The WHOLE Truth about.... ORGANIC #1



THE WHOLE TRUTH ABOUT  "ORGANIC"


BY MICHAEL POLLAN


From  his  book  "Omnivore's  Dilemma" (2006)


..... The organic label may conjure an image of a simpler agriculture, but its very existence is an industrial artifact. The question is, what about the farms themselves? How well do they match the stories told about them?....

About as well as you would expect anything genuinely pastoral to hold up in the belly of an $11 billion industry, which is to say not very well at all. At least that's what I discovered when I traced a few of the items in my Whole Foods cart back to the farms where they were grown. I learned, for example, that some (certainly not all) organic milk comes from factory farms, where thousands of Holsteins that never encounter a blade of grass spend their days confined to a fenced "dry lot," eating (certified organic) grain and tethered to milking machines three times a day. The reason much of this milk is ultrapasteurized (a high-heat process that damages its nutritional quality) is so that big companies like Horizon and Aurora can sell it over long distances. I discovered organic beef being raised in "organic feedlots" and organic high-fructose corn syrup—more words I never expected to see combined. And I learned about the making of the aforementioned organic TV dinner, a microwaveable bowl of "rice, vegetables, and grilled chicken breast with a savory herb sauce." Country Herb, as the entree is called, turns out to be a highly industrialized organic product, involving a choreography of thirty-one ingredients assembled from far-flung farms, laboratories, and processing plants scattered over a half-dozen states and two countries, and containing such mysteries of modern food technology as high-oleic saffiower oil, guar and xanthan gum, soy lecithin, carrageenan, and "natural grill flavor." Several of these ingredients are synthetic additives permitted under federal organic rules. So much for "whole" foods. The manufacturer of Country Herb is Cascadian Farm, a pioneering organic farm turned processor in Washington State that is now a wholly owned subsidiary of General Mills. (The Country Herb chicken entree has since been discontinued.)


I also visited Rosie the organic chicken at her farm in Petaluma, which turns out to be more animal factory than farm. She lives in a shed with twenty thousand other Rosies, who, aside from their certified organic feed, live lives little different from that of any other industrial chicken. Ah, but what about the "free-range" lifestyle promised on the label? True, there's a litde door in the shed leading out to a narrow grassy yard. But the free-range story seems a bit of a stretch when you discover that the door remains firmly shut until the birds are at least five or six weeks old—for fear they'll catch something outside—and the chickens are slaughtered only two weeks later.


FROM PEOPLE'S PARK TO PETALUMA POULTRY


.....People's Park was born on April 20, 1969, when a group calling itself the Robin Hood Commission seized a vacant lot owned by the University of California and set to work rolling out sod, planting trees, and, perhaps most auspiciously, putting in a vegetable garden. Calling themselves "agrarian reformers," the radicals announced that they wanted to establish on the site the model of a new cooperative society built from the ground up; that included growing their own "uncontaminated" food.....


For example, organic's rejection of agricultural chemicals was also a rejection of the war machine, since the same corporations—Dow, Monsanto—that manufactured pesticides also made napalm and Agent Orange, the herbicide with which the U.S. military was waging war against nature in Southeast Asia. Eating organic thus married the personal to the political.....


A counter-cuisine based on whole grains and unprocessed organic ingredients rose up to challenge conventional industrial "white bread food." ("Plastic food" was an epithet thrown around a lot.) For a host of reasons that seem ridiculous in retrospect, brown foods of all kinds— rice, bread, wheat, eggs, sugar, soy sauce, tamari—were deemed morally superior to white foods. Brown foods were less adulterated by industry, of course, but just as important, eating them allowed you to express your solidarity with the world's brown peoples. (Only later would the health benefits of these whole foods be recognized, not the first or last time an organic conceit would find scientific backing.) But perhaps best of all, brown foods were also precisely what your parents didn't eat......


(WELL  NOT  SURE  WHAT  "PARENT"  GENERATION  POLLAN  IS  TALKING  ABOUT,  BUT  BEFORE  "WHITE FLOUR"  WAS  INVENTED  WITH  MACHINES,  THERE  WAS  ONLY  "BROWN"  FOODS.....OR  PUT  ANOTHER  WAY,  THERE  WAS  ONLY  "WHOLE  WHEAT"  FOODS  -  Keith  Hunt)


One such notable success was Gene Kahn, the founder of Cascadian Farm, the company responsible for the organic TV dinner in my Whole Foods cart. Today Cascadian Farm is foremost a General Mills brand, but it began as a quasi-communal hippie farm, located on a narrow, gorgeous shelf of land wedged between the Skagit River and the North Cascades about seventy-five miles northeast of Seattle. (The idyllic litde farmstead depicted on the package turns out to be a real place.) Originally called the New Cascadian Survival and Reclamation Project, the farm was started in 1971 by Gene Kahn with the idea of growing food for the collective of environmentally minded hippies he had hooked up with in nearby Bellingham. At the time Kahn was a twenty-four-year-old grad school dropout from the South Side of Chicago, who had been inspired by Silent Spring and Diet for a Small Planet to go back to the land— and from there to change the American food system. This particular dream was not so outrageous in 1971, but Kahn's success in actually realizing it surely is: He went on to become a pioneer of the organic movement and probably has done as much as anyone to move organic food into the mainstream, getting it out of the food co-op and into the supermarket.....

Perhaps more than any other single writer, Sir Albert Howard (1873—1947), an English agronomist knighted after his thirty years of research in India, provided the philosophical foundations for organic agriculture. Even those who never read his 1940 Testament nevertheless absorbed his thinking through the pages of Rodale's Organic Gardening and Farming, where he was lionized, and in the essays of Wendell Berry, who wrote an influential piece about Howard in the The Last Whole Earth Catalog in 1971. Berry seized particularly on Howard's arresting—and prescient—idea that we needed to treat "the whole problem of health in soil, plant, animal and man as one great subject.".....


In Howard's agronomy, science is mosdy a tool for describing what works and explaining why it does. As it happens, in the years since Howard wrote, science has provided support for a great many of his unscientific claims: Plants grown in synthetically fertilized soils are less nourishing than ones grown in composted soils;' such plants are more vulnerable to diseases and insect pests;2 poly cultures are more productive and less prone to disease than monocultures;3 and that in fact the health of the soil, plant, animal, human, and even nation are, as Howard claimed, connected along lines we can now begin to draw with empirical confidence. We may not be prepared to act on this knowledge, but we know that civilizations that abuse their soil eventually collapse.4

If farms modeled on natural systems work as well as Howard suggests, then why don't we see more of them? The sad fact is that the organic ideal as set forth by Howard and others has been honored mainly in the breach. Especially as organic agriculture has grown more successful, finding its way into the supermarket and the embrace of agribusiness, organic farming has increasingly come to resemble the industrial system it originally set out to replace. The logic of that system has so far proven more ineluctable than the logic of natural systems.

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TO  BE  CONTINUED