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Standing up to Big Food's Organic End Run: Who Will, and Why?

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Written by Elisa (EJ) Sobo

Some time back, my local chain grocery store began carrying organic foods--at prices that I could afford. Now even Target is in on the business! It seems we've reached a tipping point. The early proponents of pure food--the ones who held the line when the rest of the world called them nutty--must be very happy.

Or are they? Maybe not. As organic market shares have grown, the environmentally-friendly, healthful, and socially just diet that early advocates promoted seems to have been somewhat forgotten. Big Food has entered the organic business, changing fundamentally what it comprises. For example, now, over 250 non-organic substances can by law, be included in foods labeled 'organic'. Plus, organic no longer by definition means locally or non-industrially produced.

These facts have not been lost on parents participating in a study I'm leading on education and health. These parents have deep worries about the danger of buying organic foods from corporations. They do not represent US parents as a whole; nor do they represent a single dietary lifestyle group. Nutritional preferences were quite varied. Nevertheless, as they described and justified their diverse household diets, a key unifying theme predominated: playing the role of a good consumer who makes it a point to 'buy organic' is not good enough anymore. Industrial food production methods and their concomitant health and environmental effects make off-the-shelf organics a poor health investment--personally, and for the planet.

These parents were not abstemious and their diets diverged--sometimes greatly--from what the mainstream might consider healthful. Many ate red meat; breakfast preferences included sausages and, for some, even bacon. Most served butter frequently. But the butter was sustainably produced, and chemical-free; the beef locally raised, grass-fed, antibiotic-free; the sausages the same plus filler-free, and so on.

Off the table were genetically modified foods or foods with genetically modified ingredients, whether they bore the organic label or not. Some families rejected organic eggs if not laid by truly free-ranging chickens; some wanted their eggs fertile too. Cow's milk and cow's milk products, for those who used them, often had to be not just from sustainably raised cows but raw as well, and therefore full of 'good bacteria'.

In other words, these parents aspired to a diet that went well beyond organic. The nutritional principles they recommended, such as to eat unprocessed foods, underwrote a diet reminiscent of preindustrial times. Sure, not exactly; but certainly when compared to the diets of many 'organic' consumers today, whose organic purchases include cleverly marketed instant macaroni and cheese, and other highly processed goods.

Many parents in the study did not succeed in achieving a non-industrial nutrition profile. They cited the financial expense of a better-than-just-organic diet, and a lack of local producers. But they had some strategies to work around this and high costs, at least as much as possible. Some gardened themselves, or participated in local CSAs (community supported [small scale, local, organic] agriculture programs).

Interestingly, participation in these kinds of activities seems to be on the rise across the nation. Indeed, it seems that locally, mindfully, sustainably grown food won't be expensive or scarce for long in many regions: a recent New York Times article reports that the local food movement has gained enough steam to be "creating a vibrant new economic laboratory for American agriculture." What the parents in my study strived for, then, could in fact reflect a more broadly felt agenda than it seems on first glance.

When I analyze my study data, I will scrutinize the parents' efforts to become informed regarding nutrition and to build food production and exchange systems that meet their standards. These and other academic interests in the data aside--that is, speaking personally--I do find myself in agreement with the push 'beyond organic.'

Our population as a whole seems to have succumbed too easily to advertising campaigns meant to convince us that Big Organic products are better if not equal to those produced using traditional techniques. We still seem to feel more comfortable with nicely packaged, industrially produced, predictably shaped, shrink-wrapped food stand-ins than with real food: food that is raised, processed, distributed, and consumed the way that early organic food proponents meant it to be.
I am glad, in many ways, that organic items are becoming more affordable. Yet, as the study participants remind us, while our nation tightens its embrace of organics, we should keep a mindful eye on whose interests really are being served.

Elisa (EJ) Sobo is a professor of anthropology at San Diego State University. She is on the editorial boards of Anthropology & Medicine and Medical Anthropology and she is the Book Reviews Editor for Medical Anthropology Quarterly. She has served as an elected member of the Society for Medical Anthropology's executive board and is presently co-chair of the American Anthropological Association's Committee on Public Policy.

Dr. Sobo has written numerous peer-reviewed journal articles as well having authored, co-authored, and co-edited twelve books on various topics. Her latest books are Dynamics of Human Biocultural Diversity: A Unified Approach (forthcoming), The Cultural Context of Health, Illness, and Medicine (2010), and Culture and Meaning in Health Services Research (2009).

Dr. Sobo's current projects include a study exploring cultural models of child development as applied in classroom teaching, particularly in the Waldorf or Steiner education system. Findings from that study inspired this essay.

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