An organic primer

'Organic' is that stuff that tastes like a bunch of dried leaves and bark and costs a fortune, isn't it?"
Well, not exactly.

by Juli I. Huss, reprinted from Aveda magazine, with permission
imply put, "organic" refers to the way the food is produced, meaning that once a seed hits the ground, it is raised without any petrochemical pesticides or fertilizers. On the organic farm, Darwinism rules - it's true survival of the fittest. "With organic farming, it all starts with the soil - it's biologically alive and contains more microorganisms than there are people on the planet," says Diane Bowen of California Certified Organic Farmers, a grass-roots volunteer program. The organic farmer nurtures the soil according to the seasons, alternately working it and allowing it to rest, letting nutrients rejuvenate it, and relying on botanical and vegetable composts and beneficial insects to help with the hard job of cultivation.
To comprehend the true meaning of "organic," however, you must first understand the philosophy behind it, according to Terry Gips, an environmental economist and author of Breaking the Pesticide Habit: Alternatives to 12 Hazardous Pesticides (The International Organization of Consumers Unions). "When most people think about 'organic,' they associate it with not using hazardous pesticides or synthetic fertilizers," he explains.
"They're right, but the issue is larger than that. 'Organic' really comes out of a philosophy that centers on a respect for life - starting with the soil and including how we treat people, from the farmer to the consumer."
"Let's face it, when you're buying from commercial (non-organic) farms, your food has traveled more than you have," says Betsy Nelson, head chef of Aveda's Organica® Restaurants. (These dining establishments are open to the public and are located at the corporate headquarters in Blaine, Minnesota; the Aveda Institute in Minneapolis; and the Aveda Spa in Osceola, Wisconsin.) "Chemical additives help to prolong the shelf life of perishable commodities, but it is the consumer who suffers the consequences," Nelson explains, "by eating food that may look ripe and beautiful, but in reality was picked too green and was chemically treated to ripen during shipment."

A little something extra

Non-organic farms and produce packers consistently use petroleum-based waxes and polishing solvents to heighten the cosmetic appearance of fruits and vegetables, making them look more succulent and appealing. They also alter the size and color of produce with chemicals and gene manipulation. "The chemical alteration of produce has nothing to do with taste," claims Mitchell Holmes-Baer, co-owner of Urban Organic, a home delivery service for organically farmed produce in Brooklyn, New York. "An organic Valencia orange may have brown spots and be smaller, but will taste sweeter and have more juice." Organic farms and markets have also begun to recognize the aesthetic preferences of the consumer; many of them are using such natural substances as canola and olive oils to glamorize their produce.

It's the law

While interest in organic produce is rapidly increasing, the U.S. laws governing the industry have had a hard time catching up. Although many states have laws regarding the farming and labeling of organic produce, the industry itself has depended on self-regulation for more than 30 years. The Organic Foods Production Act, however, was supposed to change all that. In 1990, it was passed in an effort to develop a set of standards that would govern all organically grown produce and processed foods. This law gave the USDA the authority to form the National Organic Standards Board, which has conducted nationwide hearings to develop regulations for the Secretary of Agriculture. Five years later, the recommendation process is still ongoing-due to a lack of funding and regulations are not expected to become final until sometime in 1996.
In the meantime, both state and private monitoring are still in place to protect the integrity of true organic farming and the rights of the consumer. Certification groups like California Certified Organic Farmers may review farming records and conduct spot inspections along with soil and water sampling to certify that organic practices have been followed. These agencies act as a bridge between the organic farmers and the consumer by heightening public awareness. "Our goal is to promote ecologically accountable and sustainable agriculture for the planet," notes Bowen.
Consumers interested in supporting that goal should look for "Certified Organically Grown" on either the labeling tag or external packaging of the product when shopping at supermarkets, food co-ops, or health-food stores. At farmers' markets or open-air markets, where the produce is shipped unpackaged and sold in bulk, it's a good idea to ask to see the vendor's certification papers to make sure the produce is really organic. "It is best to eat certified organic, since chemical pesticides are absorbed through the root system of the plant," says Holmes-Baer. That means even a thorough rinse won't wash these contaminants away.

A growth market

Concern about the harmful effects of pesticides, especially on children, has helped fuel industry growth. In 1994, organic food was a $2.3 billion industry that has continued to grow an average of 23 percent a year, according to Natural Foods Merchandiser magazine. In the past five years, even major supermarkets have seen that profitable possibilities exist in promoting organic ingredients. But consumers often have to pay a higher price for buying their ingredients in a fancier setting.
"The most common resistance to organically grown food is price," says Lynn Gordon, an award-winning organic baker and owner of French Meadow Bakery in Minneapolis. "Often, the cost of organic food is more, but the difference in price varies depending on the commodity you are purchasing. A loaf of organic bread may be only ten percent more than a commercial loaf of bread, while organic seedless grapes or nectarines can be double the price, depending on the region grown, season of the year, and demand in a particular market." Because of the growth in popularity of organic food, prices are starting to become more competitive with chemically treated food.

Dealing direct

To keep your food costs lower, however, you can join a local food cooperative or enter into a true partnership with organic farmers by purchasing shares in Community Supported Agriculture. (Organica's® team of committed chefs work directly with 40 Acres and Ewe in Prairie Farm, Wisconsin.) For approximately $350 for 18 weeks, shareholders receive, or pick up, flowers, herbs, potatoes, and other vegetables and foodstuffs. "With community-supported agriculture, consumers can help harvest produce and attend meetings as well as workshops where they learn how to protect their families' health," Nelson explains. This provides a guaranteed income for the farmers and a budget that provides the means for biodiversity-preservation and planting of traditional, more flavorful varieties of produce. Along with the added benefits, however, comes extra risk:
Consumers must take the same chances on crops as the farmer does. According to Gips, this is a gamble we must be willing to take. "We're creating more and more of an artificial environment," he explains. "Organic agriculture is working with nature in a very sophisticated way. It requires much more knowledge about insects, the soil, and the general interactions in the ecosystem. In essence, we are borrowing the best from the past and combining it with appropriate scientific knowledge for the health of the Earth and its inhabitants."
The goals of the organic food industry are ultimately about the welfare of the planet, but consumers are just as attracted by the pure goodness and taste of the produce. "When cooking with organic produce, you have carrots that actually stain your hands with natural color," says Nelson. "There is a naturally sweet and intense flavor that can't be found in conventionally grown produce."

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