My name is Stephanie Zonis, and welcome to my first Organic Matter column.
When I first began hearing about organics, I was a child and it was back in the late 1960’s. Organic food was part of the “back to Mother Nature,” hippie lifestyle that involved communal living, protest marches against the policies of The Administration, and many other things my parents weren’t particularly anxious for me to know about. What little I heard about organic food involved vast quantities of vegetables and seemingly indigestible whole grains, and wasn’t appealing in the least.
In the post-Vietnam War era, most of the hippies and their ways vanished. Organics had apparently disappeared, at least from the minds of people I knew or read about. But the truth is that they hadn’t faded away at all. In the peculiar cyclical patterns that determine so much of everything we do and are, organics were merely biding their time, undergoing a quiet but profound metamorphosis. Very slowly and gradually, they began to re-emerge in their new guise. No longer were they the province of a generation of freedom-seeking, irresponsible youth; no longer were they related only to a desire to confound The Establishment. This time, producers of organics were better-educated, often older, and far more serious and sensible about what they were doing. There was more (and more accurate) knowledge about growing and raising organic products, just as there was more information that synthetic pesticides and hormones might not be as innocent and beneficial as once thought. And greater numbers of people were willing to pay money for these new organics—often, substantially more money than they would have shelled out for comparable conventionally-produced items. This time, the corporate world took notice and began to act on what it saw. And whether you’re a love-bead-wearing, tie-dye-sporting follower of the late, great Jerry Garcia or a dark-blue-suited disciple of Alan Greenspan, money changes everything.
The results have been both positive and, well, less than happy. On the plus side, it’s easier than ever before to find organic products, and I’m not just talking about fruits and vegetables. The choices in organics these days are simply staggering. There are organic meats, eggs, soy products, grains, prepared foods, bedding linens, personal care products, baby foods, pet foods, even growing soils. Organics have become less expensive than they once were, although in many cases they are still pricier than conventionally-produced counterparts. Partly through consumption of organics, people have become conscious of the origin of their food, how it’s produced, and even how it’s brought to them. In turn, this has fostered greater concern about farming, farming methods, and land use, not to mention a whole host of other subjects that come along with those three. These include sustainability, fair trade, community-supported agriculture (CSA), food safety, and small-scale family farms. It’s wonderful that organics have been partially responsible for the increased knowledge, discussions, and actions on these topics. But there’s a downside, as well.
Until late in 2002, there was no legal definition of “organic” in the U.S. In October of that year, the USDA announced new standards for organic foods through the National Organic Program (NOP). The standards I’ll discuss here dealt with farms producing organic fruits, vegetables, and animals/animal products. The farms had to be certified by USDA-approved, independent agencies (there are now over 50 such agencies in the US alone). Among other restrictions, bans were imposed upon the use of irradiation and genetically-modified organisms (GMO’s), antibiotic and hormone use in animals, and a list of materials including synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and sewage sludge. Livestock had to be provided with pasture and access to the outdoors; animal feed had to be 100% organic. If you were just starting out, there was a transition period of three years before you could be certified, during which you could use none of the banned fertilizers, pesticides, or sewage on your land. Farmers were also to “employ positive soil building, conservation, manure management, and crop rotation practices.”
All of that sounds fine, but there are too many situations where it isn’t. It was once written that “where people come in, you can’t win.” I can’t bring myself to credit that altogether, but it’s nonetheless true that there are people taking advantage of the immense popularity of the new organic movement (out of all consumer product segments, organics, especially organic foods, are one of the fastest-growing areas and have been for several years, so the possibilities for financial gain are temptingly great). These individuals cut corners. They stretch definitions to suit themselves. And sometimes they just plain lie. They do this because they want to seem like good guys but don’t want to have to make the effort that goes along with bona fide organic production, which is almost always more labor-intensive and lower-yielding than conventional production. Additionally, there are snags with the scope of the term “organic” for many items, especially personal care products. In 2002, the USDA ruled that manufacturers of non-food items (such as personal care products) containing agricultural products would be able to apply to carry USDA/NOP “organic” labels. Last year, the agency reversed that ruling, declaring that manufacturers of personal care products would ineligible to carry “organic” labels under any circumstances. In the intervening twenty-three months, innumerable small companies had invested thought, time, and money in seeking out and sourcing NOP-certified organic ingredients, changing formulas for their products, and goodness knows what else. Just recently, a lawsuit was filed against the USDA regarding this issue; when the matter will be settled is anybody’s guess.
It’s impossible to prove objectively that organic foods taste better, although many people claim this is true. And the jury is still out on whether organic foods contain more nutrients. So, what we have is a flawed system of organics of all kinds, and most organic products continue to be more expensive than conventionals.
Why, then, should you choose to be a consumer of organics? There are many reasons, most having to do with well-being for humans, animals, and the environment. Overall, the best and most reasonable listing I’ve seen to date is on the website for Nash’s Produce, at http://www.nashsproduce.com/whyorganic.htm, and I won’t try to re-invent the wheel by simply restating their excellent arguments. But above all else, I believe it’s about the long-term. It’s about maintaining healthier systems of soil and water and air in a world of ever-expanding population. It’s about hanging on tightly to biodiversity, not just extensively cultivating a handful of species simply because they give the best yield per acre or grow to one ton in two years. It’s about thoughtfulness, thinking ahead to what the world might be like in 20 or 50 years, thinking what we might do now that could make things a little better, a little easier, for future generations. It’s about giving a damn for other life.
I’m not attempting to radically reshape your lifestyle (or my own, for that matter). Right now, it’s not practical for everyone to buy or consume solely organic products. But perhaps a few changes won’t hurt us or our pocketbooks excessively. In editions to come, I hope to introduce you to significant topics in organics, as well as some of the good folks who bring you outstanding organic products. So kick back, open your mind, and join me!
So there I am, cruising the aisles at the country’s largest organics/naturals trade show, looking on with amazement at the variety of products, when I see a booth filled with beautiful flowers of all kinds. Closer investigation proved that this was the exhibit of Organic Bouquet, America’s first commercial line of organically-produced flowers. The blooms were undeniably lovely, but was this just another organic gimmick?
No. CEO Gerald Prolman, who began the company in 2001, explains that current trade laws in the U.S. encourage the use of strong and multiple chemicals in the floral trade. The U.S. inspects no flowers, whether they’re grown domestically or abroad, for pesticide residues. However, it is a requirement that imported flowers arrive in this country pest-free. Of course, consumers here want healthy, vigorous-looking flowers, with nary an indication of a pest. All of this promotes the use of insecticides and fungicides, not to mention fertilizers and plant growth regulators when the flowers are in the growing stage.
Organic Bouquet has opted out of this chemical cycle. Their flowers are available in four types: organic, biodynamic, green label, and wild-crafted; definitions for each type are listed on their website. Where appropriate, the company is re-certified annually by an independent agency, so they’re not merely paying lip service to the idea of land stewardship. I particularly like idea of the green label and the wildcrafted flowers. And did I mention the charitable bouquets? Proceeds from the sale of those florals go to support non-profit groups we’ve all heard about. Somehow or other, Organic Bouquet has managed to keep their prices reasonable. Check them out at www.OrganicBouquet.com, or call 1.877.899.2468. A few of their arrangements are below.
Timeless Beauty Bouquet
Lavender Roses with Organic Truffles
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