Chelsea Green Publishing

Chelsea Green Blog

Food Fight: Organic vs. Conventional Is Just the Tip of the Iceberg

Organic food, conventional food, local foods…oh my! You wouldn’t think these terms would charge up so many avid readers and bloggers, but they did, and big time. This week, I wrote a piece for The Huffington Post called “Organic Vs. Conventional: Have You Been Robbed?” and hell broke loose; 400 people commented on the post with numbers still increasing, and President and CEO of Stonyfield Farm, Gary Hirshberg, even took it upon himself to write a piece entitled “…In Response to Makenna Goodman.” My original argument on this subject was that “organic,” in all its eco-conscious glory, may not necessarily be the better option over conventional. Now. Before everyone starts freaking out and calling me foolish, ridiculous, libertarian or some kind of Monsanto plug trying to promote high fructose corn syrup and diabetic babies, let me clarify what I mean:

First of all, the very idea of certified organic—and its counterpart, conventional—were created by a government mandate that established a binary between two types of farming. This was a good thing in many ways, considering it set standards and made it so that environmentally harmful and inhumane farms were set apart from those seeking techniques with less of an ecological footprint, and more “organic” notions, in the basest sense of the word—of or relating to a living organism (compost, natural fertilizers, manure, etc.). At the same time, however, this standard created a great socio-economic divide, in its assumption that farming techniques can fall into only one of two categories. Also, the dichotomy hides a lot of truth both about the variety of “organic” farms and the variety of “conventional” farms. A certified organic farm might not be all that great in the grand scheme of things, and a non-certified—and therefore legally speaking “conventional”—farm might be ecologically, humanely, and nutritionally incredible.

My point, however, is not to demonize organic or to sanctify conventional. I buy organic, when I can. But I also buy so-called conventional, when it’s from a farmer I trust. There are myriad of other issues related to the less-than ideal choices we face in selecting our foods: distance between the consumer and the farmer, transportation and fuel emissions, price and elitism, and the treatment of laborers—for example this article about certain organic farms not offering health insurance to their pickers. Suffice it to say, there is a gray area between organic and conventional that needs to be discussed.

What does Organic actually mean? Because it is possible to have the organic stamp of approval on eggs, if, say, the hens are cruelly cramped in cages for most of the day, and over-fed organic grain until they are big and fat, and then produce eggs high in saturated fat and cholesterol. This is because diet is a key factor in organic certification, more so than others such as exercise, size of free-range area, and access to “salad greens” i.e., grass, bugs, and wild edibles, a subject Joel Salatin speaks on at length. Again, this is not to say organic is BAD and conventional is GOOD. But certification leaves many questions unanswered. In some cases, there are small-scale farms producing “conventional” meat that is better raised (grassfed, free-range, etc) and yet is not certified organic because of something like, the farmer feeds their pigs and hens food scraps from the local school which includes non-organic material. Conventional, in other words, doesn’t necessarily mean sprayed with massive amounts of pesticides and cattle crammed into terrible quarters (although in many cases, that is true, and those are farming techniques that should be eradicated completely.) But many small, family-owned farms operate using deep organic compost practices, no pesticides, and free-range techniques, yet still do not qualify for organic certification for a variety of reasons, not least being a lack of interest in the bureaucratic rigamarole. So the point I bring up isn’t, choose organic, or choose conventional; it’s that we should know all our options to inform whatever choice we make.

Gary Hirshberg, President and CEO of Stonyfield Farm, does not agree. To him, organic is best. He responded adamantly to my article saying I am “taking aim at the wrong target. Much like the person who frets over which china to use while the house is on fire, you take organic—which accounts for 2–3% of food sales—to task while ignoring the rest of our food system.” Be that as it may. Hirshberg is right on in that the rest of our food system is totally out of whack and needs to be addressed. But he is far off the mark in assuming that certified organic is the only tool available to the firefighter. More than that, he ignores the fact that there are actually multiple, overlapping fires in the house. One fire is the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and organic certification is one (but not the only) way to fight that particular fight. Another fire is the dominant power of corporations in shaping our economies, politics, culture, and, yes, agriculture and environment. The world as we have it is not ideal and sometimes compromises are inevitable: Hirshberg might indeed be right to have chosen the organic fight over the corporate fight in selling Stonyfield Farm to the Danone conglomerate. But I’m not prepared to say, “case closed” on that question.

Yes, if I lived in an urban center and had no access to yogurt made locally by a trusted source, of course I’d buy Stonyfield over something as conventional as, well, its corporate sibling Dannon. And I don’t disagree with the notion that if there are going to be mega-businesses that occupy large amounts of farmland, I’d much prefer they operate using organic techniques. But just because something has a sticker on it, does not mean you can trust it 100%. Which isn’t to say you can’t trust it at all, just that nothing is exactly what it seems.

Trust. These days, there’s not much people can trust aside from a label—we’ve gotten very far from the place where we know exactly where our food comes from (although lately there is a rise in food/farm-awareness, CSAs, etc…we’re making progress, for sure.) And especially in an urban center, when you’re not close to farms, all you really can trust is a sticker that says, “This is good. Eat this.” It’s undoubtedly easier to buy Earth-, animal-, and human-friendly non-organic food when you know your farmer and trust their practices, and of course it’s easier to know your farmer if you live in a more rural area. At that point, certification is probably a lot less important; if you know your farmer uses a tiny bit of conventional grain but their cows graze all day long on fresh grass (and therefore don’t need much grain at all, if any), you’re more likely to buy their “conventional” steaks.

I recently moved from New York City to a rural town in Vermont, recently started farming, and recently realized that organic may not be exactly what I always thought. It’s interesting (and a little scary) that someone like Gary Hirshberg would choose to lecture me on why I shouldn’t be asking these kinds of questions. I think everyone should be asking these kinds of questions! It’s all in the name of being curious, learning about the politics of food, and seeking transparency in a political economy that has, more often than not, betrayed its consumer.

As Michael Pollan said in a recent interview with Democracy Now!:

…It’s very simple. It really is. I mean, you know, as a journalist, you know this, that usually when you drill down into a subject, you find things are more complicated than you thought, and the blacks and whites don’t quite work anymore. When it came to nutrition science, the deeper I went, the simpler it got. And by the time I had spent two years studying what we know about nutrition and health, I realized that, you know, all the—that you could dismiss so much of this sketchy science, and as long as you ate real food, and not too much of it, and emphasized plants more than meat in your diet, you would be fine, and that the over-complication of food by industry, by government, is something really to be avoided. And so, the challenge is, though, how do you identify food?

…I’ve had to update my rules. And with all this new marketing based on these ideas, my new suggestion is, if you want to avoid all this, simply don’t buy any food you’ve ever seen advertised. Ninety-four percent of ad budgets for food go to processed food. I mean, the broccoli growers don’t have money for ad budgets. So the real food is not being advertised. And that’s really all you need to know.

Whether Hirshberg likes it or not, this debate is on. Read more of what people have been saying, in the original articles’ comment sections, the entire Democracy Now! interview with Michael Pollan, and other blogs below that have taken up the debate since then:

Organic Vs. Conventional: Have You Been Robbed?” by Makenna Goodman

The Real Problem With Our Food System: A Response to Makenna Goodman” by Gary Hirshberg

One Farmer’s Take on Organic vs. Conventional

The Meaning of Organic

Organic is a Lofty Word

Grow a Year-Round Indoor Salad Garden, even in winter

Just because the temperatures have started to drop doesn’t mean you have to live without fresh greens until Spring. As the weather gets colder and seasonal produce only means root vegetables, we begin to dream about fresh greens and colorful salads. Without a greenhouse or expensive equipment, it’s hard to imagine a reality in which […] Read More

Ask the Expert: Andrew Mefferd

Before writing The Greenhouse and Hoophouse Grower’s Handbook: Organic Vegetable Production Using Protected Culture, Andrew Mefferd spent seven years in the research department at Johnny’s Selected Seeds, traveling around the world to consult with researchers and farmers on the best practices in greenhouse growing. Andrew has graciously agreed to offer up his expertise to our […] Read More

Top 10 favorite goat facts (with gifs)

New this month from author Gianaclis Caldwell, Holistic Goat Care is the essential resource on caring for your herd. Goats have provided humankind with essential products for centuries; indeed, they bear the noble distinction of being the first domesticated farm animal. From providing milk and meat for sustenance and fiber and hides for clothing and shelter […] Read More

New French edition of The Resilient Farm and Homestead available

Great news for French-speaking fans of Ben Falk’s The Resilient Farm and Homestead: An Innovative Permaculture and Whole Systems Design Approach. The French language translation is now available from Imagine Un Colibri, from French booksellers, and on Falk’s book is a technical manual that details the strategies he and his team have developed for […] Read More

How to Make Biochar

Doing some spring cleaning around your property? By making biochar from brush and other hard-to-compost organic material, you can improve soil—it enhances nutrient availability and also enables soil to retain nutrients longer. This excerpt from The New Farmer’s Almanac, Volume 3, explains how to get started. To make biochar right in your garden, start by […] Read More