Category Archives: organics

What’s “better” mean?

This post at Reason magazine’s “Hit & Run” blog is interesting not because of the post itself — it’s a summary of a story in an Australian popular-science magazine that purports to debunk the usefulness of organic food with a handful of cherry-picked studies — but for the extraordinarily long discussion thread that follows.

There’s a fair bit of trolling and nonsense, especially as you go deeper and deeper in, but what fascinates me is how many people are arguing entirely at cross-purposes to each other.

What does it mean to assert that organic food is “better” (or “no better”) than conventionally produced food? We could be talking about nearly anything:

  • Flavour
  • Nutritional value
  • Agricultural yield
  • Harmful chemicals, or the lack thereof
  • Environmental impact of the means of production
  • Economic impact, to the extent that “organic” often is used to mean “local” and/or “small-scale,” at least in part

and probably three or four other things that I’m not thinking of. It’s practically impossible to have any hope of defending the proposition that organic farming and food are “better” against attacks from all those directions at once.

This is not fair, but it is the way politics and economics work — if you want to change people’s behaviour, you have to make an ironclad case. It doesn’t have to be sweeping, winning on all fronts, but that which you assert, you’d better be able to prove.

Plenty of the people posting at the Reason blog appear not to be interested in evidence, just in having a nasty argument. Can’t do anything about them. But remember that they’re out there, and if you’re arguing to convince laypeople, you have to be able to overcome their every rhetorical and logical trick. If you can’t — if you are, in fact, making an ideological rather than a rational case for organic food, or environmentally conscious choices of any kind — you deserve to lose.

Large-scale organics aren’t oxymorons

Aurora Organic, a company ostensibly specializing in large-scale organic farming has turned out to have put more emphasis on the large-scale part. Reports Time:

On Wednesday, the USDA announced its investigators had found that Aurora failed to keep proper records about how its cows were raised, and mixed regular cows with organic cows. The government and the company reached an agreement under which the company will be allowed to keep its organic certification if it makes adjustments that include reducing the number of its cows — from about 2,200 to 1,200. The farm also plans to expand its grassland to about 400 acres from 325. Clark Driftmier, a spokesman for Aurora, said these plans had been in the works for at least two years and that its customers — whom he declined to name — have expressed support.

Says Bruce Knight, undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs at the USDA: “We’ll be looking over their shoulder for the next year, and if they fail to come into full compliance, we’ll be taking serious action.”

This is all bad (except that Aurora was caught), but I’m not buying the argument from some more extreme organic-food advocates that large-scale farming is necessarily incompatible with organic practices.

Marc Gunther of Fortune puts the problem down to a conflict of values:

Behind the dispute are more fundamental questions about the future of the organic food industry, which generated about $16.7 billion in revenues in 2006. Can the small-scale, family farmers who got the organic movement going years ago compete with bigger, well-capitalized companies like Aurora that are moving in? As Wal-Mart and Costco sell more organics, will standards be diluted?

Certainly the little guys won’t be able to compete if the big guys cut corners to cut costs, which appears to be the case here.

CoweatingThis isn’t his central point so Gunther doesn’t develop it in detail, but I think his logic is flawed. The consequences for Aurora from this little incident are massive. Marc Gunther doesn’t write about it when Organic Dairy Farmer Dan gets caught spiking the silage (assuming Farmer Dan gets caught, which he might not). The rewards for a big business that breaks the rules might be great, but the consequences of getting caught are proportionately high, too.

Point is, it’s a mistake to use “organic” as code for “small and independent.” The word can usefully describe a process, not the mentality attached to the people carrying it out.

And frankly, if we’re going to feed the world without destroying the plant, large-scale agriculture is the only way it’s going to work.

Photo credit: Flickr/foxypar4

Carnival of the Green No. 80.

Heidi, who blogs intermittently at Groxie, is hosting the Carnival of the Green digest of environmentalism-related blog postings this week. She’s picked up my two postings from last week on challenges to the “organic” designation in Britain and talking about whether we can reasonably expect “organic” to stand in for “socially just” generally.

Yuppie chow defended

Loblaws organic tea boxThe Globe‘s Michael Valpy gets 900 words in today’s Globe to summarize a forthcoming research paper from Irena Knezevic, an academic who doesn’t like that big corporations are selling organic food.Valpy:

She says [big companies like Coca-Cola and Kraft] products – along with those sold by retail giants such as Loblaws and Wal-Mart – are turning organic agriculture into product brands that are becoming “a marketing tool more so than an assurance of quality, let alone an assurance of a fair and sustainable production process.”

Officials from Loblaws and Wal-Mart were unavailable for comment last night.

This trend, says Ms. Knezevic, is driven by consumer demand, with the food industry’s eager willingness to jump on the bandwagon and make organic consumption efficient and slightly less expensive by mass-producing – creating only a slightly “greener” version of the dominant industrial food system but separating organic agriculture from its central concepts.

It takes a normative judgment to decide what organic agriculture’s “central concepts” are. And indeed, Knezevic makes one: “Organic agriculture is by definition intertwined with environmentalism, resistance to corporate globalization and the ‘back to the land’ movement.”

Knezevic, if her paper is being summarized fairly, seems to want to include not only factual declarations about the use of pesticides and fertilizers and other planet-friendly techniques, but also small-scale farming and an anti-corporate attitude on the part of the farmer.

Significantly, Knezevic is a PhD candidate in a communications and culture program, not anything to do with food science or economics. She’s presented a previous paper on “How corporations and the PR industry make big pharma look good.”

It seems to me that again we’re asking an “Organic” label to do something it can’t possibly — indicate not just the chemical conditions under which a particular food item was produced, but the political and economic conditions, too.

All this having been said, while I don’t share Knezevic’s apparent judgment that “organic” should be interchangeable with “good” in every way meaningful to the environmental left, she’s right that there’s a danger in labels that are effectively meaningless. There’s a danger that as organic foods become increasingly attractive positional goods — things people like to show off to demonstrate how cool they are — some shady labelling standards will spring up to approve any old thing. If indeed a particular mango was grown organically, but as a result comes from so much farther away from the market than an industrial mango that the environmental benefit is obviated, buying organic doesn’t do anybody any favours.

But neither does saying big companies can do nothing right just because they’re big companies, or saying that efficient production aimed at making organics more affordable for more people is necessarily bad.

The paper comes out for real on Friday, and I’m looking forward to Knezevic’s wrestling with these problems.

The state of food journalism

The Columbia Journalism Review takes stock of the state of food journalism in a long essay by Christopher Shea. He’s not talking about recipes and restaurants, but the examination of the economics and science of food production, in which ever-more people seem to be taking an interest.

Shea’s piece centres on the recent work of Michael Pollan, whose The Omnivore’s Dilemma I mention frequently. Shea takes him down a few pegs, suggesting that underlying Pollan’s work is a certain dreaminess about an impossible world without cities or large-scale food production.

The idealistic alternative Pollan offers is that of a farm in Virginia run by Joel Salatin, who refers to himself as a “grass farmer” because grass is the foundation of his enterprise. He lets his cows graze on clover, orchard grass, sweet grass, bluegrass, and timothy one day, then “mobs and moves” the herd to a different pasture so the grazed pasture can rebound. His chickens live authentically chickeny lives. All told, Salatin displays a kind of agrarian self-sufficiency, Pollan writes, that Thomas Jefferson assumed would become the American norm but that now “constitutes a politics and economics and way of life both deliberate and hard-won–an achievement.”

But what kind of politics, exactly, and what kind of economics? In Pollan’s book, and even in more prosaic newspaper pieces, some of the political and economic dimensions of the local-foods movement are suppressed or underexplored. In one telling passage in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Salatin brushes off a question from Pollan about how, say, New Yorkers might take advantage of the local-farm network, retorting: “Why do we have to have a New York City? What good is it?” Pollan, a former New Yorker, demurs, but quickly drops the subject, telling readers that the lesson of the exchange is that a shared concern about food offers a “sturdy bridge” across a “deep gulf of culture.”

Other points of the Shea piece:

  • The merging of agriculture reporting with food reporting is basically a good thing;
  • Done properly, it informs us about elements in food production that will make us change our consumer habits, enhancing our rational choices;
  • We’re stuck with industrial-scale food production if everyone’s going to eat, although we could probably do some things better;
  • Nobody really knows for sure whether a bunch of small farms or a small number of ginormous ones is a more planet-friendly way of feeding the population we’ve got;
  • A carbon tax would help sort things out;
  • So would an end to farm subsidies.

Hear, hear.

Organics boom

Good news, on the whole, though the stats include self-reporting of products that farmers merely say are organic, with no certification of any kind.

According to figures released Wednesday in Statistics Canada’s 2006 agriculture census, 15,511 farms reported growing organic products last May. That includes those that have been certified organic by an authorizing agency, those that are in the process of getting certified, and those whose operators simply declare that they’re organic.

The number of certified organic producers increased by nearly 60 per cent from 2001 to 3,555 in 2006. Field crops such as wheat and barley are the predominant certified organic crops, and Saskatchewan has about one-third of all the certified organic farms in the country.

To be called organic, food must be produced naturally, without the pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics or hormones used in conventional agriculture.

Experts say organics are still a small portion of the overall amount of food purchased by consumers, but the demand is growing quickly.

The big grocery chains have seized on the demand.

President’s Choice, the house brand in stores such as Loblaws, Superstore and Provigo, started an organic line five years ago and now has more than 300 products.

There is probably a permanent tension between organic food and local, unfortunately. We signed up for a local grocer’s organics box a couple of weeks ago (we pay $20 a week and get the owner’s selection of good stuff each Thursday) and although the quality of the produce is excellent and comes in fair-to-generous quantities for the price, it’s all from far away, plums and green beans not being particularly available in Ottawa in mid-May whether they’re organic or not. We’re waiting to see whether they switch to local suppliers as things come into season here.

Nevertheless, while plums and green beans are not precisely in the sweet spot of Canadian agriculture, wheat and barley most definitely are, and it’s nice to see farmers taking advantage.

It’s also a way of busting the marketing monopoly of the Canadian Wheat Board (though some farmers want to use its services for overseas sales), which can’t be anything but good, too.

My lesson in labelling

Loblaws tea boxSo I buy this tea from Loblaws, this President’s Choice lemon green tea, and I figure what the heck, I’ll buy the organic stuff. I’ve never seriously thought about it before, but I bet there are tea plantations that spray their plants with God-knows-what, and my plan is to take the leaves and dip them in boiling water and then drink the water, so this probably ought to be more than an abstract concern. Possibly I was influenced by all the signage around my local Loblaws talking about the company’s green-label products.

I glance at the ingredients on the box of teabags, and it says three things: organic tea leaves, organic lemon peel, and natural flavour. I know “natural flavour” can really mean just about anything, but a quick check of a couple of other lemon-flavoured teas on the shelf shows that they all have it, so I figure I might as well.

When I get the box of tea to work and tear open the plastic wrapper and pop the perforated cardboard box, I find that it contains 20 individually packaged sachets of tea. Each one is wrapped in a sort of papery substance that I’m pretty sure is plastic, or at best paper with a plasticky coating. I’ve bought other kinds of non-organic President’s Choice tea and they’ve come all tossed in one thin plastic bag inside the cardboard box. Bad enough, but acceptable. But now I’ve spent extra for organic tea in a green-coloured box, and it’s arguably worse for the environment than the non-organic stuff.

The box of teabags is, to be clear, not deceptively labelled. The box does say that it contains 20 individually wrapped teabags right on there. It just didn’t occur to me to check — who’s going to the trouble and expense of buying organic tea who wants it packaged that way? A tiny handful of people who are personally concerned about consuming pesticides themselves but don’t give a damn about overpackaging, perhaps.

The tea, for the record, is tasty. I just wish it didn’t come with a twinge of guilt in each cup.

Still, lesson learned. Read the whole label.