I've been reading about some of the complications surrounding what it means for food to be certified as organic. Now, with produce, to be "certified organic" seems to mean that no synthetic pesticides or genetically-modified seeds have been used. There are also some guidelines addressing harvesting and packaging, but things get a little hazy when it comes to what counts as natural preservatives (or whatever the heck "food stabilizers" are). There have been lots of studies to support the environmental benefits of organic farming methods, as well as strong evidence for the nutritional superiority of food raised this way. I'm still reading up on a lot of this and trying to engage folks in conversation to better my understanding of why organic is better than conventional. Some farmers feel that our government's rather recent acknowledgment and standards pertaining to organic certification go against the spirit of what organic production means. Terms like "agribusiness" and "mega-organics" are bandied about by some of the more vocal critics of large-scale organically-certified operations. Isn't a large, organic operation better than a large conventional one? I suspect it is. I don't think, however, that "organic" necessarily trumps "local."
I'm not just talking about supporting your local food economy by keeping your dollars in the area, or the carbon footprint bit -- all of the fossil fuels used to process and transport produce from large-scale, so-called "industrial organic" operations -- that might recommend more local food acquisition, though both are very valid reasons. I mean that when you are presented with organically grown stuff from somewhere far away, it may not be in line with the kind of practices you want to support: wasteful growing, harvesting, and packaging. Take Trader Joe's, for example. I love -- love! -- their stuff, and much of it is organic, even free trade, but it is shipped in from all over the place (and "organic" -- never mind "sustainably grown" -- in one country more than likely means something different in another) and there is the issue of packaging. Oh, the packaging! I shudder at the image of the tons of saran wrap and styrofoam they contribute to landfills each year. (Then again, if TJ's didn't shrink wrap everything, the dumpster diving culture would probably wither and die of malnutrition.) I try to stick to farmers markets and food co-ops as much as possible, as they tend toward high quality, seasonal stuff without all of the packaging, and the pricing is comparable. (I do make the occasional stop into TJ's -- but not for produce, if I can at all avoid it. Nobody's perfect, certainly not me. Hey, even Michael Pollan buys Fruity Pebbles sometimes....)
More to the point, though, is the sketchiness surrounding what it means for meat (and animal products such as milk or eggs) to be "certified organic." It apparently *doesn't* mean that animals are raised or slaughtered humanely. It doesn't mean they're any less crowded or stressed than their conventionally-raised counterparts. What it means is that they are fed organically-grown corn and are not pumped up with hormones. This is a good start, but it's not good enough. What's better? Talking to the farmer or rancher directly, asking questions about their practices. If you can, visit the farms, see how the animals live. Do they have a place to roam, walk in the grass, feel the sun on their faces? This -- a happy animal life and a humane death -- is the best a meat eater can hope for in her food. I am grappling with issues related to eating meat again these days, so I suspect there will be future posts as I try to flesh things out. (Oy.)