Once upon a time, some people thought that the US food system was deeply flawed, and that one way to address problems with excessive use of agricultural chemicals and unsustainable conditions was to develop a set of standards. The organic standards, once rare and applied to only a handful of things in the store, are now mainstream — organic and conventional produce sections are often close to the same size, and there are organic alternatives to almost everything on the shelf from pasta to butter (but not weed, because the organic standards are federal).
Which is a good thing, right? The organic standards were developed to fight a broken food system, and now that they’re more widely adopted, we’re taking on many of the issues that have rippled through the food system, making it safer, and stronger, and better?
Actually no. That is not what happened. And that’s why I’ve gone from not really buying organic food to actively avoiding it when possible, from going out of my way at the store to declining to eat at restaurants that prominently advertise their organic produce. There are a lot of reasons for this decision, which pegs into something deeper that’s going on in society: As sustainability has become trendy, the effect hasn’t been a more sustainable world, but a world in which you can buy nearly anything cloaked in a blanket of ‘good for the environment’ and therefore absolve yourself of responsibility for buying it and participating in the system that created it.
Here’s the thing about the organic standards. As originally developed, they had a lot of very solid suggestions for making agriculture more sustainable. They weren’t ideal, and they didn’t necessarily reflect the latest understanding in soil science and water cycle sustainability, but they were written with good intentions, and clearly written to be updated as they evolved. Unfortunately, those updates have trended in the opposite direction, loosening the standards that people think of as stringent and particular — for example, the classes of agricultural chemicals that can be applied to organic produce are much broader than many people think they are, and it’s a misnomer to say organic foods are grown ‘without chemicals.’ (Aside from the fact that everything, fundamentally, is a chemical — if we use ‘chemical’ in the sense of an additive applied to crops for the purpose of controlling pests and promoting growth, organic produce is grown using chemicals, as indeed is nearly all produce given that water is a chemical.)
This dilution means that the certifications have less and less weight. When you can grow organic and conventional produce effectively side by side, that’s troubling. When people can cleverly work their way around certifications to come up with higher yields and cheaper means of production that are not made in the organic spirit, that’s a problem. And the certifications never had things like protections for farm labour in them, or promotion of community welfare, or mandates to care for the soil and water not just as part of a farm, but part of a larger system. There are farms that care about workers and use resources responsibly and comply with the organic standards and have a label that reflects their legal adherence and the spirit of the standards.
But industrial organic is huge. And I personally believe that there is a fundamental conflict between industrial agriculture and what the organic movement is supposed to stand for. This isn’t just about whether an individual head of lettuce was grown with or without synthetically-produced fertiliser, but about a whole system. Where was that lettuce grown? Was it an efficient use of water? Does the farm care for the soil? Does it use companion planting and crop rotation to promote soil and crop health? Did the workers receive fair pay and benefits, including paid sick leave, parental leave, and paid time off? Does the farm contribute to its community? How far did that lettuce travel to get here? How was it handled and packaged? There are a lot of things that go into making food ‘sustainable’ and no single label is ever going to account for all of them, but I do have to set limits somewhere, and for me, the organic label simply isn’t cutting it.
By buying organic produce and processed foods, people are paying into that system. They are validating what the organic certification has become and indicating that they would like more of the same. They are also paying a premium for it, as organic labels tend to radically increase the price of food products. If you are paying a premium for something for ideals, it’s important to think about what those ideals are, and whether that thing actually lives up to them.
The food system is broken. And one way to fix it is through our financial decisions. I just feel that my financial premiums can be better invested elsewhere, in supporting agricultural practices that match my values and concerns. I would prefer to buy locally grown produce from farms that don’t have organic certifications but do care for the land and their workers in a way that matches my ideals, whether I am buying directly at the farm, at a farm stand, or at a farmers’ market. Not everyone has the privilege to do that, whether traveling to a food source to see how it is produced is a significant undertaking, or they can’t afford farmers’ market prices, or for other reasons. That’s okay. No one should be guilted for working within the system they have, and it is my hope that by spending my money the way I do, I will help make these things more accessible to people who lack my purchasing power.
It is also my hope that by consciously refusing to give my money to the organic system, I will signal that I am not willing to pay a premium for greenwashed food. This is not a question of ‘buy food direct from farms at a premium or eat the worst of industrial agriculture, do not pass organic, do not pay $200.’ It is a question of thinking carefully about how I allocate my funds, and where I personally want my money to go. And when it comes to many things I buy at the grocery store, the organic and conventional versions are produced in virtually identical conditions, so this is a pretty easy choice for me.
I want us to have a better food system too. I just don’t think that organic food is the answer.
Image: Organic Artichokes, Federico Capoano, Flickr