Like any industry, organic has its shortcomings. But compared with conventional agriculture and food manufacturing, there are still many values that make organic a worthwhile purchase.
I confess: I buy organic. I also read labels and think very carefully about my purchases. I know a lot about food policy, but not everything. To be fair, I know more than the average citizen. I’m a working mom, who is often running into the store on my way home from work, or worse yet, dragging my children with me to the grocery store, some time after dinner, within an hour of bedtime.
The rhyme and reason of my grocery shopping isn’t always pretty. But one thing is clear: I’m steadfast in my desire to provide the best food possible for my children.
With that said, my kids have eaten sugar, ice cream (organic ice cream), and who knows what else at friends’ houses. But, I love the fact that my quiet daughter asks about GMOs, and even asks restaurants if there are GMOs in the food being served. I love that my son has asked family friends if they eat organic. I love that my children understand that healthy food means a healthy body (and may even propel them to be the Olympic swimmers they dream to be).
I also confess that I have questioned the growth of organic at times and even the monitoring of the select group of ingredients that are not available in an organic form but are allowed to be present in organic foods. This list and how it is made was the focus of an article that ran in last Sunday’s New York Times business section, entitled, “Has ‘Organic’ Been Oversized?”
Big Organic vs Big Ag
While conducting focus groups over the past two years, I often heard consumers share a similar sentiment, “Is big organic any better than big conventional ag?” To this, my answer is “yes.”
Big organic is better than big conventional ag. Big organic doesn’t use pesticides, at least not intentionally (and there are organic regulations against pesticide drift from other farms). Big organic is more environmentally friendly.
Now, if you’re asking me if an organic Oreo is any better than a conventional Oreo, then no, it’s all bad—and not just because I don’t like Oreo’s. Junk food is junk food. But if you pressed me, I’d still buy the organic Oreos.
I would buy the organic Oreos because of the transparency built into the organic industry. I know exactly what is in the organic Oreos and how they have been made. I know how the ingredients were grown and, I can easily trace where the ingredients have been sourced.
So while the New York Times may take issue with the non-organic ingredients that are allowed in organic foods, I at least still know exactly what is in my food and can choose to eat or not to eat it.
Not only do I know what’s in my food, the understanding is that organic is non-GMO. So at the moment, the organic label along with the Non-GMO Project are the only guarantees I have against eating GMO foods.
I realize there are ingredients like carrageenan that many would like to not see in organic foods and I’m thankful for those who continue to question the strength of organic and push to make sure standards are maintained. But at the end of the day, does anyone really know what’s in Kraft Macaroni & Cheese or Doritos for that matter?
Look at what has happened to our food system, with pink slime, hormones in beef, MSG in everything conventional, and sodium and sugar content skyrocketing. Our food system has run amuck. To me the only guarantee I have of a semblance of a standard is organic.
For all of the organic industry’s leaps and bounds, even surpassing the $30 billion mark in 2011, it is still woefully under represented in government, even with the presence of organic advocate Kathleen Merrigan, deputy to Tom Vilsack, secretary of agriculture. Organic does not receive the same amount of government handouts to make it tick, but still there are roughly 14,500 and growing certified organic farms in this country and 2,500 certified organic processing facilities in the United States.
And while big companies like General Mills certainly want a piece of the pie, they did not create the organic industry and they do not sustain the organic industry. Everyone loves to poke fun at Dean Foods, when it is in fact Whitewave that they’re poking at.
And Kelly Shea and Ellen Feeney, who both work for Whitewave and have for many years, happen to be two of the most dedicated and well-versed people I know in the organic and sustainability conversations. Their work has helped to pave the way for smaller farmers and manufacturers.
Organic may not be perfect, but it's not conventional
We have to be careful not to shoot the messenger and the people who have been at the forefront of this industry and may or may not have been swallowed up by bigger companies.
I love Eden foods and its constant ethic to do the right thing, before people even knew it was the right thing (for the longest time they were the only company to have cans that were not lined with BPA). But the New York Times article focused on a very small group of people, including Eden’s Michael J. Potter and the Cornucopia Institute, who are very vocal about the failings of the industry on a consistent basis, without much to say about the successes.
Whether it’s big companies like Smuckers, independents like Late July Organics, or my local farmer producing an organic product, I’ll buy it because all of these products have to be certified. They have to live up to the organic standard, which is better than the majority of foods on a conventional grocer’s shelf can do.
I do my best as a mom to give my kids the best food I can. But I need someone to help me do the scrutinizing. So until someone can truly prove to me there is a better system or a better standard, I will continue to buy organic.