What does the word organic mean to you?

What does the word organic mean to you?

Personally to me, organic means a food has been grown exactly as nature has intended (i.e., no use of chemicals, pesticides, chemical fertilizers, antibiotics- nada! Just the soil, water, sun, and animal to fertilize). It means something is whole, fresh, unprocessed and simple. In my head the idea of organic means small family farms passionately orchestrating the symbiotic relationship between the land and the animals with the end result of creating nutrient dense foods that nourish the surrounding communities. Organic (in regards to meat) means the same thing as pastured- animals get to satisfy their innate desires (such as a chicken pecking in the grass and cleaning up after the herbivores). To put it simple, organic means natural and natural foods is what we should be consuming.

So why the need for calling something organic? And if you agree with me on the fact that organic means natural then how come if you walk into your local Whole Foods there is an organic microwavable TV dinner with a list of ingredients totaling more than how many different pieces of food are in that plastic container (not to mention they are ingredients you can not even pronounce)?

The meaning of the word “organic” has been completely changed and the pureness of what organic should mean has been stripped.

In normal supermarkets a consumer has no sense of connectivity to the place where their food has come from. All a consumer sees when picking up a package of chicken breasts are the wordy labels including quantity of chicken, barcodes, and price. In his book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” Michael Pollen states, “One of the key innovations of organic food was to allow some more information to pass along the food chain between the producer and the consumer- an implicit snatch of narrative along with the number.”

When people buy chicken say from Whole Foods, that has some little description about where the chicken was raised or how it was able to roam freely, they almost feel better about themselves because they become more rooted with the environment. Almost like how it’s a good feeling to buy directly from a farmer because you can put a face to your food. But can you put a face to the chicken you buy at Whole Foods? Nope. So how much of that little story written on the package can actually be trusted?

Take Rosie the organic free-range chicken. Pollen talks about his visit to an industrial organic poultry farm in Petaluma, California to meet Rosie the organic free-range chicken. Just by the name of her, you automatically imagine her running around outside, doing what her chicken-self wants to do with a big barn and rolling hills as her backdrop. I mean, that’s what free-range means right? Turns out, Rosie the chicken is living far from that. Here is the description of Pollen’s tour at Petaluma Poultry.

“The chicken houses don’t resemble a farm so much as military barracks: a dozen long, low-slung sheds with giant fans at either ends. I donned what looked like a hooded white hazmat suit- since the birds receive no antibiotics yet live in close confinement, the company is ever worried about infection, which could doom a whole houes overnight-and stepped inside. Twenty thousand birds moved away from me as one, like a ground-hugging white cloud, clucking softly, The air was warm and humid and smelled powerfully of ammonia; the fumes caught in my throat. Twenty thousand is a lot of chickens and they formed a gently undulating white carpet that stretched nearly the length of a football field…. and did pretty much everything chickens do except step outside the little doors located at either end of the shed.

Compared to conventional chickens, I was told, these organic birds have it pretty good: They get a few more square inches of living space per bird (thouhg it was hard to see how they could be packed together much more tightly), and because there are no hormones or antiobiotics in their feed to accelerate growth, they get to live a few days longer. Though under circumstances it’s not clear that a longer life is necessarily a boon. 

Running along the entire length of each shed was a grassy yard maybe fifteen feet wide, not nearly big enough accomodate all twenty thousand birds inside should the group ever decide to take the air en masse. Which, truth be told, is the last thing the farm managers want to see happen, since these defenseless, crowded, and genetically identical birds are exquisitely vulnerable to infection. This is one of the larger ironies of growing organic food in an inudstiral system: It is even more precarious that a conventional industrial system. But the federal rules say an organic chicken should have “access to the outdoors,” and Supermarket Pastoral imagines it, so Petaluma Poultry provides the doors and the yard and everyone keeps their fingers crossed.”

He went on to say because the food and water are inside the flocks remain inside. During the first 5 weeks of their life the doors remain closed so the birds become well settled into their lives inside that they see no reason to venture out to an unfamiliar world. The birds are slaughtered at 7 weeks of age so apparently the free range aspect of their lives isn’t really much of a lifestyle as it is an option. Pollen ended the sub-chapter with him stepping outside and waiting by the chicken door to see if any chickens would take that option and stroll down the ramp to the freshly mowed yard. He waited and no chickens came. The space is there, not for the chicken’s purpose, but to honor something that is now taken as a joke. Note: Pollen’s book was published in 2006 so there may be changes to the way the birds are living… but I highly doubt it.

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Going back to the word organic… It’s amazing once you do your research you come to realize what you read is not necessarily true because Rosie indeed doesn’t live the life she claims to live. Remember, to read it, is not to believe it but to see it, is to believe it- especially when it comes to your food.

One more reason to do everything in your power to find local farmers who’s fundamentals are built on the perfect symbiotic relationship between the land and the animals. Because the health of the animals determines the health of you. By finding those farmers you can eliminate all those perfectly designed phrases, stories and labels on food that may confuse you into believing what you are about to consume is indeed organic… or in other words all natural. Since when were organic thin mint cookies all natural? Does someone know of a tree that produces thin mints out of the ground? If so, please point me into that direction.

So what does the word organic mean to you now? And what does it mean to you now when you pick up that “free range” chicken, “free range” eggs or the carton of organic milk that labels their cows “graze on green pastures.” How long do they actually get to graze on those pastures? Or are they even green?

Until next time,
Loriel – Healthy Roots, Happy Soul

2 thoughts on “What does the word organic mean to you?

  1. Hey Loriel,

    This is one of the most frustrating things I run into while shopping! I know “cage free” generally sounds better than it actually is, along with “all natural” and the like. But what about pasture raised? Any idea if that phrase is attached to this type of animal raising? It won't matter soon anyways as I'm joining your CSA as soon as I move into my new (not yet existant place)! Haha. I'll make sure to tell them you referred me! I just haven't joined it.

    -Scarlett

  2. Hey Scarlett. Indeed, it can be very frustrating because a conscious shopper like yourself is trying to make the best decision for yourself and for the animal you're eating. Unfortunately, because labeling laws are so loose here in the US, the best way to ensure you're buying sustainably raised, pastured animals is by locating the direct source (like Tara Firma Farms). I *think* for now though when you see the term “pasture raised” it means they've been raised the right way. But then again, it's hard to trust a label because things always change. It's a 50-50 chance. Better take that chance with a locally grown source who you can go to the farm to see how the animals are treated.

    Funny, you commented because just today I was buying raw milk at the farmer's market and there was a physician inquiring to buy but she was hesitant because she didn't trust the benefits of raw milk from pastured animals. She started saying something about organic and was denying that pasture raised was better. Some people just don't know- even the ones that claim they are physicians and doctors.

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