
Next time you're in the supermarket, stop and take a look at Stonyfield Farm yogurt. With its contented cow and green fields, the yellow container evokes a bucolic existence, telegraphing what we've come to expect from organic food: pure, pesticide-free, locally produced ingredients grown on a small family farm.
So it may come as a surprise that Stonyfield's organic farm is long gone. Its main facility is a state-of-the-art industrial plant just off the airport strip in Londonderry, N.H., where it handles milk from other farms. And consider this: Sometime soon a portion of the milk used to make that organic yogurt may be taken from a chemical-free cow in New Zealand, powdered, and then shipped to the U.S. True, Stonyfield still cleaves to its organic heritage. For Chairman and CEO Gary Hirshberg, though, shipping milk powder 9,000 miles across the planet is the price you pay to conquer the supermarket dairy aisle. "It would be great to get all of our food within a 10-mile radius of our house," he says. "But once you're in organic, you have to source globally."
Hirshberg's dilemma is that of the entire organic food business. Just as mainstream consumers are growing hungry for untainted food that also nourishes their social conscience, it is getting harder and harder to find organic ingredients. There simply aren't enough organic cows in the U.S., never mind the organic grain to feed them, to go around. Nor are there sufficient organic strawberries, sugar, or apple pulp -- some of the other ingredients that go into the world's best-selling organic yogurt.
Now companies from Wal-Mart (WMT ) to General Mills (GIS ) to Kellogg (K ) are wading into the organic game, attracted by fat margins that old-fashioned food purveyors can only dream of. What was once a cottage industry of family farms has become Big Business, with all that that implies, including pressure from Wall Street to scale up and boost profits. Hirshberg himself is under the gun because he has sold an 85% stake in Stonyfield to the French food giant Groupe Danone. To retain management control, he has to keep Stonyfield growing at double-digit rates. Yet faced with a supply crunch, he has drastically cut the percentage of organic products in his line. He also has scaled back annual sales growth, from almost 40% to 20%. "They're all mad at me," he says.
As food companies scramble to find enough organically grown ingredients, they are inevitably forsaking the pastoral ethos that has defined the organic lifestyle. For some companies, it means keeping thousands of organic cows on industrial-scale feedlots. For others, the scarcity of organic ingredients means looking as far afield as China, Sierra Leone, and Brazil -- places where standards may be hard to enforce, workers' wages and living conditions are a worry, and, say critics, increased farmland sometimes comes at a cost to the environment.
Everyone agrees on the basic definition of organic: food grown without the assistance of man-made chemicals. Four years ago, under pressure from critics fretting that the term "organic" was being misused, the U.S. Agriculture Dept. issued rules. To be certified as organic, companies must eschew most pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, synthetic fertilizers, bioengineering, and radiation. But for purists, the philosophy also requires farmers to treat their people and livestock with respect and, ideally, to sell small batches of what they produce locally so as to avoid burning fossil fuels to transport them. The USDA rules don't fully address these concerns.
Hence the organic paradox: The movement's adherents have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, but success has imperiled their ideals. It simply isn't clear that organic food production can be replicated on a mass scale. For Hirshberg, who set out to "change the way Kraft (KFT ), Monsanto (MON ), and everybody else does business," the movement is shedding its innocence. "Organic is growing up."
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So what does this mean? Is Big Organic bad? In my opinion, yes and no.
Yes, in the sense that, as the article and many related books point out, the definition of organic has changed. Organic has been misused and watered down to fit mainstream America. Mom and Pop health food stores and businesses are jeopardized. Can they weather the trend or will they be replaced by the dominating supermarket brands? Will the little organic brands that were bought over the last 5 years (like Cascadian Farms, Muir Glen, and Tom's Of Maine) keep their integrity. Will their ingredients still be truly organic? What these brands do (and their parent companies like General Mills) directly affects MY FAMILY's quality of life. Although this has long been a lifestyle I've chosen, I no longer have a choice considering what I feed my children. My son would be severely compromised if I fed him like any typical kid.
And I also say No, that Big Organic isn't bad, since these companies HAVE converted thousands of acres of once traditionally farmed land to organic methods. That's a good thing. Far from perfect, but it's a start.
And what would I think is a solution? The answer always seems to be the same for any nationwide problem - EDUCATION. What are we actually eating? The other answer is a revamping of our farm and oil subsidies. Converting corn fields back to traditional small farms. Centralized production, centralized processing, and long-distance transportation of food needs to be done away with. We have the technology. We have the money. We are America for God's sake! We can do it.
Education. Educating people that, indeed, the food chain behind anything they eat is gravely important. Corn raised on synthetic nitrogen and other chemicals eaten by chickens that humans eat. Humans eat the eggs that came from corn-fed chickens. We are only eating corn for the majority of our food items in any typical grocery cart! Corn down the line. Cows eating that same corn. Milk, cheese, and butter coming from the same corn field. Where's the quality, the variety that's critical for growth and development? It matters a great deal to the nutritional value as well as to the cost industrial farming does to our environment, to our health care crisis, to our subsidies, pollution, you name it.
A network of local farms supplying food to their region is a big answer to our health problems in this country. To read more about how our food supply works and the history behind it, read The Omnivore's Dilemma and Fast Food Nation (see previous posts for more information and discussion). Grass fed cattle, grass fed chickens. Eggs from those chickens? Yum! I challenge anyone to go out and buy grass fed organic beef and make hamburgers and feed them to their family at dinner. Trust me, EVERYONE will notice the difference. We've gotten so used to eating such poor quality. It's actually REAL food you are feeding them! It's red. It's bloody. It's visceral. It's fragrant. A far cry from the variation of traditional supermarket meat.
In the end, I'm extremely pleased that this article made the cover of a national magazine. Hopefully the word will spread.