There is a war being waged over the hearts and minds, stomachs and budgets, of consumers in this country. It is a conflict playing out in a stealth, almost sinister way; so silent that many or even most consumers do not even realize it is going on despite the fact that the battle lines are there to see in just about every grocery aisle in the country.
The combatants, metaphorically, are David and Goliath. David, a tiny confederation of organic farmers and ranchers; Goliath, big agriculture, also known as agribusiness. The former produces about one percent of the nation’s food supply. The latter? Well, you do the math.
To most consumers, organic is seen simply as the higher priced and, theoretically, healthier, meats, produce and fruit in the supermarket. But this is a campaign that goes beyond simply higher prices. The difference between organic and non-organic is vast.
In order for a product to meet U.S. Department of Agriculture standards and earn the “USDA Organic” or “Certified Organic” stamp, these foods must be 95 percent organic – free of pesticides, chemical fertilizers and dyes. They must also be unprocessed, irradiated and cannot be genetically engineered.
Pesticide-free product is certainly a major selling point for organic consumers. It is also a boon for growers. But the money they save on pesticides may simply be redirected on labor. Organic farming requires a larger work force, not just in the planting and cultivation but also in the harvest. On a separate note, giving credit to this work force, as we near Labor Day, we pay tribute to this work force who ultimately supplies food to our table.
This November Colorado voters will decide whether to require labeling of genetically modified foods. From now until then, everyone, should brace for a flurry of radio, television, print and online campaigning on Proposition 105. If Prop 105 passes, “Produced With Genetic Engineering” will adorn all foodstuffs that have been judged to go beyond state set standards.
A similar proposal in Washington state was recently defeated but not until tons of out of state money – much from large corporations – went into action. We can expect the same here.
Some foods, including some beef, pork and poultry, would not wear the label even if they have not been injected with antibiotics or hormones but raised on certain foods including those that contain animal remnants. Also escaping the label would be meats meant for immediate consumption.
Currently, animal products – meat or poultry – sold as organic must be fed a strict diet, one that does not contain, for example, animal remnants. These animals must also not be injected with drugs – growth hormones or antibiotics. They also must be raised on land that has been certified as organic or free-range. This is a method that differs dramatically from large scale cattle operations where animals are penned or otherwise raised in closed quarters.
But time is money in the livestock and poultry industries and the quicker an animal can be sent to market, the better. And the bigger the animal when it arrives, the higher the profit.
“The beef industry uses ingredients to grow bigger animals,” says Dawn Thilmany, an agricultural economist at Colorado State University. But, many of the industry’s practices – which are overseen and regulated by the government – have raised serious health concerns. Hormones and antibiotics have been linked to a variety of human health conditions, including autism, infertility, miscarriage and cancer.
While California produces the majority of the nation’s organic meat and produce, Colorado also has a tiny but growing list of ranchers and farmers moving into this green zone. But, as has been learned over the years, it is not easy being green nor cheap.
“There are no subsidies,” says Becky Guion, who runs an organic farming operation near Cañon City. “You just work your butt off.” She is part of a tiny group of southern Colorado organic growers that stretch across parts of Fremont and Pueblo Counties, an area known as the state’s ‘banana belt,’ for its warmer weather and longer growing season. Her group, the Arkansas Valley Organic Growers, produce everything from a variety of chiles to eggplant. It also sells eggs and a small amount of meat.
Guion, whose family has worked the land in Southern Colorado for several generations, says making money is all well and good but, “I’d rather produce things the way my grandparents did a hundred years ago.”
But mimicking a grandparents’ methods is also costly, a lesson she and other organic farmers and ranchers learn early when they decide to go green.
The USDA requires an upfront payment ranging from several hundred to several thousand dollars – depending on the size of the operation – for the privilege of owning the organic label. Once certified, however, an operator may be eligible for up to 75 percent reimbursement of the costs.
Land dedicated to farming must be periodically inspected by the USDA. Additionally, it must also lie fallow or unfarmed for a period of up to three years before a crop is planted to ensure contaminants have been eliminated or minimized. A crop can be harvested before the three-year period, but it cannot be sold as organic.
Eric Phannenstiel has been growing ‘near’ organic hay in the San Luis Valley since 2005. “We are not certified organic,” he says, “but we follow all of the protocols.” Phannenstiel sells almost all of his hay to dairy operators who are looking to improve their product. “We don’t spray any bug killers and use manure and no commercial fertilizers.” He also says going ‘near organic’ has also boosted his bottom line.
“In a conventional market,” he says, “yields are higher – ten to twenty percent – but market prices are lower.” Phannenstiel says he has no problem being the little guy. ”Right now we have no trouble selling everything we produce.”
But organic farming carries with it an uncomfortable reality. The ghost at the banquet and one that few have been willing to discuss frankly is water. Organic farming demands a lot of water and water is a resource that is finite and, right now, more than just dripping away.
In California, where drought has become omni-present, organic farmers are keeping a wary eye on the fracking industry. They are concerned not only about the massive amounts of water to harvest energy from the ground but also that seepage from what is extracted could contaminate their ground water.
In Mexico, where as much as seven tons of organic produce is harvested and exported each day – most to the United States – aquifers are rapidly shrinking. Experts suggest that many now sit at levels fifty percent lower than where they should be. A drought across the southwest U.S. and northern Mexico is not helping.
While the government neither encourages nor discourages consumers from buying organic, Whole Foods, the nation’s largest wholesaler of organic foods, cheerleads the movement.
In a 2004 survey, half of its customers said that organic foods were healthier, better for the environment and tasted better. That may or may not be true. Also, agribusiness may not agree. But agribusiness has wasted no time moving in on this potentially lucrative new movement. A stroll down any grocery aisle shows scores of products manufactured by food giants being sold as organic or natural but with someone else’s name on the packaging. Everybody, it seems, wants a piece of this ‘lifestyle action.’
Whole Foods maintains an almost religious respect for its organic produce. On a recent trip to one of its markets, the produce manager explained that if an organic product so much as hits the floor, it is either discarded, donated to the day’s food bank offering or placed among the non-organic products so it will not go to waste. But not all that is sold as organic passes the smell test.
Such well-known brands as Coca-Cola, Heinz, Hershey, Kellogg’s and M&M Mars all have products labeled organic or natural. Kashi, Odwalla and Gardenburger are all popular products sold this way but marketed in a way designed to maintain a comfortable distance from their namesake. Kashi, for example, one of the more popular ‘healthy’ cereals, is owned by Kellogg’s. But the Kellogg name is invisible on the product. This practice may seem duplicitous but it is not illegal.
In the end, says Professor Thilmany, going organic or sticking with the more affordable non-organic boils down to simple economics. “Some people almost do a trade off between quality and quantity,” she says. It is rather like a test to see just how far can you stretch a dollar.