Sunday, April 27, 2008

Dumb Journalism

I have a big problem with the main story I awoke to find featured on CNN's homepage today. Read it first: The high price of going 'organic'

Obviously, given the food rant I posted just yesterday, you can tell that I am a proponent of organic food, natural ingredients, and sustainable food systems. So maybe I should preface this by saying that I might be biased. But I believe that I have a good reason for that bias.

The subtitle to the article is The push for 'green' products may have peaked - due in part to the fact that they're so much more expensive than mass-market alternatives. I read the news and my eyes are open, so I am well-aware of the economic state most of our country is in right now. Foreclosure rates are at an all-time high, people are losing their jobs, and our dear President Bush came up with the very clever Economic Stimulus Act of 2008 which will be worth about $600 to everyone who receives it. So how does this relate to food, you might ask?

The article states that many people are "getting turned off by the organic hype for three reasons: price, skepticism, and confusion."

The benefits of organic food, and I do mean truly organic food that is produced sustainably, are many. But maybe I should start from the beginning.

What does sustainable agriculture mean?

sustainable |səˈstānəbəl|
able to be maintained at a certain rate or level : sustainable fusion reactions.
• Ecology (esp. of development, exploitation, or agriculture) conserving an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources.
• able to be upheld or defended : sustainable definitions of good educational practice.

When I talk about sustainable agriculture I mean food that is grown in a way that can be repeated for generations. No massive, monoagricultural fields of corn growing for miles and miles, with nary a bird or bee to be seen. I mean small farms growing many different varieties of produce, and even many varieties of one kind of produce. Those fat red tomatoes we are all used to seeing don't look like the tomatoes our grandparents knew. There are at least 400 different kinds of heirloom tomatoes, in all different shapes, sizes, colors, textures and tastes.

But most people have no idea, because they see the same red tomato at every grocery store they visit. It's the same now with many kinds of produce and even livestock. Having the same couple of animals and plants dominating our food system is dangerous, because it would only take one virus or blight to wipe it all out.

If you've heard of the "Doomsday" seed vault in Svalbard, near the North Pole, you might know that they are not collecting the seeds to the kind of junk produce we see in the grocery store every day. Scientists are preserving millions of seeds from all over the world, strains that have been evolving over hundreds if not thousands of years to be perfectly adapted to their particular environment. Many of the strains have specific resistances to insects, or are particularly drought-resistant, depending on where they are grown. They have survived for so long because they are well-adapted to their environment, not because whoever tends the fields sprays them with a plethora of pesticides and herbicides each day.

In what has become my favorite and most-referenced New York Times article of all time, A Dying Breed, author Andrew Rice discusses the changing landscape in Uganda where American Holstein cows are overtaking the hardy Ankole in popularity, due to their factory-like milk production. Ankoles have been a fixture on the grasslands for the last thousand years, where they roamed all day and provided their owners with milk. But the Holstein can out-produce these ancient, perfectly-adapted cows by 20 or 30 times. Holsteins are happy to sit in a pen all day long unlike the Ankole, so a family with just a small plot of land can keep one. The disadvantage? Holsteins are always sick and always hungry, and do poorly in adverse environmental conditions like drought.

Rice writes, "The Food and Agriculture Organization, an agency of the United Nations, recently reported that at least 20 percent of the world’s estimated 7,600 livestock breeds are in danger of extinction. Experts are warning of a potential 'meltdown' in global genetic diversity." Each different strain of wheat, rice, pig, or cow carries with it a rich and valuable adaptive history. Each time we lose one of those strains, we are losing something important.

So getting back to my argument, this article about consumers turning away from organic food mentions that organic food is expensive, that it sells for a hefty premium of 50-100% more than mass-market produce. Duh. Big companies have figured out that it's cheaper to apply huge amounts of chemicals to their food than it is to farm it in small plots along with lots of other fruits and vegetables. It's the same reason Wal-Mart can sell its cheap plastic crap for less than any other retailer— the more of something you produce, the more you can shave costs by even just a penny per pound, for example. Does that mean you're getting a better product? No, it just means you are getting something for cheap, probably at lower quality. But that's how the quality vs. quantity thing works. Which one do you value more?

According the CNN article, "42% of those polled said they are skeptical and don't trust that products labeled as 'organic' actually are organic." That might possibly have something to do with the fact that the USDA has given in to pressure from lobby groups [who represent companies like ConAgra, for example] and relaxed its definition of "organic" food, so that in order to be organic, something only has to be 95% organic. And when Wal-Mart starts carrying its own line of organic food, any smart person would be skeptical. I wouldn't trust it either [nor would I shop at Wal-Mart, given everything I have read about it. Sam Walton must be turning in his grave]. If the labels are confusing, it's because companies eager to profit from the recent interest in "green" products have abused terms like "organic," "natural," "eco-friendly," and "sustainable," making them almost meaningless. But would you expect anything else?

We live in the information age and I don't believe it's enough to trust labels anymore. Consumers have to start asking questions and researching things for themselves if they really want to know what goes into them.

A move many people are making is away from just food labeled as "organic," to food grown locally by small, family-run farms. Not only can you ask the farmer exactly how they grew something, but you can probably visit the farm and see for yourself. So that takes care of the consumer skepticism mentioned in the article. And as for the higher prices? Not only are you paying for a higher-quality item, but you are supporting a farm and a lifestyle. You're not paying for robots and pesticide applicators, you're paying for a family to work a plot of land. When people's livelihoods depend on a certain amount of land, they have a reason to take care of it— in other words, to farm sustainably. No one will pollute land that they plan on working for the next couple of generations.

Nothing is better for a faltering economy than supporting local businesses, either. If you want to keep shopping at Wal-Mart, well, okay, but don't expect them to contribute anything back to your business either. If you own a small business, you might be able to expect the farmer you buy heirloom tomatoes from to come in and spend some money in your store. And why wouldn't they? That's how local economies work. Everyone benefits and the money stays in the area. It's a better deal for everyone involved.

If you read the original article, and then read this, you will realize the difference I hope. The CNN article makes it sound so obvious why people are moving away from "organic" products, when really this is a complicated situation that has some very simple solutions. The reporter didn't take the time to talk to any organic farmers and ask them why their produce costs more than what you can buy at Wal-Mart. The answer, I think, is obvious.


Becky Anderson said...

Good post. I like what you've said about the agriculture of the past versus what we've got now. I've been in debate with myself lately over the place of organic farming. I can't recall if you mentioned this specifically, but I read recently about how European's reluctance to accept genetically modified food has a strong negative impact on farming in developing nations, because they can't use certain seeds that grow better in their areas for fear of getting locked out of the Euro market. So there's a lot to think about there, and I don't know exactly where I fall on that. Your post offers food for thought-- thanks.

Aunt T. said...

Beautiful photos...especially love the tomatoes. Did you take all of the photos here? Nice!