|Is organic superior to regular food?
Representatives for watchdog organizations, such as
the Organic Consumers Association, say the giants of agribusiness
are putting pressure on Congress to relax U.S. standards used to
certify organic products.
"We need to make sure that these large corporations
don't just profiteer at the expense of pioneers who have kept the
label meaningful," says Mark A. Kastel, who heads The
Cornucopia Institute, a small farmers' advocacy group based
in Wisconsin. Kastel says that while some synthetics have always
been allowed in organic food, now there's a move to change the wording
from "synthetic substances" to "synthetic ingredients."
That, he says, "opens up a whole new category of things.
"An example would be food-contact substances
such as chemicals used in boiler treatments. Right now things like
that are approved for use in conventional food plants, but they
wouldn't be allowed in organic production without scrutiny."
Cummins says some large dairies supplying products
to chains "bring young heifers onto their organic farm from
conventional farms." The milk-producing heifers are raised
in confinement and then imported to the same company's "organic"
farm as adults. Again, this violates the USDA National Organic Program's
"They're watering down the standards, which amounts
to defrauding the consumer," says Kastel. "The problem
is that private brands are anonymous. You don't know where your
food is coming from. Organics, for most of their history, have had
an identity, a connection to the land and those who produce our
The case for buying local
That's where advocates say buying local becomes not just a healthier
alternative but also a political act. Cummins says in 2005 conventional
supermarkets accounted for half of all organic food sales -- and
that food is likely to have been grown outside the U.S.
"If you're outsourcing to China," he says,
"where the farmer makes 20 cents an hour, what you get may
not be organic at all. That's why we don't want the Wal-Mart business
model to predominate in organics, because what you end up getting
if you follow that model is less quality."
Even if organic tomatoes from China really meet organic
standards here, Payet says, "it's not a sustainable practice.
Think of all the energy used and oil burned to ship those tomatoes
If shoppers buy as much as possible from local producers,
Payet says, "labels and verification become less important,
because you know the producer. You can see they're not throwing
chemicals into local creeks."
Cummins adds that supermarkets peddling organic convenience
foods such as instant frozen dinners are stretching the concept.
"Any nutritionist would say you shouldn't eat
'organic' processed convenience foods any more than other kinds,"
As for escalating prices, Cummins says there are
tactics consumers can use to keep food bills down.
"You can," he says, "buy
in clubs or co-ops, or directly from farmers, avoiding processed
organic foods. Your best tactic is to learn to cook from scratch
using organic ingredients. It's half the price -- and it's better