Looking beyond the label
February 3, 2013
Seventy-eight percent of Americans buy some kind of organic food, but why?
I buy organic because I believe the food has less pesticides. I feel the environment was less harmed in the food’s production and I think organic food is more nutritious. When I am shopping at a supermarket – where I don’t know my farmer, where I can’t inspect the dairy – seeing that green-and-white circle that says “USDA Certified Organic” gives me peace of mind.
This is what I believe, how I feel and the way I think, but is it true? Or is the USDA Certified Organic label the original, most abundant form of greenwashing?
This is the basic premise of the film “In Organic We Trust,” next up at the Eagle Valley Alliance’s Sustainable Film Series showing Feb. 5 at 6 p.m. at Loaded Joe’s in Avon. Filmmaker Kip Pastor takes us on a first-person tour of the American food system in hopes of answering those same questions. He begins with the very basic: “What does organic mean?”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture created the organic labeling process as a marketing tool. Yes, a marketing tool. (Now those organic Cheetos make sense, right?) The USDA restricts the use of the word “organic” to those products that have gone through the certification process. Even though it’s part of the USDA marketing department, growers do have uniform guidelines to meet in order to get that organic stamp. Some of these guidelines include having no Genetically Modified Organisms no antibiotics and no sewer sludge fertilizer. Growers can only use approved herbicides, pesticides and spongicides.
What? Organic food contains pesticides? Yep. But as one farmer points out in the film, the approved substances for organic growers are more often “naturally occurring” and only “slightly synthesized.” And in the end, the requirements do equal fewer pesticides on our food, which is a good thing because pesticides are linked to many of our current health problems, predominately cancers.
Despite how the USDA uses it, organic is not just a label. First and foremost, organic is a farming philosophy, and in the film, Pastor interviews organic farmers to reveal their take on what organic really means.
Judith Redmond, of Full Belly Farms in northern California, describes the organic growing philosophy as mimicking nature’s model, being a part of the natural cycles as much as possible and farming to build soil, not diminish it.
The film successfully pits the organic philosophy against the label to explore conflicts of interest and overall problems with the system. In 2010, for example, 13,000 growers were certified organic but only 10 certifications were revoked. These stats question the label’s integrity. In the same light, the film features farmers who live and breath the organic philosophy, and these growers question the integrity of the big agriculture corporations that are also labeled organic. Do these farms and companies really care about the philosophy or does the label, for them, represent dollar signs? Many of the small farmers interviewed said yes, for some of these large-scale agriculture operations, the organic label is just that – a label. And like other designer labels, it is about the money.
Discovering our food system’s problems – especially in the profitable world of organics – encourages Pastor to dig deeper for possible solutions. What he finds are not necessarily new ideas: Know your farmer, increase access to local food, increase education about healthy food to kids, grow your own and regenerate the soil, to name a few. But like other films that explore our broken food system, it’s always inspiring to see what everyday people – the power of community – are doing to improve where and how we get our food.
One of those global communities the film features is Slow Food (U.S. branch). Slow Food is an idea, a way of living and a way of eating. It is part of a global grassroots movement with thousands of members in more than 150 countries that links the pleasure of food with a commitment to community and the environment. The U.S. branch is currently focusing on “good, clean and fair” food. What that means is that Slow Food and its U.S. chapters are advocating, promoting and celebrating food that is good for us, aka healthy; clean for the environment, aka sustainably grown; and fair to the people who grow it, aka providing good wages and safe working conditions. Slow Food and its chapters do this in many ways, from hosting local food potlucks to influencing public policy.
Slow Food Vail Valley is sponsoring Tuesday’s film screening. The group will meet afterward to elect new leaders and discuss 2013 events and actions. All interested food lovers are welcome to join, as current leaders are looking for inspired new members. In the past, Slow Food Vail Valley has planned mushroom foraging with fungi experts, assisted in the startup of West Vail and Eagle-Vail community gardens and hosted a local food expo at Colorado Mountain College in Edwards. It currently helps manage the Edwards Winter Market, a farmers market held Sundays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. in Edwards.
If these types of events appeal to you, don’t hesitate to join. As “In Organic We Trust” suggests, it’s community – not government – that’s going to drive the change our food system needs.
Freelance writer Cassie Pence is passionate about living a more sustainable lifestyle. She owns Organic Housekeepers, a green cleaning company, and is actively involved in the Eagle-Vail Community Garden, the Eagle Valley Alliance for Sustainability and Slow Food Vail Valley. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.