if i knew that you were coming i'd a baked a cake.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

sustainable vs. organic

Wouldn't it be nice if all our food products could be trusted to have been BOTH sustainably and organically produced? Many times, they are. But the two terms are not interchangable, as this helpful article from The Sustainable Table shows. (Hat tip to Lawrence London of the soon-to-be launched Permaculture Piedmont NC blog for reminding me about one of my favorite web sites!)

"Are organic and sustainable the same?

"Organic agriculture is becoming more popular because consumers are demanding healthful and environmentally friendly food. In theory, organic agriculture strives to preserve the land for generations to come, but increased demand has interested large agribusiness corporations who intend to profit from the trend.

"The issue can be very confusing -- for example, even though organic is certified by the USDA, large corporations have found ways to raise dairy cows in confinement, use massively large acreages to plant crops (monoculture), and ship food thousands of miles to sell. These practices are not considered sustainable.

"This means that organic and sustainable agriculture are similar in some respects but different in others. The following table is a comparison of the two farming techniques.

Organic [vs.] Sustainable

O) Must be independently certified every year and approved by the USDA
S) No certification necessary

O) Can confine animals. Only need to give animals "access" to outdoors; don't actually have to let them go out.
S) Animals must be permitted to carry out their natural behaviors, e.g., rooting, pecking or grazing. A sustainable farmer might keep his animals indoors in bad weather, but the health and well-being of the animal comes first.

O) No antibiotics allowed
S) No legal restrictions, though sustainable farmers either will not give any antibiotics at all or only when the animals are sick and need to be treated. Antibiotics are never routinely put in feed or water to promote growth or to ward off potential disease.

O) No hormones allowed.
S) No hormones used.

O) Large corporations can raise food organically.
S) Sustainable food production is carried out by families who live and work on the land.

O) There is no limitation on how many acres can be used to grow crops.
S) Sustainable farmers use various placements of crops and plants as a form of pest control and to build soil fertility. Crops are not raised on massive amounts of acreage.

O) Food can travel thousands of miles before reaching your dinner plates. Organic food does not consider the use of fossil fuels or extended amounts of time that can result between harvesting/ processing and eating.
S) Food is raised and sold as close to the farm as possible. Buying locally and eating as seasonally as possible are sustainable practices

"Please note that many organic farmers are also sustainable. The confusion has come about because the USDA organic rules alone are not necessarily sustainable. And many small farmers chose to give up their organic certification when the USDA put their rules into effect in 2002 because the paperwork was overwhelming. But these farmers are still raising animals and crops using organic or what some are now calling "Beyond Organic" methods.

"In addition, large food companies have started to buy organic companies, which hurts competition and can eventually drive down the price farmers are paid while increasing the profits of the corporation. These large corporations are more likely to have monoculture, where one type of food is raised on large tracts of land, as well as confined animals. They also will ship food very long distances.

"Even though this can be potentially confusing, don't be discouraged! As a consumer, it's important to know where your food comes from. Purchasing products from local, independent family farmers – whether organic or sustainable – is your best option.

"Knowing where your food comes from is essential to eating sustainably."

There is a wonderful radio show called Beyond Organic, and you can listen to their current show and their archives on their web site.

Here's an excerpt from An Organic Cash Cow by Kim Severson, published in the New York Times today, that makes this point perfectly!

photo of cows at an organic factory farm, courtesy OCA, see link later in article to sign petition"The ethos of organic milk - one that its cartons reinforce - conjures lush pastures dotted with grazing animals, their milk production driven by nothing more than nature's hand and a helpful family farmer.

"But choosing organic milk doesn't guarantee much beyond this: It comes from a cow whose milk production was not prompted by an artificial growth hormone, whose feed was not grown with pesticides and which had "access to pasture," a term so vague it could mean that a cow might spend most of its milk-producing life confined to a feed lot eating grain and not grass.

"Exactly how much time cows should spend grazing before their milk can carry the government's organic label is under scrutiny. Several hundred farmers and organic advocates want organic dairy rules tightened so that cows have more than what they call token access to pasture.

"The issue may be ultimately decided in court, said Mark Kastel of the Cornucopia Institute in Wisconsin. His organization is fighting the rise of confinement organic dairies, which, by his estimate, account for about 30 percent of the organic milk sold.

"So, what's a well-intentioned milk drinker to do? Decide what matters to you most.

"First, weigh the importance of the organic label. Milk from the Ronnybrook Farm Dairy in the Hudson Valley, which is sold in bottles at Manhattan's Greenmarkets, is not certified organic. The dairy uses no artificial growth hormones, but it treats sick animals with antibiotics. In the summer the animals eat mostly pasture; in the winter they eat hay with grain mixed in.

"It is a sustainable operation whose owners decided that the term "organic" was becoming co-opted by large corporations, and that the extra cost of the federal organic label was not worth it. For some, milk that has not traveled far and that comes from cows in small pasture-based operations is more important than an official stamp."

Here in Greensboro, I buy my milk and butter from Homeland Creamery. They have a booth at the Greensboro Farmer's Curb Market, but they also sell their dairy products at Earth Fare, Deep Roots Market, and other markets. They are not organic - they are local and sustainable dairy farmers.

You can find out more about organic/unsustainable dairies such as Horizon and Aurora at Organic Consumers Association and sign a petition. An organic/sustainable dairy cooperative who did not choose to weaken their values for profit is Organic Valley. When Wal-mart demanded a price that Organic Valley could not produce without compromising their standards, Wal-mart turned to Horizon Dairy. (From the November 1, NYT article What Is Organic? Powerful Players Want a Say by Melanie Warner, reprinted at OCA.)

"George Simeon, chief executive of Organic Valley, a cooperative of mostly small organic dairy farmers, wrestled with the high cost of organic production a little over a year ago when Wal-Mart asked for a 20 percent price cut. For three years, Organic Valley had been Wal-Mart's primary supplier of organic milk.

"'Wal-Mart allows you to really build market share,' Mr. Simeon said. 'But we're about our values and being able to sustain our farmers. If a customer wants to stretch us to the point where we're not able to deliver our mission, then we have to find different markets.'

"Mr. Simeon told Wal-Mart to get a new supplier.

"Dean Foods' Horizon Organic was better equipped to satisfy Wal-Mart's demands. Horizon gets about 20 percent of its production from a 4,000-cow organic dairy in Paul, Idaho, which is small in comparison with many conventional dairy farms but huge by organic standards."

If you can't buy milk from a local dairy and you can afford organic, please support Organic Valley for standing up for their principles over profit. Boycott Wal-Mart, Dean Foods, Horizon Dairy, and Aurora Organic (and, as always, MONSANTO!). Embrace your power as a consumer.

(For a related post, see honesty and organics.)

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

honesty and organics

If you have been reading my posts about the organic controversy, you might think that I'm upset because I buy only 100% organic food. No, I'm not an organic zealot. I'm upset because I don't like dishonesty, and we have to protect our food supply from the further influence of big ag and big food, because they have proven themselves untrustworthy. I advocate buying food locally from farmers and food producers who use sustainable processes and ingredients whenever possible.

I was in a debate on the Slow Food listserv this weekend about the rider to the Agriculture Bill that weakened organic standards. The debate, between me and an owner of a large organic processing facility, was very helpful in clarifying my thoughts on the subject, so I was grateful for the opportunity. One of the points that I regret not commenting on was that the "USDA Organic" seal does not state that the product is at least 95% organic on the label, so that is why it is misleading.

Here is an image of how four different cereal boxes might look under the current standards (from Organic Food Standards and Labels: The Facts).

Now look at just the second one from the left. Without knowing the particulars of the USDA Organic system, and without seeing the comparisons with the products on either side, might you think that this product was totally organic?

Here's the link for Labeling Requirements for foods that are at least 95% organic. Why didn't they simply decide to use a seal that says 95% organic instead of the same seal used for 100% organic? That would have been a good compromise.

Since the consumer does not have access to this information on the package, usage of the USDA seal implies that there are no synthetic ingredients used. Whether the ingredients are benign or not has nothing to do with the fact that this label misleads the public. Personally, I don't care if organic manufacturers use baking powder or ascorbic acid in their foods. That's not the issue. The issue is that others might, and the labeling should be accurate and transparent.

For example, Monsanto and the USDA think that genetic engineering is beneficial to agriculture. Whether something is benign or not is highly subjective. But you can't make a synthetic ingredient organic. Once you begin re-defining words to make them fit what you would like for them to mean, you are opening the door to an Orwellian world of uncertainty in what should be an objective process.

Okay, let's say that you don't find that these 38 added ingredients to the National List are a big deal. Neither do I, really. You haven't seen the most disturbing part yet. This paragraph at the Organic Consumers Association sums it up:
"For the first time, the Secretary will have the power to expedite petitions for access to the list of substances that are commercially unavailable in organic form. Right now there are 38 synthetic substances on the National List that have been carefully reviewed and approved by the National Organic Standards Board over the past ten years. Eight more synthetic substances have been reviewed and approved by the NOSB and are awaiting USDA authority to be placed on the National List. The industry has requested that 517 more synthetic substances be approved. In all likelihood, this new power granted to the Secretary will be the opening of the floodgate to these hundreds of synthetic ingredients being allowed in products labeled 'USDA Organic.'"

"The Secretary may develop emergency procedures for designating agricultural products that are commercially unavailable in organic form for placement on the National List for a period of time not to exceed 12 months."

See this page for the specific language of the amendment.

The Secretary of Agriculture is Mike Johanns. From the Center for Responsible Politics:

Corporate Connections:

Archer Daniels Midland; Kraft (Altria); Tyson Foods; ConAgra

Raised on a dairy farm in Iowa, Nebraska Governor Mike Johanns was nominated by President Bush to take over the Department of Agriculture from Secretary Ann Veneman. First elected in 1998, Johanns became the first Republican to win a second term as governor in the state in more than four decades, according to the Institute on Money in State Politics. A little more than $108,000 of the $2.3 million Johanns raised between 1999 and 2002 came from agricultural companies including Archer Daniels Midland, Kraft and Tyson Foods and the Nebraska-based ConAgra, Follow the Money reported. While these businesses are key to the state’s economy, they are also subject to federal regulations set by the department that Johanns will be heading. The bulk of Johanns' campaign war chest came from individual contributors, who gave a combined total of more than $900,000, or 38 percent of his total, Follow the Money reported.

The Secretary from 2001 to 2005? Ann Veneman. I guess that we should count our blessings (from Common Dreams):

"Veneman has served as a key member of the Reagan and Bush administration farm teams, as director of the California Department of Food and Agriculture during the gubernatorial administration of agribusiness favorite Pete Wilson, as an agribusiness lawyer and as a member of the national steering committee of Farmers and Ranchers for Bush. In those positions she has rarely missed an opportunity to promote a free-trade regimen that advances the interests of international food production and processing conglomerates, to encourage policies that lead to the displacement of family farms with huge factory farms, to open public lands for mineral extraction and timbering, to support genetic modification of food and to defend biotech experimentation with agriculture. Indeed, Veneman is a biotech absolutist who served on the board of Calgene, the corporation that launched the first genetically engineered food in 1994. Veneman told a forum last year, 'We simply will not be able to feed the world without biotechnology.'"

So. Do you, as an organic or sustainable consumer, trust the Secretary of Agriculture or the USDA to regulate organic certification? The Bush administration has three more years until we boot them out. The way things are going in D.C. Bush may appoint another director of a Monsanto-owned company to the post before you can blink an eye. Think that the Democrats would be better? I wouldn't count on it. Most of them are as brainwashed about industrial agriculture as the Republicans.

Buy locally and sustainably produced foods and food products. Ask your farmer and food artisan about his or her practices. Many are organic or mostly organic and cannot advertise it because they are not certified. Many have chosen not to be a part of this flawed system.

Show the power of the organic consumer by not buying these "organic" products (from the Non-Corporate Food Shopper's Guide) when they display the USDA Organic seal without the 100% designation:

  • Brand Name(s): Silk Soy Milk, Horizon Dairy
    Owned By: White Wave
    Principle Stockholders: Dean Foods
    Significantly Owned By: Citigroup, Coca Cola, ExxonMobil, General Electric, Home Depot, Microsoft, Pepsico, Pfizer, Philip Morris, Walmart

  • Brand Name(s): Balance Bar, Boca Burger
    Owned By: Kraft Foods.
    Principle Stockholders: Philip Morris

  • Brand Name(s): Knudsen, After the Fall, Santa Cruz
    Owned By: J.M. Smucker
    Significantly Owned By: Pepsico

  • Brand Name(s): Stonyfield Farms
    Owned By: Danone
    Principle Stockholders: Citigroup, Exxon, General Electric,Walmart

  • Brand Name(s): Arrowhead Mills, Bearitos, Breadshop, Celestial Seasonings, Earth's Best Baby Food, Garden of Eatin, Health Valley, Imagine Foods, Terra Chips, Westbrae, Millina's, Mountain Sun, Shari Ann's, Walnut Acres
    Owned By: Hain Food Group
    Principle Stockholders: Bank of America, Entergy Nuclear, ExxonMobil, H.J. Heinz, Lockheed Martin, Merck, Monsanto, Pfizer, Philip Morris, Walmart, Waste Management Inc.
    Significantly Owned By: Citigroup

  • Brand Name(s): Cascadian Farms, Muir Glen
    Owned By: Small Planet Foods
    Principle Stockholders: General Mills
    Significantly Owned By: Alcoa, Chevron, Disney, Dupont, ExxonMobil, General Electric, McDonalds, Monsanto, Nike, Pepsico, Pfizer, Philip Morris, Starbucks, Target, Texas Instruments

Items in bold are companies that I personally boycott and not a judgment one way or another against others on the list. It won't be easy to boycott all these items, especially the Hain Food Group and Small Planet Foods. But I think that I can find alternatives until they do, and I'll feel better for it.

And I'm not worried about the OTA's claim that "if Congress had not acted, many of the organic products consumers know and love would have disappeared." Puh-lease. Just change the labeling so that it is trustworthy, as over 300,000 of your customers have asked. Give us that much respect, and don't try to trick us into paying premium prices for misleading labels.

If we don't fight this, what will we do when the government and industry wants to force the next new questionable ingredient on the organic standards?

Later this week: Sustainable vs. Organic.