In the 6 1/2 years since the federal government began certifying food as “organic,” Americans have taken to the idea with considerable enthusiasm. Sales have at least doubled, and three-quarters of the nation’s grocery stores now carry at least some organic foods. A Harris poll in October 2007 found that about 30 percent of Americans buy organic food at least on occasion, and most think it is safer, better for the environment and healthier.
But eating “organic” offers no guarantee of any of that. And the truth is that most Americans eat so badly — we get 7 percent of our carolies from soft drinks, more than we do from vegetables; the top food group by caloric intake is “sweets”; and one-third of nation’s adults are now obese — that the organic question is a secondary one. It’s not unimportant, but it’s not the primary issue in the way Americans eat.
To eat well, means avoiding edible food like substances and sticking to real ingredients. There is plenty of evidence that both a person’s health will improve with a simple shift in their eating habits away from animal products and highly processed foods to plant products.
People don’t understand that, nor do they realize “organic” doesn’t mean “local”. It doesn’t matter if it’s from down the road or from Chile. It just needs to met the standards set up by the Agriculture Department. So you can have Salmon flown in from Chile or frozen vegetables grown and sold in the US. Organic doesn’t necessarily mean that it was made down the street or locally.
Today, most farmers who practice truly sustainable farming, or what you might call “organic in spirit,” operate on small scale, some so small they can’t afford the requirements to be certified organic by the government. Others say that certification isn’t meaningful enough to bother. These farmers argue that, “When you buy organic you don’t just buy a product, you buy a way of life that is committed to not exploiting the planet,” says Ed Maltby, executive director of the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance.
But the organic food business is now big business, and getting bigger. Some estimates that major corporations now are responsible for at least 25 percent of all organic manufacturing and marketing (40 percent if you count only processed organic foods). Much of the nation’s organic food is as much a part of industrial food production as midwinter grapes, and becoming more so. In 2006, sales of organic foods and beverages totaled about $16.7 billion, according to the most recent figures from Organic Trade Association.
Still, those sales amounted to slightly less than 3 percent of overall food and beverage sales. For all the hoo-ha, organic food is not making much of an impact on the way Americans eat. “There are generic benefits from doing organics. It protects the land from the ravages of conventional agriculture,” and safeguards farm workers from being exposed to pesticides.
But the questions remain over how we eat in general. It may feel better to eat an organic Oreo than a conventional Oreo, but, Organic junk food is still junk food.
Last week, the first lady of the United States began digging up a patch of the South Lawn of the White House to plant an organic vegetable garden to provide food for the first family and, more important, to educate children about healthy, locally grown fruits and vegetables at a time when obesity and diabetes have become national concerns.
But Mrs. Obama also emphasized that there were many changes Americans can make if they don’t have the time or space for an organic garden.
“You can begin in your own cupboard,” she said, “by eliminating processed food, trying to cook a meal a little more often, trying to incorporate more fruits and vegetables.”
Popularizing such choices may not be as marketable as creating a logo that says “organic.” But when Americans have had their fill of “value-added” and overprocessed food, perhaps they can begin producing and consuming more food that treats animals and the land as if they mattered. Some of that food will be organic, and hooray for that. Meanwhile, they should remember that the word itself is not synonymous with “safe,” “healthy,” “fair” or even necessarily “good.”