The big O
Organic foods are everywhere, but all are not grown equally
Push a cart through any grocery store and you’ll be confronted with thousands of choices and questions.
Seven-grain Kashi crackers or Triscuits? Oreos or Newman’s Own cookies? Grass-fed beef or regular, or maybe tofu? Conventionally grown strawberries on two-for-one special, or a basket of little (but redder) organic strawberries at $4 a basket? Bags of stubby faux-baby carrots, or big carrots with the feathery leaves attached and a little dirt still lurking in the skin?
If you get the bunch, will your kids eat them? Is there really a difference?
Organic food has become big business. Many large mainstream supermarkets are jumping into the organic market—Safeway, for instance, has introduced an organic house label—and the variety and accessibility of organic foods has exploded. This sector of the grocery market is growing at some 15 percent to 20 percent a year—a particularly impressive number in the low-growth food-retailing sector.
On the most basic level, certified-organic food conforms to the United States Department of Agriculture’s standard, adopted in 2002, which ensures that organic food has been produced without the use of harmful chemicals, such as pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. These organic standards are enforced by more than 50 domestic third-party certifiers accredited by the USDA.
This seemingly simple standard, however, leaves plenty of unanswered questions for consumers and food producers alike.
Making sense of what the label “certified organic” means isn’t necessarily easy. Although national organic standards guarantee a certain uniformity in farming and food-production practices, they don’t guarantee that food is locally or sustainably produced, which is a priority for many who are sensitive to environmental concerns. Others question whether the “certified organic” label justifies the higher price tag organic foods command and whether organics will ever be affordable for lower-income shoppers. Talking to consumers reveals that they are buying (or not buying) organic foods for a variety of reasons, varying from health concerns about their kids to a commitment to local agriculture—concerns that underscore the issues and controversies that swirl around organic foods.
The organic-agriculture movement arose from the 1960s and 1970s counterculture, which encouraged a back-to-the-land sensibility and a corresponding rejection of large industrial food production. Farming without using synthetic fertilizers or pesticides became another way of rejecting mainstream culture—and of producing food that was seen as more authentic and better for you.
The organic label in California has its roots in the early 1970s, when grassroots organizations of farmers banded together to set standards for the term “certified organic.” In California, the result was California Certified Organic Farmers, formed in 1973, now the state’s largest organic certifier and trade association.
In many ways, this grassroots image still clings to the organic label. As Michael Pollan points out in his recent book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which explores different food systems (including conventional, big organic and local organic), marketers are happy to reinforce this image through what he calls “supermarket pastoral": a farmer’s wife depicted on an egg carton, say, or a cow luxuriating in tall grass on a milk carton. But these days, an organic farm (or processing plant) often is enormous, on the scale of analogous conventional farms.
Sean Feder, director of inspections for CCOF, has been an organic inspector since 1991, and he notes that while organic standards have remained similar over time, the demographics of food production have shifted.
“Fifteen years ago, the legal definition of organic was essentially what it is now, because generally the federal rule is in line with the compliance standards we had before,” Feder said. “However, then when you said organic, there was more of an implication that [a product] came from an old-fashioned, family-owned farm.”
Not all farmers agree with Feder’s assessment that organic standards have remained strong enough. Shawn Harrison, executive director of the Soil Born Farm Urban Agriculture Project in Sacramento, feels that the organic industry’s growth has undermined the original movement’s vision.
“The organic label as a whole has been watered down, tremendously so, in the last five years or so,” Harrison said. “The original vision for certified organic was that it would be this tool to ensure the quality and integrity of the food for the consumer and create standardized guidelines for small growers. And what’s happened is that … the bigger guys have come in and there’s money to be made and they start buying out some of the smaller farms.”
Harrison acknowledges that big organic is preferable to big conventional agribusiness. “Any kind of organic food production is good because they are limiting uses of herbicides and pesticides and are measurably more sustainable, but in a lot of ways this is counter to the original vision of organic, and that is small, local food production.”
Whether farms or food producers are big or small, labeling food “organic” means following certain guidelines: no synthetic fertilizers and pesticides may have been used for at least three years, though many products and soil amendments are approved for organic use. An annual inspection is required, and growers and processors must keep detailed records of all food production.
For Jim Durst, a fourth-generation farmer in Esparto who has been growing organically since the late 1980s, growing asparagus, tomatoes, melons and squash organically carries with it a complete philosophy.
“Do you know the difference between conventional and organic agriculture?” Durst asked. “The premise for conventional agriculture is that you feed the plant. In organic agriculture, you’re more concerned with the soil and its microorganisms and you feed that.”
Practices to achieve this end include crop rotation and cover cropping (that is, growing crops that fix nitrogen in the soil). Durst contends that healthier soil creates more nutrient-rich crops; tests done by the Rodale Institute on conventional and organic crops support his view.
What drives consumer demand for organic foods?
The sense that such foods are “healthier” often comes from concerns about pesticide residues for both personal health and the environment. Others hope to buy local for freshness or to support regional economies, or are concerned about farmworker safety, the use of fossil fuels in food production, or the use of synthetic fertilizers, which cause algae blooms and other problems for marine life.
Comparing conventional and organic agriculture on these grounds seems to make the choice clear. Offsetting these sometimes abstract worries, however, are concerns about price and availability. Because prices for organic food are typically higher than for comparable conventional items (milk, for instance, may be up to twice the price), the organic movement has been met with charges of elitism.
Moreover, as big growers and food processors have jumped into the organic market and the connection of the organic label to local production, sustainability and environmental responsibility has become murkier, many consumers are left wondering whether organic is worth the price—or, in the case of organic agribusiness, whether it represents a choice they want to support.
At Chico Natural Foods, the emphasis is on organics—the produce section is more than 90 percent organic, and whenever organic grocery items are available, they are offered instead of other items. According to RachelOriana Schraeder, the co-op’s general manager, CNF is the largest retailer of organic food items in this region of the north valley.
“You get both personal and environmental health benefits from food that has been grown without pesticides and chemicals,” said Schraeder, who grew up in a very health-conscious family.
“A lot of people choose organic to stay away from pesticides,” agreed S&S Produce owner Joyce Rogers. “It’s better for our land, too.” S&S also has an extensive selection of organic foods, ranging from fruits and vegetables to groceries to its well-known Butcher Shop, which offers free-range poultry among other things.
Rogers’ father, a produce man, bought S&S in 1968. The store went organic at least a decade ago, and over the years she has seen a change in people’s attitudes about what they eat.
“More and more people are going for organic and natural foods. All of the scares are making people more health-conscious,” she said. “There’s also more interest in saving the earth than there used to be.”
But the organic label isn’t the only thing people are looking for these days. A few years ago, CNF did a survey of its customers. The results were unexpected.
“Local was of great importance and took precedence over other values such as price and selection and even over being certified organic,” Schraeder said. The co-op recently decided to sell meat and will begin to offer local grass-fed beef and other meat products early this year.
When possible, CNF stocks local produce, and during the summer about 40 percent of the department was supplied locally. The store will begin working with two local farmers, when the growing season starts again, to supply local produce.
“I’m going to project what we will sell and they’ll actually plant just for us,” said Fred Wertz, produce manager at CNF. A few months ago, when he started at the co-op, one of the priorities he was given was to establish relationships with local farmers. “I was told to buy as much locally as possible.”
Why local? “People like to see the local economy flourish,” Wentz explained. Plus, “If you get it from the local growers, it’s going to be fresher. And it just tastes better.”
S&S’s Rogers agreed, adding that “Chico is very locally minded.”
Shoppers notice, too. Josh Snider used to work at S&S and hasn’t changed his organic lifestyle since leaving.
“I buy organic because I know they’re not sprayed. There are more nutrients and most of the time it tastes a lot better,” he said, while picking through a pile of mandarins in S&S’s produce section. “I also love the Butcher Shop—the free-range turkeys are the best.”
He’ll buy local before he buys organic, though. “I buy local produce, local juice. I look for that first.”
This is good news to local farmers like Matthew Martin of Pyramid Farms just outside Chico. His 8 1/2-acre farm is made up of all-organic mixed vegetables and he sells to CNF, S&S and the Saturday morning Farmers Market.
Martin, who has been in the farming business for 20 years, is one of two locals who will be working with Chico Natural Foods to grow produce specifically for the store. He’s excited because it’s selling in bulk that keeps his small farm alive.
“Right now people are much more aware of the importance of buying local produce,” he said. Part of that is due to high gas prices, which don’t make shipping vegetables a long distance very practical. “Every time a head of lettuce gets on a truck it burns gas and burns the atmosphere.”
Another part is simply caring more about the environment and thinking locally.
He added: “Local is the new organic.”
Health concerns, particularly for her 1-year-old daughter, underlie the shopping habits of Sarah Ellis, an architect whose second child is due in March. Ellis opted for a predominantly organic diet while trying to conceive her first child, and says she was “really conscious” of it when she became pregnant.
She was first exposed to organic and natural foods while growing up: “We always had good food,” she said. “My mom always shopped at health-food stores. We didn’t have a lot of money, but she put the money into good food.”
Now, Ellis estimates that 80 percent to 90 percent of the food she buys is organic, and she cites concerns about the health effects as the reason: “Number one is the pesticides that are used in food production,” she said. According to CCOF, the Environmental Protection Agency considers 60 percent of herbicides, 90 percent of fungicides and 30 percent of insecticides to be carcinogens.
Durst agrees that pesticides are dangerous.
“We’re all exposed,” he said. “It’s in the air we breathe. It’s on the food. It’s present in the soil. There’s still DDT in the soil that was applied in the ‘50s, and it’s still in our food chain. It’s just that we’ve allowed certain levels of parts per million, and so as long as you stay below those levels it’s deemed safe. I think our tolerance level should be zero.”
Ellis does relax her standards on some out-of-season produce or especially expensive items. “I sometimes buy conventional and wash them with a veggie wash, so the pesticide comes off,” she said. “I figure it’s better to just get some produce.”
With a toddler at home, certain foods are necessities, organic or not. “I did buy non-organic raisins the other day, even though with dried fruits I’ve heard there’s more of a concentration of pesticide residues, but I was desperate.”
In addition to the taste, there may be health benefits to organic foods aside from its simple lack of pesticide residues.
“It’s been scientifically proven that there’s more nutritional value [in organic produce],” Durst said. “Because of the soil, there are more minerals and more usable antioxidants.” Both that and the lack of pesticide residues, he says, drive consumer demand for organics: “Especially when people start having kids, there’s something about the health of their kids.”
Despite the growing availability of organic food, however, it’s not available to all. Such health concerns might be a moot point to people who find organic food too expensive or who can’t find it where they live.
As organic agriculture and food production have grown, splits in the community—and in consumer reasons for buying (or not buying) organic foods—have developed. Some have questioned whether the future of organic foods lies in two directions: one label for small local farmers, one for industrial organic.
“There needs to be something to distinguish the grower who’s doing everything right,” Harrison said. “The majority of the growers are doing it right, but there are a few really big ones that are borderline. They’re not the organic I imagine.”
Harrison cautions that he would be reluctant to see a secondary “organic” label because of the risk of confusing the customer. Instead, he says, a label for “food miles,” indicating how far away a food was produced, might be the solution.
CCOF’s Feder, however, points out that large-scale organic production is an improvement on conventional production—something most in the organic community concede.
“I’m glad that the large, big, huge farms are going organic,” he said. “It means [fewer] pesticides on the land. It’s better for farms, good for the birds and good for the consumers.”
Should you buy organic? Ultimately, the decision comes down to personal choice and priorities. Price-conscious consumers may shy away; those who oppose agribusiness may seek out small-farm products through CSAs or at farmers’ markets.
Feder notes that the choice to buy more organic operates on many different levels: “On the whole, it’s more environmentally friendly. If people want to be supporting smaller businesses, there may be higher percentage of family farms in organic offerings than in conventional, but you really have to look for other labels like locally grown.”
The expanding consumer awareness of concerns, of pesticide residues and environmental effects of conventional agriculture, mean that, despite rifts within the organic community, the growth of organic seems likely to continue. As Durst puts it, “Why wouldn’t I eat organic food?”
Highest in pesticides
sweet bell peppers
potatoes Cleanest 12
Lowest in pesticides
sweet corn (frozen)
sweet peas (frozen)
From the Environmental Working Group’s Shoppers Guide to Pesticides in Produce
Additional reporting by Meredith J. Cooper