Proud to be a consumer of organic products? Its no secret that we can’t trust half the labels out there. I have a new goal – to find out where my food is coming from. I’m really annoyed with the non-transparency and non-accountability involved in the system and I need to know more.
Read this. Specific excerpts:
“Hirshberg’s dilemma is that of the entire organic food business. Just as mainstream consumers are growing hungry for untainted food that also nourishes their social conscience, it is getting harder and harder to find organic ingredients. There simply aren’t enough organic cows in the U.S., never mind the organic grain to feed them, to go around. Nor are there sufficient organic strawberries, sugar, or apple pulp — some of the other ingredients that go into the world’s best-selling organic yogurt.
“Everyone agrees on the basic definition of organic: food grown without the assistance of man-made chemicals. Four years ago, under pressure from critics fretting that the term “organic” was being misused, the U.S. Agriculture Dept. issued rules. To be certified as organic, companies must eschew most pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, synthetic fertilizers, bioengineering, and radiation. But for purists, the philosophy also requires farmers to treat their people and livestock with respect and, ideally, to sell small batches of what they produce locally so as to avoid burning fossil fuels to transport them. The USDA rules don’t fully address these concerns.
For a sense of why Big Business and organics often don’t mix, it helps to visit Jack and Anne Lazor of Butterworks Farm. The duo have been producing organic yogurt in northeastern Vermont since 1975. Their 45 milking cows are raised from birth and have names like Peaches and Moonlight. All of the food for the cows — and most of what the Lazors eat, too — comes from the farm, and Anne keeps their charges healthy with a mix of homeopathic medicines and nutritional supplements. Butterworks produces a tiny 9,000 quarts of yogurt a week, and no one can pressure them to make more. Says Jack: “I’d be happiest to sell everything within 10 miles of here.”
When consumers shell out premiums of 50% or more to buy organic, they are voting for the Butterworks ethic. They believe humans should be prudent custodians not only of their own health but also of the land and animals that share it. They prefer food produced through fair wages and family farms, not poor workers and agribusiness. They are responding to tales of caged chickens and confined cows that never touch a blade of grass; talk of men losing fertility and girls becoming women at age nine because of extra hormones in food. They read about pesticides seeping into the food supply and genetically modified crops creeping across the landscape.
Exhibit A: Gary Hirshberg’s quest for organic milk. Dairy producers estimate that demand for organic milk is at least twice the current available supply. To quench this thirst, the U.S. would have to more than double the number of organic cows — those that eat only organic food — to 280,000 over the next five years. That’s a challenge, since the number of dairy farms has shrunk to 60,000, from 334,000 in 1980, according to the National Milk Producers Federation. And almost half the milk produced in the U.S. comes from farms with more than 500 cows, something organic advocates rarely support.
What to do? If you’re Hirshberg, you weigh the pros and cons of importing organic milk powder from New Zealand. Stonyfield already gets strawberries from China, apple puree from Turkey, blueberries from Canada, and bananas from Ecuador. It’s the only way to keep the business growing. Besides, Hirshberg argues, supporting a family farmer in Madagascar or reducing chemical use in Costa Rica is just as important as doing the same at home.