Does Organic Matter?

In our wide realm of experience, we apply labels–to ourselves, others, and the things around us–as a shortcut to help us make sense of our world. But labels can change in meaning over time, and often become more or less important.

Consider this short history of the “organic” label. When our grandparents were young, food was grown on traditional family farms. No chemicals were used and so food was inherently organic, but without the label.  In the middle of the last century, with young people moving away from family farms and with the introduction of pesticides, antibiotics and hormones, farming became more industrialized. As a response, in the 1960s and 1970s an “old-fashioned” organic movement took root. Its focus was practical–growing food without chemicals–but it was also philosophical; farmers were committed, above all, to permanence and sustainabilityThis was farming with integrity, a way of meeting current needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. And, thus, the first “organic” label was created.

In the last decade, this label has grown in breadth and popularity as it has been shaped, in part, by large corporations that value profits over sustainability. “Organic” has developed a magical connotation and has been used to bestow a halo of good health, for us and the planet, that may not always be deserved. “Organic” has also been reduced to a marketing program, a name to attract us, that often offers no guarantee of goodness. There is nothing healthful about organic pop tarts, organic soda, or organic evaporated cane juice; as New York University Professor Marion Nestle states, “Organic junk food is still junk food.”

Sometimes labels can make it easier to understand our options, but I wonder about the value of an organic label that can increase our food costs without adding the meaning it once did, or the meaning that we imagine it does. Under the law, “organic” currently refers to any food that is mostly free of synthetic substances, has no antibiotics or hormones, has not been radiated or fertilized with sewage sludge, was raised without pesticides, and contains no genetically modified ingredients. There is no question that this is all good. But is it enough? Does it tell us everything we need to know?

Interestingly, organically-labeled food can meet all these ideals and still, to some degree, diminish our world and erode our good health. When soil is farmed without being enriched, for example, it is gradually lost to erosion by wind and water; and without using compost to replenish the soil, it takes 700 years for one inch of new topsoil to develop. Choosing not to use compost is one way that modern organic growers have let go of the deeper set of goals prized by old-fashioned organic farmers–those who pioneered the movement and those who perpetuate their farming methods and philosophies today.

Old-Fashioned Organic Goals

For the Planet’s Health:

  • Enriching soil with compost to the extent that growing food depletes it. Compost is quite literally farmers’ gold. As mentioned above, modern organic growers often fail to farm in a way that takes this wisdom into account, and precious topsoil is not only not built up, it is lost.

  • Distributing food close to home and on a limited scale to maintain a small carbon footprint. It’s not uncommon for modern organic sellers to import vegetables from China and fruits from South America and then transport them to us in the United States. Old-fashioned organic always aims for food with a lighter environmental footprint.

  • Maintaining crop diversity. Planting a variety of crops is the way old-fashioned organic farmers support an array of beneficial insects and soil microorganisms; these nourish fertility and plant life, promote resilience, and form the foundation of a healthy farm. In contrast, many modern organic growers produce only one or two crops. This is cost-effective for the farmer and makes it easy to run a business in the short term, but it is a practice that cannot be sustained over generations.

For Our Health:

  • Selling food that is whole and mostly unprocessed. A good deal of the modern organic market consists of highly-processed junk food made with organic white flour, organic sugar, organic corn syrup and organic vegetable oil, none of which contribute to our good health. What’s more, organic dairy farmers sell milk, cream, yogurt and cheese that are highly-processed and many steps removed from the raw milk and cream their cows provide. These “certified organic” foods do little to improve or maintain our health.

For Both Our Health and the Planet’s Health:

  • Raising animals outdoors with grass as food. Most organic farmers today house their animals indoors on concrete and feed them organic corn and soy, which creates miserably poor health for the animals and, over time, for those of us who eat the foods they provide. These foods are, among other considerations, too high in omega-6 fats to be good for us, promoting chronic internal inflammation and disease.

It can be hard for any of us to know the best choices to make, and difficult to measure the lengths we should go to acquire “good” food.  The answer, I think, is to care less about a certified organic label, which costs farmers both money and time, and more about a deeper set of ideals. Put another way, an organic attitude may matter more than an organic label.

So, where do we begin? First, we can use our food choices to invest in a way of life rather than a label, and we can think small instead of big, developing a more direct connection to the land where our food is grown and to local farmers who use sustainable growing practices. These are farmers who treat their animals as if they matter, and who care for their land as if they are stewards for future generations: working on a small scale, feeding animals grass instead of grain, distributing food nearby, and using no pesticides, antibiotics or hormones. Their foods often cost less than those with a certified organic label, and you will know their quality because you will know the farmer. Second, regarding packaged organic food, we can look at ingredient lists and make every effort to avoid white flour, sugar–including evaporated cane juice and corn syrup–vegetable oil and additives, even if they are labeled organic.

The bottom line is this: Regardless of the label, foods that are good for the planet and good for us come from farmers who define their work in the positive. These farmers not only care about producing food with an absence of chemicals. They also care about upholding old-fashioned organic goals, and they maintain a genuine, forward-looking and active approach to growing food in the same way that it has been farmed throughout time. To these farmers, “organic” is not a production method; it is a connected and protective attitude toward both the wider world and all of us who eat. You can meet farmers like these at farm stands, farmers’ markets, and community supported gardens, and their products are often sold at local health food stores.

Food Shopping With an Organic Attitude

As suggested above, food that is grown the old fashioned way doesn’t always have a “certified organic” label; it may not have any label at all. Quality is what you’re after and you will find it when you gather ingredients from farmers who care.

Animal products should come from animals raised on grass and without antibiotics and hormones. The label, if there is one, will say “grass-fed” or “pastured.” It will also say “antibiotic and hormone-free.” In the case of eggs, if you are shopping in a grocery store look for eggs from pastured hens, or for high-omega eggs, which come from hens that have had flax or alfalfa added to their feed.

Fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, nuts and seeds should ideally be free of pesticides and grown from seed that has not been genetically modified. If budget is a consideration, which for most of us it is, have a look at the Environmental Working Group’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides. This list can help you prioritize your organic purchases.

Where to Shop


Farmers’ Markets and Community Supported Gardens. The single best piece of advice I can give you is to find a local farmers’ market or community supported garden and make going there a part of your routine. Most farmers’ markets offer both produce and animal products. A whole new world of food will open up to you, and you will have the joy and privilege of getting to know your farmers. From a practical standpoint, the excitement and inspiration of the market or garden will follow you home, and will still be there when it comes time to cook. Locate local farmers’ markets, community supported gardens, and year-round sources for responsibly grown food at Local Harvest.

Grass-Based Farms. By getting to know farmers in your community, it’s easier than you would think to buy food from animals raised on grass, with or without organic certification. Have a look at the state-by-state directory at Eat Wild.

Mail Order. Other sources of good, clean food abound. Have a look at a variety of options for ordering what you need by mail at Where to Buy Real Food.

Local Stores. Finally, shop at your local health food store, which may sell food from local growers and will certainly offer other healthy options.

Note to readers who keep kosherIf you keep kosher and have questions about where to find kosher grass-based animal products, please email me and I will gladly point you toward those I know about.

Copyright Ellen Arian, Ellen’s Food & Soul