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Beyond Organic

By Sam Fisher

Many people who are unfamiliar with buying food directly from the farm ask us if we’re organic.

My standard response is that we are not certified organic by the National Organic Program (NOP), but we consider ourselves to be “beyond organic.” That, of course, always elicits the question: What’s beyond organic?

In order to fully answer that question, we need to understand what organic is and where it originated. The term organic as a description of clean, chemical-free food was perhaps first used in the 1940s by J.I. Rodale, a health food fanatic who founded the publication Organic Gardening and Farming, dedicating its pages to agricultural methods and health benefits of growing food without synthetic chemicals.

Rodale and other visionaries like him expanded on the works of Sir Albert Howard (1873–1947), an English agronomist knighted after his 30 years of research in India, providing the philosophical foundations for organic agriculture. Howard’s little bombshell, An Agricultural Testament, was published at about the same time as the influx of petroleum fertilizers, but pointed in the opposite direction.

Due to Rodale’s magazine, the organic food movement gained a following, but the movement was still in its infancy when, in 1990, several food scares in the conventional sector brought organic food into the spotlight as an alternative. This created a period of double-digit growth that not only spurred mainstream food companies to create their own organic brands, but also marked the beginning of federal recognition for organic agriculture, which ultimately resulted in the development of the USDA organic program and full government oversight—and regulation— of organic agriculture.

However, since the USDA developed a set of standards in the 1990s, organic food production has steadily consolidated into the hands of industrial-scale corporate producers.

This has caused the initial vision of pioneers like Howard and Rodale to dim, and most organic food production to be modeled after the status-quo conventional system, with the only difference being certified organic inputs and the removal of synthetics.

I’m not here to say industrial organic is wrong or that it should not exist. But here are some of the concerns that I have for it: An organic CAFO (confinement animal feeding operation) is still a CAFO, whether it is 40,000 chickens under one roof with only “said” access to the outside, or hundreds of beef animals in a dirt feedlot. Animals are creatures of habit, and in the chicken-production scenario there is no access to the outside until about the fifth week, by which time the chickens are well established in their routine and never go outside at all. The producers do not want them to go outside because of their extremely fragile constitutions—the result of high stress and a close confinement environment without the crutches of antibiotics and growth hormones allowed in the conventional model.

In the beef scene, all the feed is brought to the steers and consists of organic grains and other harvested material, regardless of the fact that cattle are herbivores and were not designed to eat grain. Plus, the organic feed does not change the constant condition of either mud or dust inherent in the feedlot model.

All things considered, the only difference is what they’re eating.

There’s no difference in the production environment. There is no evaluation of whether the production model aligns with the way the animals would live in nature. The above concern brings us to this one, which is the source of the ingredients used in the organic CAFOs. For example, around 90 percent of organic soybeans are grown overseas, imported from Turkey. This requires them to be transported through international waters where there is very little oversight of the interaction between cargo ships.

There is ample reason to believe that an unknown amount of imported soybeans coming into the states under an organic certificate are not being produced organically. Most organic imports are never tested, but there have been a few instances where tests were run for pesticide residues, and found positive. We pay a premium for organic meats, but that does not mean the ingredients were all tested and proven organic. The organic watchdog group Cornicopia Institute has done excellent work on spotlighting some of these transgressions within the industrial organic realm.

As for organic produce, due to an increase in demand for a year-round supply, more and more organic fruits and vegetables are being imported from extended-growing season regions like Mexico and Cuba, where their organic production standards differ from our USDA standard. While it may be sold under the USDA certificate and stamp, it is only imported as such. This practice has only intensified since Walmart and other large grocery chains carry a selection of organic foods.

As an aside, Walmart is now the largest retailer of organic foods in the U.S. To demand a full selection of fresh organic fruits and vegetables from a local supermarket 12 months of the year not only places a strain on the regions able to grow in our off-season, but creates a considerable transportation cost and environmental impact to bring this jet-setting food to us. Because of this, I question whether we might improve our stewardship if consumers focused on creating a local in-season market demand from farms we can trust to do an excellent job, perhaps even outside of organic certification.

That said, I still have a deep respect for a number of organic farmers who do phenomenal work on their farms and have a passion for the philosophies of organics. The organic dairy industry has created wonderful opportunities in our area for family farms, even though all their product is pasteurized, homogenized, or both. However, we have opted to forego organic certification at this time, and have no desire to pursue it. This is mostly driven by our local customer base who knows us and knows what we do, which is why I have such a deep appreciation for the local food movement versus the nationwide (and increasingly, world scale) industrial organic model.

We call ourselves “beyond organic” mostly because our food animal production models are drastically different from the industrial organic models.

We raise chicken on pasture in floorless field shelters that give access to all nature has to offer, moving them daily to a new area to allow them full benefit of the pasture. We view the status quo confinement pork production model (organic or otherwise) as perhaps the most arrogant overstepping of nature’s template ever created by man, which is to confine an animal as intelligent and inquisitive as a pig to a concrete-and-steel building over a pit of its own excrement.

The grain we buy for our poultry and hogs is not certified organic, but is produced without chemicals by a local Berks County farmer-owned mill. We believe all beef (and dairy) should be 100 percent grass-fed and grass-finished, but are doing it on land that has been chemical-free for more than 20 years and is not certified organic.

We also believe these production models could be duplicated in many localities the world over, providing a product far superior to any certified organic product raised in a conventional production model. Plus, when this happens, it will allow a host of consumers access to locally grown and healthier food.

As Big Organic becomes more industrialized and the contrast between it and conventionally produced food lessens, I believe “beyond organic” local food will be the future.