Reality and ‘myth’ of organic

May 20, 2011

Consumer must sort out reality from the ‘myth’ of organic

As hard as it is for me to say this, and as much of an advocate of “organic” as I may be, there’s a lot to be desired in the genre.

In fact, since the U.S. Department of Agriculture has commandeered the name “organic,” and now defines it, a lot of small, organic farmers are at a loss as to how to describe themselves.

For example, at our little corner in the earth, we don’t use pesticides or herbicides. Period. But there are a number of such chemicals that are allowed as USDA certified “organic.” (For a list, see: http://www.omri.org.)

The USDA also allows a lot of other practices that small farms tend to reject, as well (especially regarding confinement of animals, preferring instead to allow chickens free range and cows to have access to pasture).

I got to thinking about this after seeing an ad on Facebook for Cascadian Farms, which touted itself as “organic” since 1972.

It may have started out as a “pure” organic farm back then, but it’s now a division of cereal giant General Mills.

Yet, here are thousands of people on Facebook “liking” part of the Big Ag industrial food machine because they think it’s something it’s not – part of the “myth” of “organic.”

When people see the word “organic,” they probably think it’s from small, independent farmers, who care about what they eat and grow. And they may even envision old hippies or young idealists or at least “salt of the earth” types who enjoy farming for its earthy pleasures and honest values as much as making a buck.

But, increasingly, they would be wrong. It’s part of the “myth” of organic that Big Ag organic seeks to promote.

Most of the “organic” produce you see in the supermarket is not produced by small farms – unless you deem tens of thousands of acres as “small.”

It’s shipped from far away factory farms – even other countries. For example, Cascadian Farms buys its “organic” fruits and vegetables from China and Mexico, among other countries. U.S. Silk soy milk, for instance, is made from “organic” soybeans bought in China and Brazil.

Consumers looking for the safest and most nutritious foods buy organic. That remains true. And the “myth” of organic is not truly a myth, in there are local organic farmers across the nation who are growing pure, fresh, healthful food without chemicals. The reality, though, is that there are factory farms that dominate the market and most of the certified organic food in grocery stores is produced by these farms.

The reality is also that many of these large conglomerates are cooperative arrangements whereby small organic farmers sell to the big operations to distribute their food nationwide.

So, while the “myth” of organic is the idea that its driven by the small independent farmer, the reality covers the range from the folks (like my wife and I) making the myth a reality to the large corporate food giants that make mockery of the myth. Truth is within the myth, but diffused and often distorted.

It’s up to the individual consumer to make reality from the myth, and you, the reader, can choose the reality you prefer by your choices.

You can create a better reality than the myth of organic by using these buying criteria.

•Good for you: More fresh produce.

•Good for you and environment: Organic produce.

•Good for you and your community: Any local fresh produce.

•Best for you, your community and the environment: Local, fresh, organic produce.

And, finally, the best of all possible worlds in my view anyway: Growing your own fresh, organic produce and sharing it with others – either friends, family and community members – through gifts or creating and selling through community supported agriculture where they buy “shares” in the produce you grow for weekly delivery, or selling to the local store, farmers market or fruit stand.

The bottom line is that without the myth of the small organic farmer being the one supplying the produce at Walmart and Kroger, the giant “elites” (industrial agriculture with a designer label) couldn’t exist; without the giant elites spurring the demand for their products, the consumer wouldn’t even be aware there was such a thing as organic pesticide-free farming. And without both united against watering down strict organic practices (including rejecting genetically modified seeds and sneaking in toxic chemicals), small farmers wouldn’t have the market they do and a growing demand.

Certified organic is better than “conventional” chemical farming. But increasingly, what is deemed “organic” accommodates the factory farms which can vastly underprice the hand-grown methods of small farmers.

The big farms do, however, have pretty labels and lots of advertising that promotes the “myth.”

Eat local. Know your farmer. That’s the way to go. Or, better yet, grow your own!

For a list of supermarket “organic” brands and the corporations that own them, see: http://bit.ly/i6zF44.

In Mississippi:

•There are only about 25 USDA certified organic growers. Most that sell locally list themselves with Local Harvest: http://www.localharvest. org.

•Not all farmers who grow organically are USDA certified. A few Mississippi farmers are Certified Naturally Grown, see: http://www.naturallygrown.org.

•Locally, some organic farmers sell at the Jackson Farmer’s Market on High Street on Saturdays and at Rainbow Natural Foods on Old Canton Road. Check the Mississippi Department of Agriculture & Commerce website for farmer’s markets statewide: http://www.mdac.state.ms.us.

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

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