Is "Organic" Enough?
I don't know about you, but I have a very clear image in my mind about where my food comes from...and it is NOT based in reality.
In this fantasy world of mine, cows eat grass and roam lush pastures, chickens eat worms and roll in the dirt and rows of colorful vegetables collect dew into the sunset.
Isn't that picturesque?!
The truth is, an estimated 99% of animal products come from factory farms (aka "concentrated animal feeding operations" or CAFOs) and only 2% of American farmland produces vegetables (1, 2). What's happening on the remaining arable land? It's being used to produce corn, soy and other commodity crops that are routinely sprayed with herbicides and then fed to livestock or processed to unrecognizable additives to processed foods.
This truth bomb really bums me out.
For those of us who care about what our food dollars fund, we have looked to organics for standards we can stand by. We've entrusted this certification to provide us with ethical, humane and environmentally-kind foods. Foods that are more nutritious and healthier for our kids and ourselves. Foods that cost more, so must be worth something, right?!
While I do think that investing in certified organic foods is beneficial to the planet and to our bodies, I do not think this certification represents the ethical and humane standards that we assume when we see that label.
In grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables, nuts and other edible plants:
For meat, poultry, dairy and eggs, the rules are expanded to include some details about the living conditions for the livestock, but organic certification mostly ensures that the animals are fed an organic diet and that their byproducts are not contaminated by mingling with non-organic meat/milk/eggs/etc. Here's where organic certification starts to fall short, in my opinion:
THE GREAT OUTDOORS
"All organic livestock and poultry are required to have access to the outdoors year-round." This criteria sounds like it's meeting my dreamy expectations that animals are out on pasture, living their best lives, right?! The unfortunate truth is that livestock being raised organically can still be raised in CAFOs. This means crowded, stressful and unsanitary living conditions for the animals, leading to increased risk of illness, injury and premature death.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Ruminant animals have 4 stomachs and digest by fermenting their food - they chew their cud. Cows, goats and sheep are the most commonly consumed ruminants in the US, but bison and deer also digest their food this way. This magical digestive process turns grass (a nutrient-rich plant that humans cannot digest) into nutrient-packed milk and meat.
Organic certification standards require that ruminant animals are fed grass and other pasture...but it only needs to meet 30% of their dietary needs. Corn and other grains can make up the difference. This is advantageous to ranchers because grain-fed livestock gain weight more quickly than grass-fed livestock, quickening their pace to the slaughterhouse (the less time it takes to reach market weight, the less care an individual animal needs and the quicker ranchers can turn their investment into profit). Additionally, grain is cheaper to produce than grass.
However, grain-fed diets are not good for ruminate animals or for consumers. The fermentation of grains produces excess acid that damages a cow's digestive tract over time. For consumers, grain-fed meat and dairy also poses potential health risks. These products are higher in inflammatory fats and lower in nutrients.
What's not defined in organic standards are just as important as what is. What's missing? Requirements how the animals are handled. Organic certification allows beaks and tails to be removed and wings to be cut. This is done to animals that are often only days old and without any anesthesia or pain medication. There are reports of chronic pain and phantom limbs (chickens use their beaks like an arm).
The purpose? To prevent the animals from harming others when they're frustrated and stressed in crowded, unsanitary living conditions.
As a holistic health care provider who is obsessed with seeking out the root cause, this really gets my goat. Why don't we just improve the living conditions of these animals and leave their beaks and tails alone?! It's better for them and ultimately it's better for us. Meat, poultry, dairy and eggs that come from animals who are raised outdoors and fed diets that they would consume in the wild are more nutritious and less disease-promoting.
Feedlot settings on their own are inhumane, in my opinion. The definition of a CAFO and how many animals can be housed under the same roof varies somewhat from state to state, and even from county to county. Ultimately, though, thousands of chickens, turkeys, pigs and dairy cattle will be kept indoors for their entire lives. They eat, sleep and shit in the same spot. The air they breathe is polluted with their waste. They are crowded - so crowded that some livestock will be injured or even killed by being trampled.
It is not a good scene, organic or otherwise.
So is organic enough? Not for me. I think it falls short in many ways. I do appreciate that organic certification keeps farmland out of conventional food production, which I really do believe is better for the planet, for farmers and for eaters. That said, I want more from my food than what organic provides, especially when it comes to animal products.
Keep an eye on this blog if you are interested in this area. In the coming months, I'll be posting more about the production and consumption of animal products and other matters of the food system.
As eaters, we're responsible for steering the food system in the direction we want it to go. Every time we buy food, we're voting, telling food producers "I want more of that!" So know your food and put your money behind it.
1. U.S. Factory Farm Estimates Sentience Institute
2. The Healthy Farmland Diet: How Growing Less Corn Would Improve our Health and Help America's Heartland Union of Concerned Scientists
3. Organic Standards United States Department of Agriculture: Agricultural Marketing Services
3/10/2020 09:07:46 pm
Thank you for writing this Jesse. This is a topic I have personally need more light shed upon. It seems like we have come so far, but yet not quite far enough. Thank you so much for this informative article.
3/11/2020 07:29:31 pm
Oh, you're so welcome, Lynn! I'm glad you got something out of the article. :)
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I love food.
I love thinking about it, talking about it, writing about it. I love growing food, cooking and eating food. I use this space to try to convey that. Follow me on social media for more day-to-day inspiration on these topics.