19 September 2006

eco blogging tuesday
behind the label

Did you think just eating foods with the certified organic label would assuage your liberal guilt? Ha! That's what liberal guilt is for—to make you feel like you're not doing all you could.

We can make merry over the fact that organic foods are rapidly infiltrating the mainstream. People are finally getting it. They'll be more widely available. But organics are making their way to the marketplace in the same manner conventional food does.

Agribusiness as usual
There's "Big Pharma," "Big Oil," and now there's "Big Organic." A reader left me a link to this story in the New Yorker. The article observes "questions about quality, sustainability and business ethics" within the organic food industry. They're the same questions and criticisms people have held about the conventional food industry. But it seems implicit that the label "organic" represents an ideology—non-corporate, social justice-oriented, local and sustainable.

Take this into consideration: Earthbound Farm "grows more than seventy percent of all the organic lettuce sold in America." Yes, that means its 26 acres are free of toxic pesticides and fertilizers, and its tractors even use biodiesel. But Earthbound's food is sold in every state of the Union, meaning it's trucked there. The company also trucks compost in to its farms.

The good news is you're eating organic when you buy a Earthbound Farm (or other large organic company) product; the bad news is it's not making that much difference to the environment. Not to mention you could be supporting the big corporations you try to avoid (because many organic brands are owned by large companies).

And then there's the social justice angle.

Some sweat with your apple?
Organic farming is still business. It's most certainly business for the large companies, and, out of the need to compete, it becomes very business-oriented for smaller farmers. Labor is a primary way to cut costs. An article by Felicia Mello in The Nation notes "most workers on organic farms, like those on conventional farms, are immigrants from Mexico who earn minimum wage or slightly more and receive no benefits. Fieldwork on organic farms can be especially strenuous because farmers employ back-breaking methods like hand-weeding to avoid using pesticides."

While workers at organic farms avoid toiling around pesticides, they "often live in the same towns as conventional farmworkers, where...pesticide drift is an ever-present problem and the food available for purchase is likely to be high in fat and low in nutrients."

The future
"There is a small but growing campaign, backed by some of organic agriculture's staunchest supporters, for a new kind of food labeling, one that would guarantee that food is produced in ways that benefit workers as well as the environment," writes Mello. As the organic food industry becomes more ubiquitous and its business ethics exposed, we can hope this labeling campaign grows stronger.

But that still doesn't address the sustainability of "Big Organic." Gail Feenstra, a UC Davis researcher, "envisions a decentralized food network with people buying minimally processed food through direct markets, and schools and hospitals serving up organic meals made with ingredients from local farms," writes Mello. "'It's not just on the backs of organic growers to fix this thing,' [Feenstra] continues. 'It's going to take a long, slow shift to get us from a system that's hierarchical, with a few people controlling the resources, to one that's more disaggregated.'"

Oh, to dare to dream.

What can we do? Buy locally produced organic produce as often as you can—which is probably not very often, because to find both is pretty difficult around NE Ohio. (Still, refer to the Countryside Farmer's Guide I wrote about last week. It's a start.

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