After decades of grassroots public education, battles to safeguard standards, and hard work, organic food and farming has become the fastest growing sector of U.S. agriculture. Organics have surged in popularity to become a $30 billion dollar industry in the United States, representing approximately four percent of total grocery store sales and 12% of fresh fruit and vegetable sales, growing at the rate of 10-20% a year, in comparison to a growth rate of 2-3% a year for so-called "conventional" (i.e. chemical and genetically engineered) food. According to a recent poll by National Public Radio the majority (58%) of Americans now prefer organic food.
Millions of health-minded consumers, especially parents of young children, understand that cheap, non-organic, industrial food is hazardous. Not only does factory farming destroy the environment, destabilize the climate, impoverish rural communities, exploit farm workers, inflict unnecessary cruelty on farm animals, and contaminate the water supply; but the end product itself is inevitably contaminated. Routinely contained in nearly every bite or swallow of non-organic industrial food are pesticides, antibiotics and other animal drug residues, pathogens, hormone disrupting chemicals, toxic sludge, slaughterhouse waste, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), chemical additives and preservatives, and a host of other hazardous allergens and toxins.
Organics or Fast Food/Monsanto Nation?
Before we pat ourselves on the back for reaching a point where $30 billion of the U.S.'s $750 billion in yearly grocery store sales are certified organic (consumers are also buying another $51 billion worth of so-called "natural" foods and products); before we congratulate ourselves on the fact that there are thousands of well-stocked health food stores and co-ops across the country, as well as 6,132 farmers markets (up 350% since 1994), and 13,000 local CSA (community supported agriculture) buying clubs with a total of 400,000 members, let's put our organic movement's accomplishments in perspective.
The overwhelming majority of Americans are still eating non-organic, pesticide-laden, genetically engineered, overly processed, junk foods on a regular basis, spending half of their food dollars on super-sized industrial chow in restaurants, cafeterias, and fast-food outlets. Skyrocketing rates of obesity, cancer, heart disease, and other diet-related diseases, and a devastated rural landscape of factory farms, monoculture crops, lifeless soil, polluted waterways, and depleted aquifers are a testimony to the monumental challenge that still lies ahead.
Your Whole Paycheck for Organic Foods?
Even if the majority of Americans have now reached the point where they say they'd prefer to buy organic foods, the majority of their purchases obviously aren't organic. Otherwise the organic market share this year would be $400 billion, not just $30 billion. Why aren't more people buying more organic food, if they believe it's better for their health, as well as the health of the environment? In the NPR poll cited above, 54% of Americans said they weren't buying organic food, or else they weren't buying much of it, because it is too expensive.
Expanding the organic revolution will require that the organic movement offer practical solutions to the "Whole Paycheck" dilemma, so that ordinary people start to feel that the "organic premium" is a worthwhile investment in terms of health and sustainability. And for the poor, we're simply going to have to find ways to subsidize their organic food consumption by incorporating, for example, organic food into food stamp and nutrition programs, as well as school cafeterias.
Of course, if you add up the enormous hidden costs of non-organic foods and cheap junk fare - damage to public health, environmental destruction, greenhouse gas pollution, contaminated water, dead zones in the oceans, billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies to chemical and GMO agribusiness - organic food is actually much cheaper. The problem however is that the average shopper doesn't really understand this. Standing in the supermarket aisles or at the checkout counter, economically-stressed out Americans have only a limited amount of money to spend. What can they do?
On the website of the Organic Consumers Association, there are a number of articles on how to buy organic foods on a limited budget, but offering advice for budget organic shopping is not enough. The organic movement needs to step up its public education and advocacy work. Most importantly, we need to lead by example and show our families, friends, co-workers and neighbors what the Organic Alternative really means. To influence others and train a new generation of organic advocates we must walk our talk :
(1) Stay informed and motivated. Reading through the thousands of articles archived on the Organic Consumers Association website and other websites is a good way to inspire ourselves, to give us food for thought and communication. You can use the internal search engine on the OCA website to find the specific articles that fire you up, and then spread the word. http://www.OrganicConsumers.org
(2) Prioritize your time and money. Turn off the TV or computer, turn on the tunes, and head for the kitchen or the backyard garden. We need to show people how it's possible and enjoyable to rearrange our daily routines to make healthy food and gardening a priority. We need to break free from consumer compulsions and cut back unnecessary expenditures in order to be able to afford more organic foods and ingredients.
(3) Do it ourselves or do it with friends and family. We can all learn or re-learn the joys of cooking at home and the satisfaction of sharing communal meals, potlucks, and picnics with our organic-minded friends. Americans spend half their food dollars eating out, which is often expensive and usually unhealthy. By eating out less often, we can afford to buy more organic foods to prepare at home and invite friends over for dinner. We can also set a good example by preparing healthy organic lunches for ourselves at work and for our children at school.
(4) Filter our water, grow veggies, and bake our own bread. By buying a home water filter (which will remove fluoride, chlorine and other toxins) and carrying a stainless steel canteen, we can show people that you don't have to buy expensive drinking water in BPA-leaching plastic bottles. We can also show people, by example, that you can grow your own organic herbs, spices, and veggies, even if you just start with potted plants on your windowsills, rooftops, porches, or patios. Buying extra organic fruits and vegetables in season and learning the traditional arts of canning or preserving are a major step forward. With a bread-making machine or some lessons in kneading our own, all of us can enjoy organic bread and pastries every day for a fraction of the cost of chemical and GMO-tainted baked goods.
(5) Simplify your diet, eliminate waste, and reduce your intake of processed foods and animal products. We can all buy organic whole grains, beans, spices, herbal teas, and cereals in bulk and cook from scratch. Learning how to use a pressure cooker will save time, money, and energy, as will careful meal planning and creative use of leftovers. Americans typically throw out and waste one-third of their food. Get in the habit of looking for recipes on the Internet, or using cookbooks.
(6) Shop at farmer's markets, consumer coops, or join a Community Supported Agriculture project in your area. This way you can get your organic fruits and vegetables at the most affordable prices. Also look for fruits and vegetables and other foods that are in "Transition" to organic. Start a home garden or join a community gardening project. Eat as many salads and raw foods as possible.
(7) Join or organize an organic and non-GMO wholesale discount food-buying club. This buying club might include just your household or combine the buying power of several households. OCA will be announcing a new national distribution system for organic discount food buying clubs next week. This buying club network will address the Whole Paycheck and Organic Food Desert problems by offering non-perishable organic and non-GMO foods at an average 30-40% discount off retail prices, delivered directly to your door.
Organic Food Deserts, Highways, and Byways
Most American restaurants - where people spend half of their food dollars - are, in effect, organic food deserts, offering little or no organic fare. The same goes for school and workplace cafeterias, hospitals, universities, hotels, motels, and convenience stores. The United States interstate highway system can only be described as one enormous organic food desert, where low-grade restaurant chains, big box stores, and fast food outlets dominate the landscape.
In the NPR poll cited above, a significant proportion (21%) of Americans say that organic foods are not readily available or accessible in their towns or neighborhoods. In effect, large areas of the U.S., including rural communities, small towns, and low-income urban communities are "organic food deserts" with little or no access to natural food stores or farmers markets. If we want to move organic food and farming from being a 4% niche to the norm, we're going to have to "green" these deserts, but not the way Michele Obama has suggested, by bringing Wal-Mart stores into every urban community. Instead, to green America's food deserts we need to "get political" and change public food policies. In the meantime, food buying clubs, CSAs, and co-ops can lay down the foundation for organic retail storefronts.
Who Will Grow the Organic Food of the Future?
We've got 25,000 organic farmers and ranchers working hard and, in many cases, starting to make a decent living across North America, but we need a million organic producers if we are to make organic foods readily accessible and more affordable for the majority of consumers. We've got eight million acres of U.S. cropland and pastureland under organic management - producing nutrient-dense, healthy food, enriching the soil, preventing erosion, and restoring the soil's capacity to sequester billions of pounds of greenhouse gases, but this amounts to only 1% of agricultural acreage. We've got thousands of young farm apprentices working on organic farms and CSAs, but we need hundreds of thousands. We've got scores of organic farm schools, but we need thousands, one or more at least, in each of the 3200 counties in the U.S. We've got a handful of universities and high schools teaching students about organic farming and animal husbandry, but we need every school and college to offer these programs, starting with elementary school.
We've got a half a million budding backyard organic gardeners, but we need millions, and we need more and more backyard farmers to expand into market gardening or mini-farms. At the end of the Second World War, half of America's fruits and vegetables (and 30% in the UK) were coming from backyard, school, and community gardens, tended by millions of women, seniors, and youth, called Liberty Gardens. In this era of climate change, Peak Oil, and food insecurity, we're going to need to scale up our "grow your own" efforts exponentially, and turn 60 million acres of chemical-intensive, non-edible lawns into organic gardens, mini-farms, and orchards. We're also going to have to build a Main Street to Manhattan grassroots infrastructure of greenhouses and hoop houses, root cellars, food buying clubs, and neighborhood canning facilities.
The Myth of So-Called "Natural" Foods and Products
One of the major reasons why organic food sales and the acreage of organic farmland are still relatively small is the fact that millions of consumers have been hoodwinked into believing that so-called "natural" foods are "almost organic." Of course the advantage in the marketplace of these so-called "natural foods" is that they are considerably cheaper than organic foods. This is the main reason why Americans buy $50 billion worth of foods and grocery items every year that are marketed as "natural," while only buying $30 billion worth of organic products. Several recent polls indicate that the majority of health and green-minded consumers don't know the difference between "natural" or "all natural" and organic foods. If they did know the difference, we'd likely be looking at $80 billion worth of organic foods and products sold every year, not just $30 billion.
Walk down the aisles of any Whole Foods Market (WFM) or Trader Joe's and look closely. What do you see? Row after row of attractively displayed, but mostly non-organic "natural" (i.e. conventional) foods and products. By marketing sleight of hand, these conventional foods, vitamins, private label items, and personal care products become "natural" or "almost organic" (and overpriced) in the natural food store setting. The overwhelming majority of WFM products, even their best-selling private label, "365" house brand, are not organic, but rather the products of chemical and energy-intensive farm and food production factories. Test these so-called natural products in a lab and what will you find: pesticide residues, Genetically Modified Organisms, and a long list of problematic chemicals. Trace these products back to the farm or factory and what will you find: climate destabilizing chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides, not to mention exploited farm workers and workers in the food processing industry. Of course there are many products in WFM and Trader Joe's that bear the label "USDA Organic." But the overwhelming majority of their products, even their best selling private labels, are not.
What does certified organic or "USDA Organic" mean? This means these products are certified 95-100% organic. Certified organic means the farmer or producer has undergone a regular inspection of its farm, facilities, ingredients, and practices by an independent Third Party certifier, accredited by the USDA National Organic Program (NOP). The producer has followed strict NOP regulations and maintained detailed records. Synthetic pesticides, animal drugs, sewage sludge, GMOs, irradiation, and chemical fertilizers are prohibited. Farm animals, soil, and crops have been managed organically; food can only be processed with certain methods; only allowed ingredients can be used.
On the other hand, what does "natural" really mean, in terms of farming practices, ingredients, and its impact on the environment and climate? To put it bluntly, "natural," in the overwhelming majority of cases is meaningless, even though most consumers do not fully understand this. Natural, in other words, means conventional, with a green veneer. Natural products are routinely produced using pesticides, chemical fertilizers, hormones, genetic engineering, and sewage sludge. Natural or conventional products - whether produce, dairy, or canned or frozen goods - are typically produced on large industrial farms or in processing plants that are highly polluting, chemical-intensive and energy-intensive. "Natural," "all-natural," and "sustainable," products in most cases are neither backed up by rules and regulations, nor a Third Party certifier. Natural and sustainable are typically label claims that are neither policed nor monitored. (For an evaluation of eco-labels see the Consumers Union website). The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service provides loose, non-enforced guidelines for the use of the term "natural" on meat - basically the products cannot contain artificial flavors, coloring, or preservatives and cannot be more than minimally processed. On non-meat products, the term "natural" is typically pure propaganda.
The bottom line is that we must put our money and our principles where our values lie. Buy Certified Organic, not so-called natural products, today and everyday. And tell your retail grocer or co-op how you feel.
Ronnie Cummins is the National Director of the Organic Consumers Association.