Newsweek Covers the US Organic Boom

Certified Organic

Stamp Of Approval: New government rules will define Oorganic.' The sale of
these fruits, veggies and snack foods has soared, but we still aren't sure
what good they do. Here's a guide to how purer products affect the health of
our families and the planet

By Geoffrey Cowley

Sept. 30, 2002 issue

Otto Kramm used to come home from work at night and warn
his toddlers to keep their distance until he'd bathed and changed his

HE WASN'T JUST TRYING to keep them clean. As a vegetable farmer in
California's Salinas Valley, Kramm spent his days covered in pesticides,
herbicides and fungicides, and he worried about their effects on young
children. "I didn't know what was on my clothes," he says, "or how it might
affect the kids 15 years down the road." The more he thought about it, the
less he liked the feeling.

So in 1996, Kramm did something radical. He bought into a farm that
was being cultivated organically. "It was scary," he says. "I couldn't fall
back on the tools I'd always used to fight the pests and the weeds." But he
worked out a new relationship with the soil and ended up not only cleaner
but more prosperous. Today Kramm has 6,000 acres on three farms. The
nation's largest organic-produce distributor, Earthbound Farm, is buying up
everything he can grow. And he's never off-limits to his kids.

Organic farms are still sprouts in a forest of industrial giants.

They provide less than 2 percent of the nation's food supply and take up
less than 1 percent of its cropland. But they're flourishing as never
before. Over the past decade the market for organic food has grown by 15 to
20 percent every year 40 percent of U.S. consumers now reach occasionally
for something labeled organic, and sales are expected to top $11 billion this year.
Could dusty neighborhood co-ops sell that many wormy little apples? Well, no.
That was the old organic. The new organic is all about bigger farms, heartier crops,
better distribution and slicker packaging and promotion. Conglomerates as
big as Heinz and General Mills are now launching or buying organic lines and
selling them in mainstream supermarkets.

What exactly are consumers getting out of the deal? Until now, the
definition of "organic" has varied from one state to the next, leaving
shoppers to assume it means something like "way more expensive but probably
better for you." Not anymore. As of Oct. 21, any food sold as organic will
have to meet criteria set by the United States Department of Agriculture.
The National Organic Rule scientists and consumers "organic" (at least 95 percent)
for foods produced without hormones, antibiotics, herbicides, insecticides,
chemical fertilizers, genetic modification or germ-killing radiation. Food
makers who document their compliance will qualify for a new USDA seal
declaring their products "certified organic." "This really signifies the start of a
new era," says Margaret Wittenberg of the Whole Foods supermarket chain.
"From now on, consumers will get a very solid idea of what is organic and
what is not." Yet for all the clarity they provide, the standards say nothing
about what's worth putting in your shopping cart. "This is not a food-safety
program," says Barbara Robinson, the USDA official overseeing the effort.
"We're not saying that organic food is safer or better than other kinds of
food." How, then, should we read the new label? Does "certified organic"
tell us anything worth knowing about a chicken breast or a candy bar? Are
organically grown grapes more nutritious than conventional ones? And is
organic agriculture a viable alternative to modern factory farming? These
are complicated, politically charged questions, but they're questions worth
asking ourselves


When the counterculture embraced organic food and farming in the early '70s,
the motivation was more philosophical than practical. Maria Rodale, whose
family runs the pro-organic Rodale Institute in Kutztown, Pa., sees the
current boom as evidence that people are still "expressing their values
about the environment and even spirituality and politics through the food
choices they make." Market research suggests she's about 26 percent right.
When the Hartman Group of Bellevue, Wash., surveyed consumers two years ago,
only one in four cited concern about the environment as a "top motivator"
for buying organic food. Flavor was a bigger concern, cited by 38 percent as
reason enough to pay a premium of 15 percent or more. Sophisticated chefs
have responded in droves, many now serving only fresh, seasonal food from
small local growers. "The difference is huge," says Peter Hoffman, owner of
New York's Restaurant Savoy and chairman of the Chefs' Collaborative. "When
people taste asparagus or string beans grown in richly composted soil, they
can't get over the depth and vibrancy of the flavor."

Eating Organic: What's in Your Cart?

A grass-roots movement has come of age. Organic foods generate $11 billion a
year and are about to get their first federal seal. They're low in chemicals
and kinder to the environment, and consumers are ever more willing to pay
for them.

FRUITS [Organic]

* INCREASE IN SALES IN THE U.S. 1998 to 2000 :+23%*
* A Major Crop: Fruit is one of America's biggest organic products, with
more than 49,000 acres planted.
* Big Sellers: Grapes lead the pack (39%), followed by apples (18%),
citrus (12%) and tree nuts (10%).
* Pesticide Residue: Levels vary in nonorganic fruit. Strawberries,
cherries, peaches and cantaloupes harbor the most.
* Eating Tip: Wash what you eat. Even organic fruit can pick up residues.
Washing removes dangerous germs, too.

DAIRY [Organic]

* INCREASE IN SALES IN THE U.S. 1998 to 2000 :+96%
* Growth Leaders: Eggs and milk were among the fastest-growing organic
categories during the 1990s. Dairy sales rose by 500% from 1994 to 1999.
* Milk: Many consumers worry about the use of bovine growth hormone used
to boost milk production. The FDA has found the milk safe.
* Eggs: Eggs from some free-range chickens may contain more beneficial
omega-3 fatty acids.
* Price: Expect to pay 60% more for organic milk. Organic eggs can cost
twice as much as those from factory-farm chickens.


* INCREASE IN SALES IN THE U.S. 1998 to 2000 :+86%
* New Options: Don't confuse organic foods with whole foods. Americans
like their healthy stuff in packages.
* Nutrition Bars: Sales jumped 35% last year.
* Chips & Salsa: Snack food sales increased 29%.

MEATS [Organic]

* INCREASE IN SALES IN THE U.S. 1998 to 2000 :+71%
* Place of Birth: Under the new USDA rules, all organic livestock, except
poultry, must be born on an organic farm. Two days after birth, poultry have
to move to organic quarters.
* What They Eat: Organic livestock must consume only 100% organic feed.
* Staying Healthy: Farmers may vaccinate livestock, but may not use
hormones or antibiotics. A sick animal treated with meds is no longer
* Fresh Air: Access to outdoors is mandatory.

GRAINS [Organic]

* INCREASE IN SALES IN THE U.S. 1998 to 2000 :+99%
* Growing Fast: The market for organic wheat, rice, corn, barley and oats
has taken off since 1998 and now exceeds $400 million a year. Organic
soybeans are expanding their niche in the prairie states, thanks in part to
strong demand in Japan.

WINE & BEER [Organic]

* INCREASE IN SALES IN THE U.S. 1998 to 2000:+30%
* Benefits: Organic wine lacks those headache-causing sulfites, and its
grapes are grown without methyl bromide, an all-purpose pesticide that has
been shown to damage the ozone layer.


* INCREASE IN SALES IN THE U.S. 1998 to 2000 :+23%*
* Green Forever: Veggies rival fruits as a mainstay of organic
agriculture, with more than 48,000 acres in cultivation. California is the
nation's leading grower.
* Most Popular: Lettuce is a top crop, making up roughly 12% of the
acreage devoted to vegetables. Tomatoes and carrots follow at about 7% each.
* Ready-mades: Salad mix is the biggest 'value added' vegetable product,
with pickles, vinegars and relishes close behind.OTHER

* INCREASE IN SALES IN THE U.S. 1998 to 2000:+29%
* Beyond Food: It isn't just what you eat: it's what you wear. Interest
in organic diapers, baby clothes and bedding are up.
* Doggie Biscuits: Organic pet products rose 93% in 2001.
* Aromatherapy: Organic personal-care sales grew 42%.A Guide to the
GuidelinesUnder the USDA's new National Organic Rule, products carrying the
label must be produced without hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, synthetic
fertilizers or genetic modification. The rule uses different terms to
distinguish different levels of purity.

* "100% Organic": Products carrying this label cannot contain any
non-organic ingredients.
* "Organic": At least 95% of the product's ingredients must be organic.
* "Made With Organic Ingredients": Must contain at least 70% organic
ingredients. Should not contain any added sulfites.
* "Some Organic Ingredients": Products containing less than 70% organic
ingredients can list them individually.
Printable version

To most consumers, though, organic means healthier. Fully 66 percent
of the Hartman Group's respondents cited health as a "top motivator" as will
almost any shopper on the street. "Buying an apple that has poison on it,
even if you wash it you don't know how much has come off," says Wendy
Abrams, a suburban Chicago mother with four kids at home. Abrams buys
organic milk and stocks her pantry with Newman's Own pretzels and raisins on
the theory that anything organic is less likely to harbor cancer-causing
chemicals. "There have been six cases of cancer on my street," she says.
"It's just weird."

All of these folks "connoisseurs" and "health seekers" they getting what
they're seeking? It's hard to argue with the connoisseurs,
and not just because they know what they like. A tomato grown on a vast
commercial plot is bred less for taste than for durability, notes Bob
Scowcroft of the nonprofit Organic Farming Research Foundation. It has to
resist disease and ship well. Organic growers, with their smaller harvests
and their reliance on nearby markets, can plant delicate heirloom strains
and give the fruit more time on the vine. "They pick it when it's ripe,"
says Marion Cunningham, author of "The Fannie Farmer Cookbook." "No one goes
around picking organic fruits when they're as hard as little rocks."
Organic vs. regular: Which is better?
March 14, 2002 < Food editor Phil Lempert guides Al Roker and the rest of
the "Today" crew through a blind taste test of organic foods.

The health seekers may have common sense on their side, but no one
has found a way to determine whether people eating well-balanced organic
diets are healthier than those eating well-balanced conventional ones. No
one denies that nonorganic produce contains pesticide residues that would be
toxic at high doses. Nor is there any question that children (because of
their size) consume those residues in higher concentrations than adults. But
there is still no evidence that pesticides cause ill health at the doses
found in food, or that people who eschew them come out ahead. Technological
optimists find it ludicrous that anyone would fret over pesticide residues
when the hazards of foodborne bacteria are so much clearer. E. coli is
"perhaps the deadliest risk in our modern food supply," says Dennis Avery of
the Hudson Institute<"and its primary hiding place is the cattle manure with
which organic farmers fertilize food crops." So wash your produce, but don't
let it scare you. Organic or conventional, fruits and vegetables are the
best fuel you can put in your body.

Dangerous bacteria are even more common in animal products, but the
organic program is not a germ-control initiative. Under the new guidelines,
meat and dairy labeled organic must come from creatures that are raised on
organic grains or grasses, given access to the outdoors and spared treatment
with growth hormones and antibiotics. Experts agree that by spiking animal
feed with antibiotics, conventional farmers are speeding the emergence of
drug-resistant bacteria. Buying organic is one way to vote against that
practice. But in terms of your own health, you'll profit more from holding
back on animal products than by eating organic ones. In one study, Danish
research found that organic chickens were actually more likely than
conventional ones to carry campylobacter, a pathogen that can cause severe

Getting Piggy With It In Iowa

So organic food is tastier and more appealing, but not demonstrably
better for you. If you're shopping with only yourself in mind, maybe you'll
save your money. But if you pause to think about what you're buying into
with every food purchase, organic goods start to look like a bargain. Our
current agricultural system took off in the years following World War II,
when farmers discovered that chemical fertilizers could force higher yields
out of tired soil species. As farmers saw what the new chemicals made possible,
American agriculture was transformed from a rural art into a heavy industry
dominated by large corporations growing single crops on vast stretches of
poisoned soil.

As any ecologist might have predicted, the new approach was hard to
sustain. A small, varied farm can renew itself endlessly when managed with
care. Last year's bean stocks help nourish next year's cantaloupes, and a
bad year for tomatoes may be a good year for eggplant. As they lost sight of
those lessons, the factory farmers grew ever more dependent on chemicals.
Insects died off conveniently at first. But each application of insecticide
left a few hearty survivors, and within a few generations whole populations
were resistant. Today, says Scowcroft, "we're applying three times as much
chemical as we were 40 years ago to kill the same pests." It's not just
insects. Conventional farmers now use herbicides to kill weeds, fungicides
to kill fungi, rodenticides to kill field mice and gophers, avicides to kill
fruit-eating birds and molluscicides to kill snails. Strawberry growers now
favor all-purpose fumigants such as methyl bromide. "You inject it into the
soil and put a tarp over it," says Monica Moore of the Pesticide Action
Network of North America. "It kills everything from mammals to microbes.
It's a complete biocide."

These practices may not be poisoning our food, but there is no
question they're killing off wildlife, endangering farmworkers and degrading
the soil and water that life itself depends on. Pesticides now kill 67
million American birds each year. The Mississippi River dumps enough
synthetic fertilizer into the Gulf of Mexico to maintain a 60-mile-wide
"dead zone" too choked with algae to support fish. And soil erosion
threatens to turn much of the world's arable land into desert. "Conventional
agriculture still delivers cheap, abundant food," says Fred Kirschenmann of
the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Ames, Iowa. "But when you
factor in the government subsidies and the environmental costs, it gets very
expensive. We're drawing down our ecological capital. At some point, the
systems will start to break down."

Can organic agriculture save the day? Not if it's just a
boutique alternative. But as demand grows, more and more farmers are taking
a leap backward enrich the soil and manage some pests simply by rotating their
crops. They're learning that they can often control insects with other insects lure
them away from cash crops by planting things they prefer. Well-run
organic farms often match conventional ones for productivity, even beat them
when water is scarce. Creating a sustainable food supply may well require
advanced technology as well as ecological awareness. But an organic ethic
could be the very key to our survival.

With Anne Underwood and Karen Springen

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