Mixed in amongst last week’s gossip about the 2013 Tony Awards and the latest PR nightmare for our current administration revolving around government spying on its citizens and lying to Congress, lay a less reported, but no less important story: An outbreak of Hepatitis A has been linked to organic frozen berries, offered through Townsend Farms of Fairview, Oregon. How could this happen? I thought certified organic products were supposed to be better, healthier and free from contaminants? After reading the article again, the bigger picture began to take shape, and among other things it revealed what I view as the biggest “chink” in organic food’s armor.
Organic food offers consumers an improvement over “conventional” agriculture, in that pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, antibiotics and chemicals normally applied carte blanche in heavy doses are not allowed. Animals are given more space and “access” to the outdoors than normally afforded their counterparts, who are packed in cages, pens and stalls tight enough to walk across without ever touching the ground. However, when people buy organic food, they often have a mental image of what they think they are supporting that doesn’t reflect reality. While most “normal” chemicals are not allowed, plenty of them are. Industrial producers have taken the definitions and rules and pushed them to the very brink (read this excellent post as an example). Ultimately, certified organic is an absolute improvement over conventional agriculture, but falls short of ideal by allowing consumers to continue buying their food from a faceless source that advertises falsehoods as truth and keeps the veil in place between people and their food.
While the organic food movement started with a vision of small farm producers doing things the right way, it has largely become the stomping grounds of “big ag”. And in that process, organic has lost its greatest strength: its moral foundation. When the industrial system got its hands on organic, the label (and the product) quickly became adulterated and diluted by the “bottom line”, the inclination to cheat and cut corners to save a buck, and the impulse to weaken standards in order to fit organic into an industrial mold. Simply put, it is EXTREMELY difficult for quality food to come from an industrial model no matter what it is labeled. In the original article I mentioned above, the problem is identified in these statements: “The fruit mix includes pomegranate seeds from Turkey, as well as other produce from the U.S., Argentina and Chile. Lab tests from two patients indicate that the outbreak strain of hepatitis A is genotype 1B, a strain rarely seen in the Americas but found in North Africa and the Middle East regions.” My question is: What business do we have eating pomegranate seeds grown in Turkey, Argentina and Chile?
Industrial agriculture involves a faceless producer who employs a fleet of lawyers and has little to no stake in the “goodness” of their product, only a drive to adulterate their food-like offerings to the point where it no longer resembles its noble origins. When the organic food movement was gobbled up by big ag, they fell into the same trap. So what’s the solution? When you buy local food from local farmers, you support a different system… especially if they happen to raise their animals/vegetables in an organic manner! Yes it is (a lot) more work to do the research, find producers you can ethically support, tour farms for yourself, etc. But take it from me, it is worth it. We do the research before we buy a car or spend money on the newest technology gadget, why is it weird to consider doing the same when it comes to one of the most important acts we partake in 3 times per day… eating?! In our current location, we’ve met some of the best kind of folks in our search for wholesome healthy food, from Scott & Lydia Enlow (Black Creek Farms) for our eggs and veggies to Ron & Heather Brandon (Zion Farms) for our meats. Establishing a connection with our food at the local level has many benefits, but most importantly, it allows us to have oversight on what we put in our bodies.