Death of Organic

Used to be that “organic” meant not only chemical-free, but also produced on small, sustainable, local farms. We paid a premium for these attributes because they mattered. But something funny happened on the way to Kellogg’s beginning production of Organic Rice Krispies (I’m not making this up) and Wal-Mart’s embrace of organic products.

Shouldn’t we be on our feet cheering to know that mainstream America will be eating healthier food, and ecstatic for all the cleaner air and dirt and water that will result? Well, yeah, except that it doesn’t work that way. Trouble is the USDA’s organic guidelines have been rendered nearly impotent under pressure from producers. And because there aren’t nearly enough small/local organic producers to supply clients the size of Wal-Mart. So ingredients are produced on factory farms, almost like before, and trucked long-distance to factories for production, burning just as much fossil fuel as ever.

Mark Morford, for the SF Chronicle:

“Organic,” according to the lobbyist-friendly USDA, does not have to mean the food is grown using sustainable (read: nondestructive) farming practices. It does not mean locally produced. It does not mean the ethical treatment of animals. Nor does it mean the companies that produce it need be the slightest bit fair or trustworthy or socially responsible. All it means now: no pesticides, no chemical fertilizers, no bioengineering. And those compromises mean “organic” is a shell of its former self. Which brings us back to Kellogg’s Organic Rice Krispies. Industrial to the hilt, not the slightest bit locally grown, not the slightest bit sustainable, from the same company that poisons your kid with Pop-Tarts and Froot Loops and Scooby-Doo Berry Bones … Kellogg’s Organic Rice Krispies. It’s sort of like saying “Lockheed Martin Granola Bars” or “Exxon Bottled Spring Water.” Self-immolating, and not in a good way.

J-School professor Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma (a fantastic read) has been engaged in a public exchange of words with Whole Foods CEO John Mackey on that store’s failure to live up to the healthy/organic image it sells. Read his two latest letters here and here.

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4 Replies to “Death of Organic”

  1. This gets pretty heavy handed….

    from the same company that poisons your kid with Pop-Tarts and Froot Loops and Scooby-Doo Berry Bones

    It’s not the companies “poisoning your kid”, it’s the parenting…

    It’s sort of like saying “Lockheed Martin Granola Bars”

    Except not only would nobody be able to afford Lockheed granola, but it would be an inedible steel brick.

  2. Yeah, Morford is very heavy handed, as columnists go. But he’s also very smart and very fun to read.

    It’s not the companies “poisoning your kid”, it’s the parenting…

    “Guns don’t kill people — bullets do.” -Kesey

  3. “Organic” used to mean nothing at all. With no regulations governing what it meant, anyone could slap the label on their food and call it good. Now at least it means “no pesticides, no chemical fertilizers, no bioengineering.” That’s something, I think. Not the whole thing. But some kind of progress.

  4. As far as I understand it, organic foods in the U.S. have been under definition since 1997, and there’s constant debate between forces that want the standards loosened and those who want them tightened. From organicconsumers.org:

    It took more than a decade for the new standard to be hammered out. Just about every group involved with food — from farmers and manufacturers to consumers, retailers and scientists — wanted its say. The debate seesawed during those years between the stricter standards favored by the organic industry and consumers, and the looser definitions supported by conventional farmers and processors.

    When proposed standards were issued by the USDA in 1997, more than 275,000 organic producers and consumers wrote to criticize the preliminary rules for allowing too many conventional farming practices, including using sewer sludge as fertilizer and pesticides to control weeds and pests. Such practices were eventually eliminated from the rules, but last-minute maneuvering continues.

    I’d have to do more research to get to the bottom of this.

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