Making Sense of Organic Food

organicOkay, okay - it's organic food labeling that we need help with - not the food itself. The food itself? I'll let the excellent book Real Food by Nina Planck describe it:

Organic means food was produced without synthetic fertilizer, antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, genetically engineered ingredients, and irradiation.

Fantastic. Organic food is chemical free - that makes sense. So we should buy it, right? Here's where things get murky. Planck continues: In shops, where the consumer is one or more steps removed from the farmer [emphasis mine], the organic label is a legal guarantee.

This brings to mind one of my favorite quotes about organic food, from Greg Reynolds at Riverbend Farm: "Organic certification is a substitute for knowing who’s growing your food and how they’re growing it." Let's consider produce first. If you're looking for food that's chemical free, organic may well be a good option. But there are many other factors to consider, including labor practices, the cost of shipping foods, and the actual taste of produce - the organic label says nothing about these things.

Nina Planck

And what of the meat we buy? Cows that produce organic milk for industrial companies are likely to have been fed organic corn and grain. This is better for the environment, no doubt - because the cows aren't pooping out chemicals - but it's not so good for the cows, who are meant to graze on grass, or their meat, which is less nutritious and more fatty. Here too, Nina Planck knows just what to say:

I admire organic farmers, large and small; they're committed to clean methods and willing to subject their farms to independent scrutiny. But many of us - farmers and eaters alike - don't need the organic label [...] many farmers use ecological methods that may even exceed the organic standards [...] It is up to farmers raising grass-fed beef to tell their story, and that is exactly what they are doing ...

I'm grateful to Nina Planck - her intelligent, realistic, and inclusive writing and thinking about food (organic and non-organic) is insightful and terrific. And I admire Greg Reynolds just as much for his practical assessment of organic food being second best - a substitute for buying local, buying sustainable, and for knowing who produced your food and how they did it.

This post was proudly submitted to Food Renegade's Fight Back Friday.