Don’t you dare lecture me about organic superiority

‘Well, if they’d rather buy cheap crap from Walmart than healthy organic food,’ he said, leaning over and glaring furiously, ‘that’s their problem.’

I was somewhat taken aback by the vehemence, and I struggled to come up with an adequate response. Somehow the conversation had gone from zero to extremely tense in about three seconds, and I could tell that everyone in the room was very uncomfortable.

‘Well,’ I said mildly, ‘you’re unfairly contrasting two rather extreme options. There are many points along the spectrum and these are two, and you’re also making a value judgment on people who can’t afford organic food, as well as assuming that organic food is superior.’

There was a long pause, and the conversation picked up on other matters, but the subject still left me seething, because I hate it when people get superior about organic food. I hate it on a number of levels and a number of grounds, because they’re wrong, and many of them know they’re wrong and do it anyway. There are a great number of misconceptions about organic food that people like to ignore when it’s convenient — as, for example, when they make the choice to condemn people for buying the food they can afford rather than the food that other people want them to buy.

The intention behind organic certification and production was perfectly good. In an era where people were starting to get concerned with industrial agriculture and wanted to turn to a method of food production that was gentler on the land, developing a certification that focused on not using synthetic pesticides and herbicides and meeting other standards was reasonable. But even then, the organic certification allowed for considerable leeway, and the same is more so now. ‘Organic’ agriculture runs the gamut from produce that is nearly identical to that produced industrially (right down to being farmed side by side) to food produced on small farms by people who are extremely committed to ethical food production.

Industrial organic is a growing problem that’s weakened the certification while retaining the high price tag, appealing to consumers who like to consider themselves health conscious. The belief that organic is ‘better’ draws upon the idea that it’s more ethically produced — which is not necessarily the case for the farm workers abused in the production of organic products, the habitat destroyed, the animals displaced, the products used in organic farming — and ‘more nutritious,’ which is up for debate. Some studies suggest organic food may have higher amounts of trace nutrients, probably linked not to the food but to the soil in which it is grown, but that isn’t true across the board, and it’s certainly not true of industrial organic.

Organic food isn’t superior to conventional agriculture — and many small farms producing ethical food that exceeds organic standards by a very high degree can’t afford the costly certification, or don’t meet the standard due to strange quirks of the system. Recycle fence posts, for example, and inspectors may determine that they have trace amounts of arsenic once used for treating the wood, so you’re no longer eligible. Use manure from chickens treated with antifungals, though, and that’s fine — and in addition to that fertilizer, you also get a secondary dose of antifungals that you’re not technically supposed to be using. Fancy that.

People who think organic food is somehow the be all and end all like to ignore these issues when hotly claiming that it’s the best option for people to eat. While the nitty gritty details of the problems with the organic certification may not be common knowledge, these broad strokes issues are — especially to those in the food industry. Many people know that industrial organic is an issue. Those who claim to be concerned about ethical food production should be worried about the ramifications of importing food from South America or New Zealand. It doesn’t matter if food is ‘organic’ when it’s clearly out of season. People who say they want their food to be produced ethically should be gravely concerned about the treatment of farmworkers, who suffer on organic farms just as much as they do anywhere else.

And yet. They like to claim firstly that organic is the only food that anyone should be eating, and secondly that there are only two kinds of food: The holy grail of organic food, and ‘trash.’ In fact, ‘organic’ food is more like a spectrum, and there are lots of foods without that fancy label that are produced perfectly ethically, that are high-quality, that offer great nutrition. To say that people who don’t buy organic are somehow failing is, quite frankly, elitist, classist, and ignorant.

Organic food is expensive. Buying it perpetuates the idea that it’s superior and adds weight to the overpriced label, creating an incentive to keep producing industrial organic food — hilariously, people who wax on about the importance of organic food and how great it is are undermining their own beloved standard by preferentially buying organic without thought as to the true origins and costs of their food.

Meanwhile, lots of people can’t afford it, or can only afford to dedicate a certain percentage of their grocery budget to organics, so might choose to direct their funds more carefully. Wagging fingers at those people and treating them like garbage for being unable to adhere to the standards of people with superiority complexes and deep wallets doesn’t exactly endear the organic movement to them, or to those working in solidarity with them.

If you care about food justice and you want to see everyone having access to safe, healthy, ethical food, work on that. But telling people to eat organic, and shaming them for not doing it, isn’t actually the way to accomplish that goal.

Image: Bell peppers, Franco Folini, Flickr