catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 1, Num 7 :: 2002.12.06 — 2002.12.19


Buying organic: What difference does it make?

When you decide to buy organic products, what do you get for your dollar? Both a lot more, and a lot less, depending on how you look at the issue.

A clear-cut definition of "organic" is frequently illusive. Technically, the term refers to plants and animals that are certified to be grown or raised without the influence of any genetically modified organisms, growth hormones, or chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. However, the terms "grass-fed," "home-grown," "all natural" and "recycled" are sometimes lumped into the same category as organic. This is somewhat understandable, considering the small difference that may separate a grass-fed beef from an organic beef. For instance, to qualify as certified organic beef, the animal must be raised primarily on grass without medication of any kind including penicillin, which is frequently used on young animals when they are fighting an infection. Mild infections tend to occur when the young are weaned from their mothers or when they are sold, due to the stress of moving from one place to another. At these times, a half-grown steer may receive a short series of antibiotics to get rid of the infection. This automatically eliminates the animal from the ranks of the certified organic. A producer who conforms to the certification requirements may have a slightly higher herd mortality rate, or more animals that must be excluded from the organic meat market after receiving antibiotics. So, an animal raised entirely on organic feed is possibly only a couple shots away from being organic. You, as the consumer, must decide which product you prefer to eat and pay for, as the certified organic product will probably be more expensive than the all-natural or grass-fed product. However, it is good to be able to separate the certified organic products from the others, because unless a product has a certified organic stamp on the label, it may or may not be genuinely organic.

As I write, I have in front of me an all natural toothbrush made of recycled plastic, a can of Equal Exchange organic hot cocoa mix, a box of homegrown, totally natural macaroni & cheese, a bag of organic, cracked oat, hot cereal mix, and a box of organic, fair trade, chai tea bags. Of these five products, only the cracked oat cereal and the hot cocoa mix stipulate that they are certified organic and include only organic ingredients. The back of the macaroni & cheese box claims, "Our ingredient list, with only four key ingredients, doesn't take up the entire box. No chemicals. No MSG. No nasty stuff, period." This product was purchased at a health food store, where many organic products can be found, but though it includes no chemicals in its ingredient list, it claims nothing about whether the wheat used for the pasta, or the milk used for the cheese, was organically produced. The product list is simpler, and no doubt healthier because of it, but consumers should not be fooled into thinking they are buying an organic product just because it was purchased at a health food store for a higher price than in the supermarket. When you buy your food, know whom you are supporting.

This brings the discussion to the realms of price and time/method of production. A couple summers ago I worked for my dad, who owns a 2000-acre organic farm and ranch in North Dakota. Having grown up there, I thought I had a good grasp of the various tillage and grazing practices that are often involved with an organic farm. But after that summer, let's just say that I had a much more accurate, palm-hardened knowledge of the time and energy that goes into organic production. First, while any farmer is familiar with long-term planning and large-scale management, it is my opinion that the organic producer is especially so. For example, all during the summer I worked for my dad, I was the main operator of the summer-fallow machine. This basically means that I controlled the weed growth in the fields lying fallow for that year, which were about a third of the tillable acres on the farm. A practice common to many organic and small farms, it is a normal phase of the crop rotation plan my dad has set up to let the land rejuvenate and rest after being in productivity for several years. The difference between our organic farm and a neighboring conventional farm became almost frustratingly obvious to me in August after I had tilled all the summer fallow for the third time in one growing season. I looked across the fields and realized that the neighbor was just pulling his disk into the field for the first time. His fallow land had been sprayed in early spring with a herbicide, and had been lying black and weed-less all summer; he was only then going to cleanup the few weeds that had somehow escaped the herbicide, and probably intended to plant wheat in that field again next spring, exactly as he had done for the past ten years. At that point I understood that previously I had been idealistically in favor of the practice of organic farming, but I had not believed in the actual, physical and sometimes almost sacrificial living out of that practice. For the farmer like my dad, who believes in the value of his methods and finished product, the fact that organic products demand higher than conventional prices is not so much a motivator as it is an even reward for the extra time and work that he puts into his farming. My conclusion from that summer is that even if money were the motivator for organic farming—which, regrettably, it is for some—it would not be enough, at least not for me. It has to affect us at the same level as what we believe about the value and purpose of creation, our place in it, and what constitutes stewardly behavior.

For me, the question of sacrifice has come into the debate a lot lately. I recently visited my sister in St. Paul, and accompanied her to an excellent organic grocery store just around the corner from where she lives. I was excited by all the products available, but dismayed once again by the same old question: "Can I, as a "poor student," justify spending the extra money on organic food, when I could save money by purchasing it at a local supermarket?" This question is nearly always followed by the awareness that farmers like my dad make their living by organic prices. Perhaps it is more stewardly to spend a greater amount of my money on fewer organic products which encourage healthier people and land, than to buy as cheaply as possible at the supermarket and continue to support less human and environmentally friendly methods.

For the farmer, belief in the value of organic products may be evidenced by sticking with it even when his or her product doesn't sell, or by pulling into the field for his third round of summer fallow when he sees his neighbor just starting into one. For you and I as consumers, belief in the value of organic product may come down to what we do with our pocketbooks.

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