The WHOLE Truth about...ORGANIC #2


by Michael  Pollan (2006)

After a somewhat overheated "60 Minutes" expose on apple growers' use of Alar, a growth-regulating chemical widely used in conventional orchards that the Environmental Protection Agency had declared a carcinogen, Middle America suddenly discovered organic. "Panic for Organic" was the cover line on one newsweekly, and overnight, demand from the supermarket chains soared. The ragtag industry was not quite ready for prime time, however. Like a lot of organic producers, Gene Kahn borrowed heavily to finance an ambitious expansion, contracted with farmers to grow an awful lot of organic produce—and then watched in horror as the bubble of demand subsided along with the headlines about Alar. Badly overextended, Kahn was forced to sell a majority stake in his company—to Welch's—and the onetime hippie farmer set out on what he calls his "corporate adventure."

"We were part of the food industry now," he told me. "But I wanted to leverage that position to redefine the way we grow food—not what people want to eat or how we distribute it. That sure as hell isn't going to change." Becoming part of the food industry meant jettisoning two of the three original legs on which the organic movement had stood: the countercuisine—what people want to eat—and the food co-ops and other alternative modes of distribution. Kahn's bet was that agribusiness could accommodate itself most easily to the first leg—the new way to grow food—by treating organic essentially as a niche product that could be distributed and marketed through the existing channels. The original organic ideal held that you could not divorce these three elements, since (as ecology taught) everything was connected. But Gene Kahn, for one (and he was by no means the only one), was a realist, a businessman with a payroll to meet. And he wasn't looking back.

"You have a choice of getting sad about all that or moving on. We tried hard to build a cooperative community and a local food system, but at the end of the day it wasn't successful. This is just lunch for most people. Just lunch. We can call it sacred, we can talk about communion, but it's just lunch."

In the years after the Alar bubble burst in 1990, the organic industry recovered, embarking on a period of double-digit annual growth and rapid consolidation, as mainstream food companies began to take organic (or at least the organic market) seriously. Gerber's, Heinz, Dole, ConAgra, and ADM all created or acquired organic brands. Cascadian Farm itself became a miniconglomerate, acquiring Muir Glen, a California organic tomato processor, and the combined company changed its name to Small Planet Foods. Nineteen ninety also marked the beginning of federal recognition for organic agriculture: That year, Congress passed the Organic Food and Production Act (OFPA).The legislation instructed the Department of Agriculture—which historically had treated organic farming with undisguised contempt—to establish uniform national standards for organic food and farming, fixing the definition of a word that had always meant different things to different people.

Settling on that definition turned out to be a grueling decade-long process, as various forces both within and outside the movement battled for control of a word that had developed a certain magic in the marketplace. Agribusiness fought to define the word as loosely as possible, in part to make it easier for mainstream companies to get into organic, but also out of fear that anything deemed not organic—such as genetically modified food—would henceforth carry an official stigma. At first, the USDA, acting out of long-standing habit, obliged its agribusiness clients, issuing a watery set of standards in 1997 that— astoundingly—allowed for the use of genetically modified crops and irradiation and sewage sludge in organic food production. Some saw the dark hand of companies like Monsanto or ADM at work, but it seems more likely the USDA was simply acting on the reasonable assumption that the organic industry, like any other industry, would want as light a regulatory burden as possible. But it turned out organic wasn't like other industries: It still had a lot of the old movement values in its genetic makeup, and it reacted to the weak standards with fury. An un-precedented flood of public comment from outraged organic farmers and consumers forced the USDA back to the drawing board, in what was widely viewed as a victory for the movement's principles.

Yet while the struggle with the government over the meaning of "organic" was making headlines in 1997, another equally important struggle was underway within the USDA between Big and Little Organic—or, put another way, between the organic industry and the organic movement—and here the outcome was decidedly more ambiguous. Could a factory farm be organic? Was an organic dairy cow entided to graze on pasture? Did food additives and synthetic chemicals have a place in processed organic food? If the answers to these questions seem like no-brainers, then you too are stuck in an outdated pastoral view of organic. Big Organic won all three arguments. The final standards do a good job of setting the bar for a more environmentally responsible kind of farming but, as perhaps was inevitable as soon as bureaucratic and industrial thinking was brought to bear, many of the philosophical values embodied in the word "organic"—the sorts of values expressed by Albert Howard—did not survive the federal rulemaking process.

 From 1992 to 1997 Gene Kahn served on the USDA's National Organic Standards Board, where he played a key role in making the standards safe for the organic TV dinner and a great many other organic processed foods. This was no small feat, for Kahn and his allies had to work around the original 1990 legislation, which had prohibited synthetic food additives and manufacturing agents outright. Kahn argued that you couldn't have organic processed food without synthetics, which are necessary to both the manufacture and preservation of such supermarket products. Several of the consumer representatives on the standards board contended that this was precisely the point, and if no synthetics meant no organic TV dinners, then TV dinners were something organic simply shouldn't do. At stake was the very idea of a coun-tercuisine.

Joan Dye Gussow, a nutritionist and an outspoken standards-board member, made the case against synthetics in a 1996 article that was much debated at the time: "Can an Organic Twinkie Be Certified?" Demonstrating that under the proposed rules such a thing was entirely possible, Gussow questioned whether organic should simply mirror the existing food supply, with its highly processed, salted, and sugary junk food, or whether it should aspire to something better—a counter-cuisine based on whole foods. Kahn responded with an argument rooted in the populism of the market: If the consumer wants an organic Twinkie, then we should give it to him. As he put it to me on the drive back from Cascadian Farm, "Organic is not your mother." In the end it came down to an argument between the old movement and the new industry and the new industry won: The final standards simply ignored the 1990 law, drawing up a list of permissible additives and synthetics, from ascorbic acid to xanthan gum.*

"If we had lost on synthetics," Kahn told me, "we'd be out of business."

The same might be said for the biggest organic meat and dairy producers, who fought to make the new standards safe for the organic factory farm. Horizon Organic's Mark Retzloff labored mightily to preserve the ability of his company—which is the Microsoft of organic milk, controlling more than half of the market—to operate its large-scale industrial dairy in southern Idaho. Here in the western desert, where precious little grass can grow, the company was milking several thousand cows that, rather than graze on pasture (as most consumers presume their organic cows are doing), spend their days milling around a dry lot—a grassless fenced enclosure. It's doubtful a dairy could pasture that many cows even if it wanted to—you would need at least an acre of grass per animal and more hours than there are in a day to move that many cows all the way out to their distant acre and then back again to the milking parlor every morning and evening. So in-

* After Arthur Harvey, a Maine blueberry farmer, won a 2003 lawsuit forcing the USDA to obey the language of the 1990 law, lobbyists working for the Organic Trade Association managed in 2005 to slip language into a USDA appropriations bill restoring—and possibly expanding—the industry's right to use synthetics in organic foods.

stead, as in the typical industrial dairy, these organic cows stood around \ eating grain and silage when they weren't being milked three times a day. Their organic feed was shipped in from all over the West, and their waste accumulated in manure ponds. Retzloff argued that keeping cows in confinement meant that his farmhands, who all carried stethoscopes, could keep a closer eye on their health. Of course, cows need this sort of surveillance only when they're living in such close quarters— and can't be given antibiotics.

Such a factory farm didn't sound terribly organic to the smaller dairy farmers on the board, not to mention to the consumer representatives. Also, the OFPA had spelled out that the welfare of organic animals should take into account, and accommodate, their "natural behavior," which in the case of cows—ruminants who have evolved to eat grass—surely meant grazing on pasture. You might say the whole pastoral idea was hardwired into these animals and stood squarely in the way of industrializing them. So how could the logic of industry ever hope to prevail?

The USDA listened to the arguments on both sides and finally ruled that dairy cows must have "access to pasture," which sounds like more of a victory for the pastoral ideal than it turned out to be in practice. By itself "access to pasture" is an extremely vague standard (What constitutes "access"? How much pasture per animal? How often could it graze?), and it was weakened further by a provision stating that even access could be dispensed with at certain stages of the animal's life. Some big organic dairies have decided that lactation constitutes one such stage, and thus far the USDA has not objected. Some of its organic certifiers have complained that "access to pasture" is so vague as to be meaningless—and therefore unenforceable. It's hard to argue with them.

Along with the national list of permissible synthetics, "access to pasture," and, for other organic animals, "access to the outdoors" indicate how the word "organic" has been stretched and twisted to admit the very sort of industrial practices for which it once offered a critique and an alternative. The final standards also demonstrate how, in Gene Kahn's words, "everything eventually morphs into the way the world is." And yet the pastoral values and imagery embodied in that word survive in the minds of many people, as the marketers of organic food well understand: Just look at a container of organic milk, with its happy cows and verdant pastures. Thus is a venerable ideal hollowed out, reduced to a sentimental conceit printed on the side of a milk carton: Supermarket Pastoral.