By Nina Planck, as appeared in the New York Times, 23 November 2005.
When I first sold my family's vegetables at farmers' markets in Virginia in 1980, Slow Food hadn't been born, and the phrase "local foods" was not yet in the lingo. The word "organic," however, was in vogue, and our customers always asked the same question: Are you organic? Nine years old and barefoot, I tried not to appear flummoxed. I stumbled over answers, most of them beginning, "No, but..."
These replies failed to satisfy. People wanted to know in a phrase whether our food was clean and safe. I'm still grateful to the customer who said, "Explain how you do farm." Soon our signs read "No Pesticides" or "Our Chickens Run Free on Grass."
We had always used ecological methods, like mulching to keep weeds down, but we also used chemicals on a few crops. By the early 1990's, we gave up all those poisons, but we never sought organic certification - even as organic foods, with sales growing 20 percent a year, became the hottest niche in the $500 billion food market.
The truth is that we didn't need an organic label. Customers trusted our signs and sales were brisk. In 2002, when the Department of Agriculture's National Organic Program established federal organic standards, amid dire predictions that small farmers would lose market share to organic behemoths, the effect on our farm and income was ... zilch. The organic rules are irrelevant to farmers like us who sell to chefs, shops and consumers - and can talk to buyers directly.
Don't get me wrong. The organic standards - which ban synthetic fertilizer, antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, genetically engineered ingredients and irradiation - are good for farming, the environment and health. The organic seal is vitally important in shops, where the consumer is several steps removed from the farmer. "Organic" is a legal guarantee that food meets certain standards.
That's why it is a shame that the Organic Trade Association - a food-industry group whose members include such giants as Kraft, Dean Foods and General Mills, which own national organic brands - is seeking to dilute the organic standards.
If Big Organic gets its way, xanthan gum (an artificial thickener), ammonium bicarbonate (a synthetic leavening agent), and ethylene (a chemical to ripen tomatoes and other fruit) will be permitted in products labeled organic, despite a court ruling last June saying they are not acceptable. Whatever the outcome of that fight, consumers should look beyond the organic label and seek out producers that exceed the federal rules. For example, most organic cattle are fed grain, but even organic grain is the wrong diet for ruminants. Patrick Lango, a dairyman near Buffalo, and Amy Kenyon, a beef farmer in the Catskills, raise cattle on their natural diet: grass. Beef, lamb and dairy products from grass-fed animals are more nutritious than grain-fed versions, with more vitamin E, omega-3 fats and conjugated linoleic acid, a fat that fights obesity, cancer and heart disease. I seldom look for the organic label on beef and butter. "Grass fed" means a lot more. Unfortunately, the organic rules are all but silent on the importance of grass to animal and human health. Fresh green pasture is good for pigs and poultry, too, but it's quite possible that the organic bacon or turkey burgers in your refrigerator came from animals that never left the barn.
If the organic label loses its meaning, farmers with higher standards will have to devise new ones. The next generation of labels will say "grass fed" butter and "pastured" pork. These foods - and others raised with ecological and humane methods - are superior to industrial organic foods. The Agriculture Department may never tell you that, but smart farmers will.
Nina Planck is a food writer, entrepreneur, advocate for small farmers, and the country's leading expert on farmers' markets and local foods. (www.ninaplanck.com)