Saturday 8 September 2012

Trusting Organic

The media was buzzing this week with a scientific study that played down the benefit of organic foods.
Anyone who read past the headlines knows that the story was delivered with an intentional spin.
Change is almost always unnecessarily painful.

For those who swallow the media unwaveringly, the story suggested that the consumer is being gouged by farmers who are getting more money by charging a premium for organic food.
For those of us who choose to eat and produce organic food, it's just another call for damage control.
Damage that is being inflicted in a fruitless war to maintain industrial agriculture as the status quo.

The unfortunate backstory throughout the mainstream chatter is the effect that the organic certification is having on organic food.

Let me first be clear on one thing.
Organic food is real food that is produced naturally.
The produce that should be scrutinzed and labelled is the corporate owned food.
The reasons for that are obvious.

However, owing to the premium prices of organic food, and the fact that organic food buyers generally disregard cost, the money man is eyeing up a potential profit boon.
The purpose of certification is to prevent farms from selling produce with organic claims at organic prices, that have not been produced organically.
In other words, certification is intended to sift out the cheats and liars.
That says nothing good about our society.

What's worse, the small organic farms are usually farming organically as a matter of principle and not for access to the niche markets.
The corporate farms who are cashing in on the organic movement often lobby government for a relaxation of organic certification standards.
Personally, we never buy organic products that come from the supermarkets.
It's a matter of trust.
We don't trust all.
Organic certification or not.

Farming organically does cost more money; it's not just a cash grab.
There are several reasons for that which I'll talk about in detail some other time.
The most significant difference is in livestock products.
Antibiotics are not permitted in organically raised meat.
Many people believe that antibiotics are used only to cure sick animals.
While it's true that antibiotics are used as medication, it is also a fact that antibiotics increase the feed conversion ratio needed to bring an animal to market weight.
Antibiotics aid greatly in the absorption of food and it takes less input of feed to increase an animals weight.
On the feedlots, they administer antibiotics throughout every animal's life,
to not only stave off infections from deplorable conditions, but primarily to make it cheaper to fatten an animal up.
For dairy cattle, there are hormones that are given to increase milk production.
Organic meat and dairy are more expensive because there is no obscene use of pharmaceuticals used in order to maximize profits.
The list of distasteful practices goes on and on.
I do understand that there is a middle ground where farmers are conventional, but do not resort to every dirty trick in the book.
But you can bet that the big factory farms do.

There is also the certification process itself.
It costs the farmer money to have a farm and it's produce certified organic.
There is no government inspection agency providing this service to aid the consumer.
And once again, there's money to be made.
Organic farmers need that certification to authenticate their product in order to access the niche markets.
You can't charge organic prices without having that stamp of approval.
So to capture a fair profit from fair production, the certification needs to be there.
Of course, the companies doing the certification understand this.

As that new market begins to expand, so to does the bureaucracy that accompanies it.
And like an insurance company with a captive market, the certification agencies are beginning to fatten themselves up on the backs of the farmers.
More procedure, more rigorous regulation, fewer exceptions, more staff, more paper work, and so on.
It all equals more money, and that is what bureaucracy needs to feed upon; increasing demands in order to satisfy a need to expand.
The farmer is presumably supposed to pass this cost on to the consumer, but at the expense of being able to compete with non-organically grown foods.
All with the effect of slowing the pace towards changing how our food is grown for the sake of better health now, and a better future for our children.

The solution lays in the same place that it's normally found;
with the consumer.
It is important to buy food locally for countless reasons.
Even if it's not certified organic.
There would be no need for certification or extensive labelling if there was trust between the producer and the consumer.
Face your farmer.
In fact, that is a term being used now for a simpler form of certification.
Face certification.
If you can't meet your producer and have a tour of the facilities, then you shouldn't be buying.
Knowing exactly where your food comes from and how it was produced eliminates the greedy middlemen, and the bloated and selfish bureaucracy.

We have looked into certification for our own farm.
But I would prefer that our customers trust our word without the third-party verification.
Everything has gone out of control for a lack of trust and honesty in our culture.
Buying-in just makes it worse.
I believe that trust in the certification process will fail over time, either because of corporate farm attempts to undermine the process, or because of corruption within.
All this time, in the past and in the future,
all you need to do is face your farmer.



  1. Here is a decent article about the shortcomings of he Stanford study - not that you need it of course :)

    1. I am mostly curious about the motivations behind the study.
      They said it was not funded externally, but the whole process was undoubtedly intended to tarnish the organic image.
      Also, the extent of the news coverage was extreme considering the weakness of the analysis.
      If anything, the whole affair diminshes the reputation of science's ability to elucidate fact.

  2. Science is a tool, and like All tools can be used improperly. Good science produces accurate results (within our current understanding). Bad science produces biased garbage.

  3. Thanks Andrew, I like and appreciate this article!
    Janet Ellenberger

    1. Ellenberger Organic Farm, Coe Hill, Ontario.
      You have to find your farmer first!