06/12/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Beyond Organic: Animals Raised Organic Can Be Mistreated and Caged, in the Guise of Good

It's Saturday afternoon and you're checking out at your local co-op. You're behind another member of your community, lining up your organic eggs, organic pork chops, organic milk, organic lamb shank, and organic cheese. You feel pretty content. You're eating right, in a world full of chaos. Your body loves you. And while you know it's going to be expensive, you know there were cheaper options, you know when it really comes down to it your reusable bag won't hold your hand when you doesn't matter. Because this food is organic, and therefore better in the end. If you have kids, you feel like a good parent. If you're having a dinner party, you feel like a green host pioneering a culture of sustainability and good times. And probably best of all, your act of buying organic is part of a political movement; you're supporting a population of small farmers, the precious few who have decided that animals are more than merely walking meat slabs, and that vegetables should be birthed from sunshine and good soil, not created in a lab.

But this news may break the hearts of all you Whole Foods shopping, co-op opting, CSA member card holding, and/or farmer's market folks: Organic may not mean the food is better for you. Organic may not mean the animal was treated right. Organic may, in fact, be little more than a sweet notion and marketing campaign that rests easy the hearts of the eco-conscious consumer. Organic, in other words, is not always the right choice. Sorry, but it's true.

In fact, if all of us knew exactly what "organic" means and the other available alternatives (fast corporate food never being one of them), it is possible we could actually save money and be better informed about the food we're putting into our bodies. Joel Salatin, farmer and author of You Can Farm; Pastured Poultry Profits; and Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal—whom the New York Times refers to as the "high priest of the pasture" and is referred to at length in Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma—has a lot of good points when it comes to the question of organic vs. conventional. First and foremost: it's not that simple.

According to Salatin, "a broiler [meat chicken] can be fed certified organic feed in a confinement house, without fresh air and sunshine, without green salads, trucked for hours to a processing plant that electrocutes the bird and spills feces all over the carcass during evisceration, and be labeled 'certified organic.'...In animal production, organic describes primarily diet, and everything else is either not mentioned at all or is secondary."

I'd like to take this moment and say: Hello. My name is Makenna, and I farm non-organic eggs. Don't stop reading! At first I was ashamed; I'm someone who spent years being obsessive about only buying organic, no matter what. If I didn't have an extra buck, I went without eggs that week. I'm serious. My money, in copious amounts, was channeled into the sustainability of small farmers all across the country, or so I thought. Be damned other luxuries, I was intent on upholding the values of all good hippies raised on hormone-free milk and spelt cakes. But recently, since moving to a Vermont farm, I've been confronted with the cold, hard reality of what organic really means. Not much. Sounds sweet. Feels nice. Connotes ideas of good.

Suffice it to say, for all these years...I've been robbed.

I have laying hens, and believe me when I tell you they have a good life. They're free range to the point of too free, and spend warm days by the pond, eating bugs. They lay eggs with neon orange yolks, a sign they're low in cholesterol and high in good protein. I feed them food scraps, and along with their "salad greens" of grass and plants, this cuts down on their grain consumption substantially. I'm considering getting scraps from the local elementary school, too. Use waste, be sustainable, cut down on fossil fuels, that kind of thing. I am 100% against hormones, large-scale corporate food production, caged livestock, and mistreatment of animals of any kind. But I don't use organic grain, because it's twice as expensive, and since the hens are so free-range they get most of their diet through food scraps and plants, and eat very little grain anyway (which, although not certified organic, is all-natural, hormone and antibiotic free.)

When I went to my local co-op and proposed I become one of their egg suppliers however, the grocery buyer asked me first off: "Are they organic?" "Well," I told her, "they're free-range! Almost to the point of too free!" But the buyer shook her head, and offered to pay me a dollar less per dozen. A hen with a good life doesn't qualify as organic if the minimal grain they eat per day is not. Doesn't matter if it's one kernel of grain per day. "So," I asked her, "if my birds were locked in cages but I stuffed them until they popped with organic grain, they'd be worth more?" She nodded. "Even though my hens have a better life, get sun and exercise, eat plants, roam free, and the eggs are lower in cholesterol and saturated fat as a result?" She nodded. Insane.

Joel Salatin, who likes to refer to himself as a "Christian-libertarian-environmentalist-lunatic farmer," lives with his family on Polyface Farm in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Salatin has developed an innovative and well-respected system of pasture rotation that produces nutrient-rich grass and maximizes the composting of animal waste, where each species on the farm is dependent on another. On the subject of "organic," Salatin says:

Too often, especially in organic agriculture, we focus all the attention on the animal's diet and miss the bigger picture...I am constantly amazed that people in Virginia pay exorbitant prices for certified organic broilers flown in refrigerated air freight from California, birds that do not receive green material and are raised basically in a conventional confinement factory house. From a world-view standpoint, it would probably be better for the environment to buy locally produced conventional chicken than to encourage the use of jet fuel and heavy metal to transport that chicken across the country. In the name of one cause, we sacrifice another equally worthy cause...the point is that organic feed is only a fraction of what is necessary to produce a truly dynamic bird. Certainly truly organic chickens are not necessarily bad. But neither are they necessarily good.

The hoopla over organic certification has certainly siphoned off much time and energy from the alternative agriculture movement that could have been better spent in other ways. Remember that certification is primarily a labeling law, and if your product has no label you can call it whatever you want...certification allows the same misunderstandings, the same barriers, the same distance to exist between producer and consumer. That certainly doesn't do our society any good. It certainly doesn't help the farmer. Being a pass/fail system, it pushes producers toward a minimum standard, instead of consistently pushing them toward a higher standard.

So how should small farmers—and the consumers intent on supporting their continued existence—proceed? According to Salatin:

...The best thing [for farmers] to do is just opt out of the certification movement. Do a good job and get your own customers through your own integrity. I find it amazing that certification, which is predicated on mistrust of the organic farmer, is only as good as the honesty of the organic foods industry. In other words, it assumes that we need some standard to make sure this food is what its marketers claim that it is because they are not to be trusted. But it relies completely on the honesty of the paper trail, the integrity of the testimony of the people involved. That is illogical.

So, what do you—the consumer—do now? Most important is to keep in mind that organic certification is a label, and not a guarantee your meat had a good life, or is healthier than "conventional" brands. This is not a plug for corporate food. Of course you'll still want all natural, hormone and antibiotic free meat, but...Organic? It's so much more expensive, and who has extra cash for false promises these days? It's in times like these when it's especially good to know what's behind the label. Which, in the worst cases, is nothing more than a big, fat, unhappy lie.