Pitfalls of organic food’s popularization


Photo by suzettesuzette, Flickr

The organic food market continues its boom, but does this rise in popularity come at the expense of “organic principles”? Eastern Iowa Health recently reported that organic food has become a mainstream industry:

According to the Organic Consumers Association, organics have surged in popularity to become a $30 billion dollar industry in the United States, growing 10 to 20 percent annually.

However, as the popular New York Times’ article “Behind the Organic-Industrial Complex” shed light on back in 2001, the increased industrialization of organic products often coincides with practices that seem disconnected from the organic label. The author of the Times’ article describes the rude awakening he received when he asked a local farmer why some organic milk labels say they are “ultrapasteurized”:

When I asked a local dairyman about this (we still have one or two in town) he said that the chief reason to ultrapasteurize — a high-heat process that “kills the milk,” destroying its enzymes and many of its vitamins — is so you can sell milk over long distances. Arguably, ultrapasteurized organic milk is less nutritious than conventionally pasteurized conventional milk. This dairyman also bent my ear about Horizon’s “factory farms” out West, where thousands of cows that never encounter a blade of grass spend their days confined to a fenced dry lot, eating (certified organic) grain and tethered to milking machines three times a day. So maybe Organic Cow milk isn’t quite as legible a product as I thought.

Because of this increased uncertainty about what values come with the organic label, some farmers have decided to go “beyond organic” – adhering to their own set of principles rather than aiming for organic certification. Two years ago, hen farmer Makenna Goodman wrote about her attempt to go beyond organic, and some of the issues she encountered:

When I went to my local co-op and proposed I become one of their egg suppliers however, the grocery buyer asked me first off: “Are they organic?” “Well,” I told her, “they’re free-range! Almost to the point of too free!” But the buyer shook her head, and offered to pay me a dollar less per dozen. A hen with a good life doesn’t qualify as organic if the minimal grain they eat per day is not. Doesn’t matter if it’s one kernel of grain per day. “So,” I asked her, “if my birds were locked in cages but I stuffed them until they popped with organic grain, they’d be worth more?” She nodded. “Even though my hens have a better life, get sun and exercise, eat plants, roam free, and the eggs are lower in cholesterol and saturated fat as a result?” She nodded. Insane.

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About Michael Gallagher

I am originally from outside of Chicago, but I have spent the last five years in Iowa pursuing my education. From 2006-2010 I attended Grinnell College, where I received a B.A. in English. Currently, I am a graduate student in the University of Iowa's journalism department. In addition to my work for CGRER, I write for the non-profit investigative reporting organization Iowa Watch. Previously, I worked as a freelance writer, primarily contributing to Hoopla (The Gazette's arts and culture publication), and I assistant coached the Grinnell College cross country and track teams for a year. My interests include writing, running, watching the Chicago Bulls, and . . . environmental news!
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One Response to Pitfalls of organic food’s popularization

  1. There’s something to upset everyone in the bureaucratic organic standards of the world. Interestingly, the United States National Organic Program (NOP) is, to my mind, one of the world’s better organic standards. And yet it is so deeply flawed that almost anyone can qualify for NOP certification as long as they fill out the paperwork and pay the fees. No wonder so many honest, domestic organic farmers are fed up!

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