An observant cynic once wrote, "Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket."
The organic food movement is certainly a great cause and it has definitely become big business. Now the only question is whether we will allow this well-intentioned movement, started by farmers who strived to be stewards of the land, to completely degenerate into a meaningless food trend.
The organic food crusade began as a grassroots movement for small-scale, locally sourced, sustainable agriculture. Most consumers still associate organic products with those values, and many are willing to pay a premium price for the assurance that their food is chemical-free and produced in an environmentally friendly manner.
But today, Whole Foods sells "organic" produce grown in China and shipped thousands of miles. The company that makes Camel cigarettes also offers "organic" American Spirit tobacco. Wal-Mart, the very embodiment of an unsustainable business model, is now a major player in the organics market. You can even find all kinds of heavily processed foods and sugar-laden treats, like Heinz ketchup and gummy bears, bearing the "USDA Organic" label.
In my new documentary, In Organic We Trust, I set out to explore the content beneath the label and the truth behind the marketing. What I found may surprise the 73% of American consumers who purchase some organic products.
More often than not, the organic spinach, cucumbers and strawberries at your neighborhood Safeway were grown on a monoculture mega-farm, in a field right next to the farm's pesticide-laden, non-organic crops, picked prematurely by the same exploited farm workers, and transported over huge distances by gas-guzzling, carbon-emitting, long-haul trucks to your supermarket produce aisle. The organic meat in the next aisle likely came from pigs, cows and chickens that were raised in overcrowded, waste-infested feedlots nearly identical to those of their "non-organic" relatives.
In a way, the cheapening of organic standards shouldn't come as a surprise because the organic movement was never really supposed to be about standards. When the term "organic" became fashionable, it quickly morphed into a marketing label. At that point, organic agriculture was no longer about sustainability as a central value in food production; rather, it became a matter of checklists and regulations by accrediting agents. It became a system to be gamed, and as with every other industry in America, those best equipped to game it are those with the deepest pockets, the best-placed lobbyists, and the largest economies of scale -- in other words, the same producers that the organic food movement originally emerged to oppose.
The news, however, isn't all bad. Though big companies and corporate lobbyists seek to weaken organic standards, the USDA certification still carries significance and should not be abandoned. The "certified organic" label at the very least signifies to the consumer that the food was grown without the use of highly toxic chemicals. It's more important than ever that we fight to strengthen regulations in order to maintain the integrity of the organic brand, least it becomes just another empty marketing buzz phrase like "All Natural."
Even as organic food has gone Wall Street over the last decade, the original organic philosophy is making a comeback in a myriad of forms: small family farmers dedicated to replenishing the soil, a thriving "locavore" subculture centered on local farmer's markets, and urban and school gardens sprouting up across the country.
There's even a global analogue to this growing "good food" movement -- "Slow Food." Begun in Italy in the 1980s, the Slow Food movement is a deliberate rejection of the fast food culture and an embrace of small-scale, local agriculture that promotes, not destroys, biodiversity. It's about reconnecting food and culture, minding what we put in our bodies, and celebrating regional and traditional cooking. It seeks to replace industrially farmed, highly processed products with carefully grown food that is healthier for people, animals, and the environment -- and tastier, too. It reflects the values that once defined organic agriculture.
In reality, organic is only one part of the solution. Buying locally grown food promotes economic growth and creates jobs in local communities. A dollar spent at a big-box store turns around two-and-a-half times before it leaves the community, but a dollar spent at a local farmer's market, for example, will turn around seven times. Buy local and organic.
Of course, it may only be a matter of time before we visit the neighborhood supermarket and find six packs of soda and bags of potato chips labeled "Locally sourced!" or "100% Slow Food!" Hopefully, if that day arrives, those labels will actually mean something. And if they don't, we'll need a new movement.