The Chronicle has a great article today about big organic, and what kind of ramifications it might have for the foods we eat. If you want a longer article about the foods we eat with even more information, I would recommend Unhappy Meals, Michael Pollan’s article in today’s Sunday Times Magazine. Login is required, alas: use Bug Me Not if you aren’t registered for the Times and don’t want to.

The article got me thinking about the whole idea of big organic vrs small farms, and about sustainable local agriculture. I’ve been feeling guilty lately reading The Ethicurean, which strongly encourages its readers to buy more Sustainable/Local/Organic/&or/Ethical (SOLE) food. I know they’re not trying to make me feel like an asshole, really, but the fact of the matter is that I cannot afford SOLE food, and I would rather provide myself with good nutrition than purchase a minimal amount of produce which will not sustain me. When I can, I buy organic and locally produced, because I know that it’s better. But sometimes our choices need to based on other factors, like the fact that buying SOLE food would cause me to starve, because I cannot afford the price difference today, although I realize it has higher long term costs. I do my best, which is all we can do. It is a pity, because SOLE foods aren’t just better for the environment, the economy, myself, and the animals…they are also just plain better tasting.

That aside, I thought the article raised some interesting points, especially when talking about Marin Sun Farms, which meets the idealized version of an organic farm, but isn’t actually certified organic. The farm produces free range animal products. The pasture land is organic, but the animals are not, due to small technicalities. Will Marin Sun pursue organic certification? Well, the article says, maybe not, because the label is extremely expensive, and relaxations on organic labeling have cheapened the meaning.

It reminds me of a story a friend of mine who lives out in Comptche once told me. He has a fair amount of mixed use land and an assortment of farm animals. He composts, doesn’t use chemicals, powers his house with a windmill and solar panels. He also sells his food at farmers’ markets and to local restaurants. One day, a friend of his who works for the USDA was visiting, and the two were discussing organic certification. The farmer was asking his friend for advice.

“So,” my friend says, “do you think I could certify my farm, as is?”

The USDA employee looked out the kitchen window across the rolling pastures.

“Nope,” she said.

My friend looked at, flabbergasted.

“Treated fenceposts,” she said.

The rise of corporate organic concerns me on a number of levels. Small farms are being edged out by big business, just as happened with conventional agriculture. Small, organically run local farms cannot afford certification, and people who do not understand food politics will buy the Chilean “organic” tomatoes rather than the locally grown ones, because they think “organic” means better. Most supermarkets, where the majority of consumers shop, do not make locally produced produce available, which is a major bummer. The companies that dominate organic agriculture today started out as small farms, to be sure, and have made an impact…I would love to see all American food produced under organic standards, personally, although I would also like to see those standards toughened again.

Organic is a slippery label, these days, and doesn’t take into account the multiple issues that go into producing food. For example, the miles that most foods travel…I think pursuing a 100 mile diet is more important in some ways than producing on organic one, in terms of the cost to the environment. An “organic” avocado isn’t very organic if it’s been flown to California from Chile.

Perhaps we need a new food label, like “ethical,” or something, as well. For most consumers, organic implies additional values: the use of fairly paid labour, for example. In reality, corporate organic food is produced with underpaid illegal immigrants, just like big agriculture is.”Organic” meats can still live miserable lives as living animals before they are finally slaughtered. Organic farms can monocrop. And “organic” food can contain things that most people don’t think belongs in their food. So is it really organic, anymore? Sure, it’s carbon based, chemists might quibble.

Here in the land of plenty, we’re facing a food crisis of conscience. In other parts of the world, it’s a food crisis, period. The growing global population is putting extreme pressure on available food sources, and if the third world ever even begins to approach the level of development we’re at, we are going to be in for hard times, as a planet. Oddly enough, the rural areas of third world nations may be doing better than we are in terms of SOLE foods, because expensive imports aren’t an option. Urban areas may be different: but I know in the farmland of many developing nations, people eat SOLE because the alternative is starving. They harvest local wild-growing crops, they practice intensive farming with crop rotation on their minimal land, and they produce food without expensive pesticides, herbicides, and hormones…not out of middle class guilt, but because this is how food is made.

With the world’s population turning to the cities, who knows what will happen in twenty years, though.