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Organic Food


The latest New York Times exposé won’t stop me from eating organic

If you’re even remotely interested in food, there’s a very good chance you’ve seen the article that ran in Sunday’s New York Times called “Has ‘Organic’ Been Oversized?” We summarized it here, and it has been all over the web for the last few days.

Author Stephanie Strom profiled Michael Potter, the owner of Eden Foods, and one of a shrinking list of people who own large, independent companies producing organic food. She also spent a great deal of time detailing the consolidation of the organic industry (a fact many consumers were introduced to by these popular mind map-like charts from Michigan State University). Strom writes:

Bear Naked, Wholesome & Hearty, Kashi: all three and more actually belong to the cereals giant Kellogg. Naked Juice? That would be PepsiCo, of Pepsi and Fritos fame. And behind the pastoral-sounding Walnut Acres, Healthy Valley and Spectrum Organics is none other than Hain Celestial, once affiliated with Heinz, the grand old name in ketchup.

Strom names representatives from companies such as General Mills, Driscoll, Earthbound Farm, and Whole Foods who are currently (or recently) on the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). And while she acknowledges that only four of the current 15 seats are occupied by people representing corporations, she also points out that all four voted to approve several controversial additives in processed organic foods. (One additive is a synthetic form of the omega-3 fatty acid DHA made from algae oil, which the Cornucopia Institute, an advocacy organization, says is the subject of something they call “Organic Watergate”[PDF].)

It's chilling stuff, for sure. But is it enough to convince us that -- as Strom writes -- the organic industry is “mostly pure fantasy”?

Read more: Food, Organic Food


Multinational food corporations thank you for buying ‘organic’

A dozen or so organic farmers drive their electric tractors to a wood-beamed meeting house. There, they consider what counts as organic, the processes and additives that should and shouldn't carry that label. They consider the evidence and talk to the experts, running late into the day as the dusky light outside begins to grow red. After all, the integrity of the label is at stake. Finally, they agree. A few quick handshakes and it's off into the dusk, the scent of rich soil their companion on the long, slow drive back to the solar panel-topped farmhouse.

This advertisement for organic farming has been brought to you by Kraft.

The reality of industrial consolidation in organic food, as an article in the Times over the weekend made clear, is a familiar -- if not yet well-known -- tale. A lucrative industry is rapidly embraced and consumed by existing titans, its boundaries stretched and flexed to wring the most money out of the tiniest adjustments. Washington is enlisted as a partner leveraging the tried and true tools of lobbyists and relationships.

The humble headquarters of your local organic food provider. (Photo by David Neubert.)

The story of Big Ag is the story of Big Organic.

Read more: Food, Organic Food


It’s getting easier for organic farms to get certified

Think mergers are only for big corporations? Not so these days. California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) and Oregon Tilth, two of the nation's largest third-party organic certifiers, announced plans last week to join forces and become a kind of supergroup of certifiers called -- you guessed it -- CCOF Tilth.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) oversees the National Organic Standards, but there are independent organizations (accredited by the agency) who make sure that farms, food producers, and handlers are sticking to those standards by avoiding toxic pesticides, genetically engineered seeds, synthetic fertilizers, etc.

If the merger goes through, as it is likely to, CCOF Tilth will be the biggest game in town with nearly 4,000 farmers, ranchers, and processors under its charge. The organization will also develop a new label to accompany the name change.

Read more: Food, Organic Food


Americans want more fruits and veggies for everyone

Photo by Chiot's Run.

If you’ve noticed more carrot-crunching, more orange-peeling, and an abundance of leafy green salads lately, it’s probably not a coincidence. As The Washington Post reported earlier this week, Americans eat more fresh foods than they did five years ago.

The WaPo story was based on a national phone survey conducted by the Kellogg Foundation, which found that the majority of Americans are trying to eat more fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, are shopping at farmers markets at least on occasion, and say they know “a lot or a little about where their fresh fruits and vegetables come from.” These findings are interesting -- and they speak to the success of a whole array of efforts to get more of us cooking, examining what we eat, and honing in on the place where healthy and truly delicious foods intersect.

Less visible in the media landscape is the fact that the Kellogg Foundation survey also suggests that all this healthy eating has Americans looking outside themselves.


Does organic food make you a jerk?

Pictures from the organic, comfort, and control groups.

Finally, scientific confirmation for that suspicion you've nurtured while being shoved around by yoga-pantsed moms in the Whole Foods produce aisle: Organic food makes you rude and selfish. According to a study by a Loyola University professor, people who eat organic are more judgmental and less inclined to engage in altruistic behavior. In short: Maybe you'll live longer if you eat organic, but everyone will wish you hadn't.

Read more: Food, Organic Food


Crop yields are only part of the organic vs. conventional farming debate

A version of this post originally appeared on U.S. Food Policy.

Photo by Alternative Heat.

The journal Nature recently had an interesting meta-analysis -- or quantitative literature review -- about yields from organic agriculture. It's called "Organic farming is rarely enough," and the accompanying summary says, "Conventional agriculture gives higher yields under most situations." This is probably true.

Yet even environmentalists are overreacting to the study. A recent article by Bryan Walsh at TIME magazine's Ecocentric blog is titled, "Why Organic Agriculture May Not Be So Sustainable."

The evidence Walsh presents fails to support the headline, though the article does begin with two good points: Organic agriculture does often produce less food per acre (see the Nature article above). And environmentalists should care about efficiency. Getting more output for lower resource cost is good environmentalism.

Mostly, though, Walsh repeats common overstatements of the advantages of conventional agriculture. He writes, "Conventional industrial agriculture has become incredibly efficient on a simple land to food basis. Thanks to fertilizers, mechanization and irrigation, each American farmer feeds over 155 people worldwide."

But environmentalists discussing conventional agriculture should also remember several key themes.


Farm-connected CSAs should offer more than just ‘veggie subscriptions’

Photo by Mswine.

I was recently struck by a promotion I saw on the site Local Harvest, which lists organic and locally grown food around the country. The site reads, “Many farms offer subscriptions for weekly baskets of produce, flowers and other farm products. Try a CSA this year!”

“A subscription to local farm products?” I thought. “Is that all community-supported agriculture has become?"

As the local food movement has gone from a trickle to a sweeping current, and sales of local farm products have grown, it seems that many community-supported agriculture (CSA) subscribers may have lost touch with the original intention behind the term. As a farmer, and one who’s researched and written about the history of CSAs in the U.S. and abroad, I find this trend deeply troubling. It seems many urban residents now see the CSA as just another form of “retail farming” rather than a model for civic agriculture, a site-specific form of solidarity, or associative economics that can transform relationships.


Farm Bill 2012: ‘It’s a mess, but it’s our mess’

Daniel Imhoff began writing about the farm bill before today’s so-called Good Food Movement took hold. In 2007, in an effort to make accessible the giant piece of legislation that touches on everything from food stamps to farm subsidies, Imhoff wrote Food Fight: The Citizen’s Guide to the Next Food and Farm Bill. Then last year (after editing the influential CAFO Reader), Imhoff revised the book just in time for Congress to craft the 2012 Farm Bill, which narrowly escaped getting passed behind closed doors last fall but is nonetheless shaping up to be “the worst ever.”

Imhoff spoke with Grist recently about democracy, debate, and the multiple ways the farm bill resembles the Olympic Games.

Q. What is the most important thing you hope your readers will get from this edition of Food Fight?

A. That the farm bill is a really great privilege and opportunity. It’s our chance as a democracy to try to make things better in the food system -- to help people get something to eat, to help farmers get through the season, and to try to help protect the land and the resource base.


The woman who took on Koch Industries to save her farm

The Diffleys in the early days of Gardens of Eagan. (Photo by Helen De Michiel.)

Books written by farmers are rare -- and for good reason. Growing food takes a lot out of you, and most farmers have little or no time to reflect on their lives or package them up for an audience.

But the fact that it’s written by a veteran organic farmer is only part of what makes Atina Diffley’s book Turn Here Sweet Corn unique. Part memoir, part chronicle of the evolution of the upper Midwest organic movement and the corporate forces exerting pressure against it, the book also allows new farmers to hear from someone who has spent time in the trenches. Diffley, who co-founded the Gardens of Eagan, a successful Minnesota organic farm which has served the Twin Cities region for nearly three decades, comes across first and foremost as a survivor. She writes passionately about the years she and her husband Martin spent farming and raising a family, in the face of a seeming avalanche of challenges. Diffley takes readers along as they faced devastating droughts and hailstorms (with hailstones “as big as size-B potatoes”), razor-thin margins and near bankruptcy, and an unexpected eminent domain eviction from their first farm.


The only funny music video ever about organic, gluten-free hipsters

"We have a healthy lifestyle by the sea /

We eat organic and gluten-free

Do bikram yoga, and pilates /

We like soy lattes and goji berries"