Getting Over Organic

As a consumer who generally tries to do the right thing, I’ve always thought the decision to buy organic was a no-brainer. But in recent years organic has grown to include paradoxes such as the organic factory farm and the organic TV dinner. And now, there is even organic high-fructose corn syrup. We are not far from organic Coca-Cola.

Now these aren’t absolutely good or absolutely bad developments. As offensive a concept as organic high-fructose corn syrup may be, a product like organic Coke will sponsor a lot more organic acreage in this country. But this is certainly not what the founders of the organic movement had in mind.

It’s worth remembering what they did have in mind. There were three legs to the original organic dream. One was growing food in harmony with nature — a nonindustrial way of farming that treated animals humanely and did not use chemical pesticides. The second leg was that our system of food distribution should be different; food co-ops, farmer’s markets, and community supported agriculture could replace the national agricultural system. And the third leg was the food itself. We shouldn’t be eating red delicious apples; we should be eating ten different kinds of apples because biodiversity in the apple tart means biodiversity in the orchard.

For all sorts of reasons — some good, some mistaken — the organic community decided more than a decade ago that it needed federal recognition and regulations. Big companies wanted to sell organic products nationally, but they needed standard rules. And farmers thought that a standard label would give credibility to organic, which it did. But once we had an official federal organic standard, small farmers lost control of the niche.

Today the organic dream is in peril. In fact, many of the best farmers in this country no longer even use the word organic. The USDA developed a set of rules — and they got pesticides, hormones, and many drugs out of the system. All wonderful. But if you look at the new rules, that’s all they address. There is nothing written about the kind of food that may be called organic, or its distribution. There is no rule against high-fructose corn syrup. A myriad of synthetics are allowed in processed organic food. And we find ourselves with an organic transcontinental strawberry: 5 calories of food energy that use 435 calories of fossil-fuel energy to get to a supermarket near you. This is organic food forced through the industrial system, shorn of its holism. What has been lost is that one key insight about organic: that everything is connected. The organic dream has been reduced to a farming method.

The way we spend our food dollars is one of the most important votes we cast, and the choice we consumers are increasingly going to be faced with is not organic or conventional, but local or organic. I come down on the side of local. When you buy local, you’re voting for a short, highly legible food chain — one that supports all three legs of the original vision. This shorter food chain brings the consumer and producer together, and the producer gets to tell her story. Organic label or not, it had better be a good story: clean food, grown without pesticides, the animals being treated humanely. Another reason to buy local is that farms produce more than food — they produce a kind of landscape too, which your food dollars help to conserve.

The lesson to be learned is that consumers of all kinds, but especially eaters, are producers in the most important sense. With every food purchasing decision, we are helping to create the world we want to live in, one bite at a time.

Michael Pollan has been writing books and articles for twenty-five years about the places where nature and culture intersect: on our plates, in our farms and gardens, and in the built environment. He is the author of Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation (2013) and of four New York Times bestsellers: Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual (2010);In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (2008);The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (2006) and The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World (2001). The Omnivore’s Dilemma was named one of the ten best books of 2006 by both the New York Times and the Washington Post. Pollan is also the author of A Place of My Own (1997) and Second Nature (1991). Pollan was named to the 2010 TIME 100, the magazine’s annual list of the world’s 100 most influential people. He lives in the Bay Area with his wife, the painter Judith Belzer, and their son, Isaac.