Remember the first time you went to the store and saw that label? You know the one: organic. There was something mysterious, earthy and even elite about the word. You didn't see it much at first. It was just on a couple items. The milk. The eggs. A package of granola. You may have been enticed, but then you saw the price, and thought, "That is sooo expensive! I'm not buying that." So, for awhile, you politely ignored the milk. Even though it just looked...whiter.
Then, one day, a friend raved about some organic this or that they bought. Or, somebody told you that non-organic milk is 70% puss because of all the antibiotics. Or, maybe you tasted something organic and just felt like the quality was better. And slowly, organic entered your life, and became a good friend, a comfort, an oasis in the food deserts of our lives. For awhile, you felt just a little bit like you'd arrived. The price? You can't put a price on health and quality.
Now organic has entered our lives so completely that the language has all but lost it's meaning. Everything can be found in an organic version: toothpaste, chips, bananas, ice cream, chocolate, coconut milk (yes, you buy that now), peanut butter, yogurt, etc, etc. So, what does organic actually mean then?
A simpler time
As industrial farming developed and food became big business - I mean HUGE business - farms had to continually adjust their techniques to do things on a larger and larger scale. Large scale harvesting created straight line fields built to be planted and harvest by machine. Loss of soil fertility because of overuse of the land and a lack of soil building techniques demanded the development of synthetic fertilizers. Issues like disease, weeds and pests that arose because of mono-cropping required larger and larger quantities of herbicides, pesticides and fungicides.
For a long time, we just accepted this as doctrine. This is how it MUST be done to have a sustainable business that feeds the world. Nobody much questioned it. We went to the store, bought whatever was there and didn't ask a lot of questions about where it came from or how it was produced. It was a simpler time.
Along came Organic
Then, a group, a small group at first, of farmers and foodies and environmentalists and academics and various combinations of the above said, "there has to be a different way." After all, there have always been farms that didn't do it the conventional way, and the world managed to feed itself for millennia before RoundUp, so why can't we go back to that. They were concerned with the care of the earth and producing healthy food and so "Organic" was born.
Some producers stopped using the bad poisons and went back to trying to produce food using organic methods, like natural fertilizers using animal bi-product instead of synthetics. Or they began raising their beef on pasture without antibiotics instead of on feed lots. There are a thousand other minor or major adjustments that people have made in the quest for Organic and there are USDA standards to get the certification. Many of these farms were already doing these things and just started marketing it and some traded over, especially once they saw the economic opportunities.
Organic becomes a brand
The organic label is not entirely meaningless. Some standard is better than no standard. And, there are certain things you can be fairly sure of when you buy organic. What you can almost never be sure of however, is that what you are buying is sustainably produced or that it does not still exploit humans or deplete soil health or water resources or is necessarily more nutritious. The one thing you can be sure of is that they probably didn't use poisons, but even that's questionable.
Organic has become a brand as much as anything. It is a way to raise the price of an item. The reason places like Wall Mart sell Organic and that classic food companies like Kraft have bought up organic brands, is because it's big business. When big business gets involved the drive for better profit margins is reasserted and practices move further and further from sustainability.
We're not saying that all Organic has gone this way, but what we're saying is that knowing how your food was produced is still extremely opaque and the peace of mind that comes from the Organic label is only a modest comfort.
All this raises the question, "What is sustainability?" Simply put, it's whether your energy in matches your energy out. In other words, how much energy did it take to produce that carrot you're eating. Where did the water come from? How much human labor and of what kind? Fossil fuels? Soil amendments? Most systems, even Organic ones, require large input from somewhere off-site.
This has worked, in part, because those inputs have been inexpensive enough to justify. They work on a balance sheet and can be economically sustained, but not ecologically sustained. Eventually, one will catch up with the other.
This Ted Talk, by chef Dan Barber, is one of the best (and most hilarious) descriptions of what sustainability means, using the example of fish farming. It's also a fantastic example of a permaculture system, even though they don't use the word. Watch it!
Sustainability, for it's part, is not easy to achieve. For any farm to have sustainable and ethical human, water, soil building, feed, and all other resources, there has to be an incredible amount of thought that goes into how the system functions. As the Ted Talk describes, you must become an expert on the relationship between elements to have your energy in and energy out match.
Sustainability, a break even energy audit, is hard to achieve, but that's not even the goal. The goal is to have a surplus. The goal is to have your energy out far exceed your energy in. That's what it takes for a system to sustain itself and those that rely on it (like people).
The goal of going beyond basic sustainability to being able to support life on a system, means that Organic doesn't go nearly far enough. It is not enough to simply stop using poison. The system has to change dramatically if we are to move from being predatory in our environment to productive. And, this might be what we need to feed the world in the longer term.
A New Vote
In the last post, we talked about how to vote with your dollars to feed the kind of system you actually believe in. We don't think that vote is about continuing to grow the Organic brand. We believe it means a move toward sustainable local food systems.
So, how can you vote with your dollar? Put it into local farmers through direct trade. You might be surprised by how much is available in your area. Farmers markets are proliferating, CSA's are becoming widespread and buying a whole beef, or a hog is so much easier than a decade ago. if you can have direct interaction with your farmer you can ask questions like:
How was this carrot produced? Do you use sprays? How do you build your soil? What kind of conditions are your animals kept in? How do you feed them?
Honestly, we have not reached true sustainability yet. It will take some years to get the system to a healthy enough place that it can sustain itself and produce a large enough surplus at the same time. We are headed that way though, and that's probably what you want to look out for. The people that care and that are trying to get there. That's how we've tried to vote these last years and we commend you to the same!