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Going Beyond Organic

By Sam Fisher

What does “organic” mean? The dictionary on my computer defines it as “of living things; relating to, derived from, or characteristic of living things.” Or as: “developing naturally; occurring or developing gradually and naturally, without being forced or contrived.” At the beginning of the organic food movement in the 1960s—yes, it began as a fringe movement— these definitions were an accurate description of a movement to counter conventionally produced food. All good and admirable.

However, organic food is no longer a budding movement. It comprises 5 percent of the food industry—a $47 billion industry—and is its fastest-growing segment. That too, is good, and indicates a growing number of people who are concerned about what they’re eating. My concern, however, is that the organic food industry overall has changed into an entity that no longer aligns with the definition of organic as given above, and that many consumers—who think they’re buying food raised on small farms that uphold the highest organic integrity—are being duped.

I know saying this puts me at risk of offending people who consider organic to be an unalloyed good. But the undeniable fact is that since the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990—which included an affidavit requiring the USDA to establish national standards for organic food production— much has changed in what is acceptable under an organic label. Of course, with the growing trendiness of eating organic, more consumers are flocking toward the certified organic label as compared to doing all the research that was necessary prior to the establishment of the National Organic Program (NOP). And “certified organic” may now be the most misleading label out there, given the illicit relationships between the USDA and certain organic certifiers that have recently come to light.

Some of the early pioneers in the organic movement suggested that organic food producers couldn’t expand into America’s supermarket and fast-food outlets without sacrificing their ideals, and it appears as if they were right. The progression of industrial organics has sparked a steady and dramatic shift from small, local farms to larger, globally oriented businesses. Undoubtedly, the pounds of food sold under the certified organic label are shifting dramatically toward centralized outfits owned by mega-empires with dubious loyalty to integrity food. As a result, many smallscale organic farmers are feeling the pinch and are forced to either get out of organics altogether or scale up to fit the mold of industrial organics.

On the subject of organics, I often feel like the one person yelling, “The emperor has no clothes,” because so many people laud certified organic as the answer to all food perversions. I admit that at this point many direct-to-consumer food businesses—including us—feel threatened by cheap, mainstream, big-box, store-brand organics. That said, we do not feel threatened on the basis of quality, because industrial organics cannot compete with us on that front. We also do not feel very threatened on price, because we’re relatively competitive there, as well. The foremost threat we feel lies in consumer perception, which entails the erosion of organic food going from small, value-driven farms to the nowincumbent big-box-store industrial organics.

The good news is, there’s a rising tide of farms and food producers who are serving the “brightest and best” in the consuming populace with “beyond organic” vegetables, meat, and dairy products. It’s a revolution of sorts that includes local farms and clusters of concerned, educated consumers. Bypassing the need for organic certification with direct consumer relationships, this growing knowyour- farmer/know-your-food movement is the future to a real-life connection to your food source. Never in history has a culture been as disconnected from its food supply as modern America is.

While our side places little emphasis on organic certification, it’s safe to say that we surpass all the requirements of the NOP. What’s more, we believe truly organic food production is more about the producer’s emotions, thoughts, and worldview than it is about a pass/fail certification process that can be fudged, or a set of rules that can be bent. Which is to say you can learn more about me by seeing my reading material (which indicates my interests and worldview) than having me fill out a bunch of forms.

In my opinion, status-quo industrial organics is in the position the Catholic Church was in just prior to the Protestant Reformation. It has become too expensive (for what it is), it is self-serving, and it no longer delivers on its promises. And that’s the View from the Country.