For about a decade now, I’ve been pretty interested in organic food. I try to procure it for my family as much as possible, within reason and within our budget. I’m definitely willing go out of my way to get it, especially when it comes to meats and eggs, which we get from a local farmer. But I feel like I must take a step back – or maybe several steps back- and explain exactly what it is about organics that interests me. This is because I keep getting the word “organic” thrown in my face by people who seem to be just interested in the word, and not what it means. And it’s got me right annoyed, it does.
First of all, I’ll share the impetus for this post: a post from the “Healthy Organic Food Group Blog“. I like this site because they always have fresh and interesting recipes, and they never ask one to open up a can of condensed soup. But, as I was reading today’s offerings, it occurred to me that there was something bothersome about the way they talked about organic ingredients. For example, in the “Rosemary Lemon Biscuits (Organic Recipe)” posted today, the ingredients read as follows:
1 cup organic buttermilk
1 organic egg beaten
1 tablespoon organic lemon zest
2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh rosemary
2 cups organic whole grain pastry flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup cold organic butter
Notice all those organics? Yeah. So, my first question is this: if you don’t have organic buttermilk, does that mean you can’t make this recipe? And my second question is, then, why doesn’t the rosemary need to be organic?? (Or was that a typo?)
Out of curiosity, I thumbed through the two organic-specific cookbooks in my collection: Le Petit Appetit, by Lisa Barnes, and The Earthbound Farms Organic Cookbook. Both are excellent books and I use them often (particuarly the Earthbound Farms book, now that my kids are older). But they both use the same organic-elite language. I find that really disappointing.
The reason I’m taking issue here is because organic is more than just a way to spend extra on your groceries. It’s also more than just avoiding pesticides, unnatural fillers, toxic chemicals, and the like. Buying (or growing) organic food means truly understanding where your food comes from. And as it is a noble committment, it is also difficult, expensive, time-consuming, and not always possible. Many families just can’ t afford to buy organic milk and eggs and butter and everything else. Many families don’t have access to organic ingredients – they’re just not available where they shop. (I can’t get “organic buttermilk”, at least not at my local grocery store, for example.) So to suggest, even obliquely, that eating “organic” is an all-or-nothing proposition is downright snobby and exclusive. And to suggest that always going “organic” automatically makes your food “better” is misleading, naive and dangerous.
I’m excited about seeing organic foods going mainstream. I love it that when I go to my local deep-discount store, they have a whole refrigerator case and half an aisle dedicated to organics. It tickles me pink to see local farmers brag about the local produce they have for sale. But I’m concerned about this willy-nilly overusage of and overemphasis on the word organic. What matters more: that your foodstuff has a silly label on it, or that you know who grew it? If I use local, Amish-made butter, is that inferior to Horizon’s mass-produced “organic” butter? Should I forgo tomatoes from my neighbor’s garden just so I can get some Muir Glens in an aluminum can? We need to understand that “organic” means so much more than buying a label.
Along these lines, I don’t want to see organic food become a trendy highbrow fashionable uppercrust thing, as if they are “elite” foods (though personally, I do think they are generally far superior!). It seems ridiculous to me that “organic” foods cost so much more than conventional ones. If there is less processing and less chemical input, then why should it cost more? Again, it comes down to knowing where your food comes from. It’s not just that organic food is expensive; it’s that conventional food is cheap. You want beef for 99 cents a pound? No problem- but it’s going to come from a CAFO on the other side of the country. You want to buy “fresh” produce any time of the year? Okay- but those grapes you’re munching in the middle of January came from Chile, trucked 1500 miles to get to here. If we re-learn to eat seasonably, locally and moderately, and if we participate in our own foodways to whatever extent possible – buying directly from farms, growing our own produce, preserving local harvests, joining CSAs, etc – we will herd modern agriculture away from its current chemical- and petroleum-intensive methods, away from vast anonymous systems of altered and modified foodstuffs, away from exploitative international operations; and bring us back towards a more sensible and reasonable system of production. This, in turn, will turn organic foods into “normal” foods, bringing down the price and making them available to everyone. But it will take some effort on the part of the consumer, who must not be tricked into economic complacency by the clever positioning of a green label.
Honestly, I would love to see the whole “organic” moniker just go away. It’s already a fair joke, thanks to the USDA’s complicity with Big Ag. But for that to happen, we consumers have to educate ourselves, to know what we’re getting when we buy “organic”. And then, we have to stop buying these faux-organic products and start buying from small, local producers – organic, whenever possible. For the time being, at least, our dollars are still very powerful tools, and we can use them to close the gap between “conventional” food and “organic” food.
Then, maybe, we can all sit down and enjoy some real food.