September 2010

Certified organic? Does it matter?

By Jude Schuenemeyer

Several weeks ago as I was roasting coffee, a woman came into our shop. She looked to be about 30, a wholesome “earth mama” type with a 6- or 7-year-old in tow.

"Is your coffee organic?" she asked. I proceeded to enlighten her as to the botany and culture of coffea arabica with full orchestration and rich bold explanation when she stopped me right there and said, "I don't care. It's my husband... he believes that his body has a reaction to anything that is not certified organic."

To which I might have said a great many things, but instead I replied "Yes, we have organically certified coffee."

About 15 minutes later, the above woman with child returned with a skinny, post-grunge-looking guy.

"Do you have organic coffee?" he asked. "Yes," I replied pointing to the Bolivian. "This coffee is certified Fair Trade and organic."

"My body reacts if I have anything that is not certified organic," he reminded me.

"This coffee is certified Fair Trade and organic," I again reassured him.

It has been just four years since Michael Pollen released “Omnivore's Dilemma.” In it he talked about supermarket pastoral, a cow in the field on every milk carton, a free-range chicken on every dozen eggs. This was the ideal of the organic food movement – growing healthy food on family farms for a public that knew and cared about the farms and the farmers.

By the time “Omnivore's Dilemma” was released, the picture of a happy, modern American Gothic was already a myth. Local family farms were replaced by large corporations, organic or otherwise. Neither Whole Foods nor the organic section in your local store can keep their shelves stocked by relying on the whims of a hundred small farms to meet the desires of a thousand different customers. One or two farm corporations are much simpler to deal with.

While there is nothing wrong with getting big with success this type of large-scale farming does not address one of the most basic problems with agriculture in this country: one-fifth of our nation's energy consumption is used in agriculture. Only one-fifth of that is actually used on the farm - the remaining majority is burned in holding, transporting, and processing food. The Gulf Oil spill that went on for months this spring and summer resulted in a net loss of a five-hour oil supply for our country. Five hours, that's it. Using up to 57 calories of fossil-fuel energy for each food calorie falls well short of the organic ideal.

When most of us think organic, we think of happy plants and happy animals on happy farms. The nuances of cows having access to pasture or chickens having the ability to range free are not in our thoughts. But as little organic became Big Organic the cow grazing on grass by a red barn became a fantasy of how we wished that animal to live, not how the cow actually eats the cabbage.

This is because the rules governing organic certification are in the domain of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, an agency as prone to political manipulation as any. Do you want to use synthetic preservatives in your organic TV dinner? Lobby away, anything can be bought for a price.

The problem here is not with the USDA or with Big Organic. This is a consumer-driven issue. We want good, nutritive food, food that tastes as pure to our morals as it does literally to our pallets. But we don't want to pay too much for it nor know too much about it; a blissful believable story will do just fine.

And now, instead of the story of supermarket pastoral, we can substitute your favorite businesses logos next to the USDA Organic logo and voila, instant goodness without all of those confusing details. Who wouldn't be proud to have their company logo next to the same agency that also brings us genetically engineered crops? Recently I saw a USDA Local logo. Imagine that. Perhaps they can co-op the under-used Homeland Security color-coded system to inform and ensure localness. They could add a few new colors - cyan for really close, eggplant for sort of close, burnt chocolate for far away. Of course consumers might confuse this system with the fall Patagonia catalog. Better to stay with a simple logo that requires far less understanding to attain fulfillment.

The nut to crack is this: does organic certification make something better for you, and you better for consuming it? Does putting on a ball cap with Jesus's name make you more Christian? Does wearing red, white, and blue underwear make you a truer American? What matters more the marketing or the product, the idea or the ideals?

In this country we enjoy artificially cheap food. Complain all day long about high taxes and illegal immigration, but if you buy eggs for 89 cents a dozen you are participating in tax-supported agriculture and illegal immigration. You want to make the world a better place by the things that you purchase? Endeavour to buy into more than a marketing program. Your body can live without the certification; your soul will know the difference.

Jude Schuenemeyer is co-owner of Let It Grow Nursery and Garden Café in Cortez, Colo.