Is All Organic Food “Good” Organic Food?

by Editors

EPA unrestricted photo solar green houseFOOD & CULTURE

Is All Organic Food “Good” Organic Food?

By Kathleen Ginder-Vogel, contributing writer

For consumers who care about organic and locally grown produce, there tend to be two sides to the debate over organic food. One is that all organic is good organic. The other is that fruits and vegetables should be grown organically and locally (the smaller the distance from the field to your plate, the better).

The latter opinion, espoused by the “Slow Food” movement, gains support from New Yorker writer Steven Shapin in a May 15, 2006 article, “Paradise Sold.” Shapin addresses some of the issues that come up when large companies get involved in selling organic products. Omnivore's Dilemma at Barnes & Noble.comCiting Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, Shapin points out that large organic food companies, like Earthbound Farms, may grow their products without chemical pesticides or synthetic fertilizers, but, they are huge companies, capable of producing a lot of waste as a byproduct of their produce’s transportation to markets across the country. Purchasers have to decide where they stand on the issue: though the market has demonstrated that a subset of the American population is willing to pay more for organic produce, are people willing to dedicate their time and energy, as well as their money, to buying locally-grown food, or is that just too much work? Perhaps shedding some light on the issues around organic produce itself can help consumers answer that difficult question.

Last year, Wal-Mart’s announcement that it would increase the number of organic products it sells and price them 10% above conventional grocery prices caught the ears of many people who care about organic food and its origins. In a May 12, 2006, interview with New York Times reporter Melanie Warner, Bruce Peterson, head of perishables food at Wal-Mart, said “Organic agriculture is just another method of agriculture — not better, not worse,” underscoring Wal-Mart’s position that all organic food is created equal.

Is it? Or would purchasers of organic produce disagree, particularly if they found out their produce was coming from another country, like China? A recent white paper from The Cornucopia Institute, a farm policy research group based in Cornucopia, Wisconsin, and dedicated to promoting economic justice for family-scale farmers and ranchers, posits that Wal-Mart’s actions will taint the value of the organic label by sourcing products from industrial-scale factory farms and Third World countries, such as China. “Big agriculture” has its own set of quality-control issues, about which consumers hoping to buy organic produce should be aware, and we’ve gotten a frightening look recently at the consequences of doing cheap trade with China, after the Menu Foods and toothpaste debacles.

It’s also important to consider how actions like those of Wal-Mart might impact organic farmers and American organic produce long-term. Mark Kastel, the report’s author, claims that Wal-Mart could drive down the price of organic food in the marketplace and pose a threat to organic family farmers in the U.S. by inventing “a ‘new’ organic—food from corporate agribusiness, factory-farms, and cheap imports of questionable quality.”

Kastel notes that part of Wal-Mart’s initiative includes private-label offerings, like the recent introduction of organic milk packaged by Aurora Organic Dairy, based in Boulder, Colorado. Kastel cites two current USDA investigations into Aurora’s organic management practices. Apparently, the dairy operated a number of industrial-scale dairies with thousands of cows, confined to feedlot-like conditions. Kastel adds that Wal-Mart’s decision to lower the per-unit cost basis on organic products by collaborating with China raises the issue of how food that travels around the world can really be considered “better,” whether it’s organic or not. He wisely raises additional concerns about the propriety and accuracy of the organic certification process in China.

Whether it’s Wal-Mart or another company, big companies’ entrance into the world of organic produce raises issues for consumers. If the quality of, and control over, organic products is diminished when big companies get involved, is all organic food really created equal? Is it fair for American farmers to meet USDA standards for organic produce, while Chinese farmers can sell their organic produce to American companies, even if the standards for their products are different? Would it be better for consumers who care about the process of farming and about sustainability to focus on local products, even if they’re not certified organic in the U.S.? What about the New Yorker who faces a shorter growing season than a Californian? Will consumers demonstrate their true feelings in their purchasing behaviors?

Just how far are we willing to go to support sustainable farming?

Kathleen Ginder-Vogel owns the freelance writing business Poppy Communications.

Image: (Upper) U.S. Government EPA photograph (1974) in the collection of the National Archives and Records Administration. Norton Boyd, photographer. (Lower) The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan (Penguin, 2006).

Note: This publication is independent and not related to any grocery or food business. The opinions expressed are those of the author.