Sunday, May 18, 2008

Is organic really better?

I remember when organic came in vogue. As I'm only 19 years old I'll be willing to bet that this has come into vogue before, before I was around to see it happen, but for the purposes of this blog, the "organic" craze is fairly current. Every magazine had articles about organic and why it's better, healthier for the body and the planet. And this, I will agree, it largely true. Organic is good. But what we have to ask ourselves is, what does the capitalist system do with ideas and characterizations--it makes them into selling points. "Certified organic" is, according to any small, uncertified organic farmer, a ploy for large corporations to seem earth-friendly. After all, you have to pay a fine to have your farm certified organic, and if I am correct, there's a fair amount of paperwork that goes along with it. In short, a bureaucratic system designed to favor the fat cats. A lot of farms around Asheville are organic, but they are not certified. They advertise as organic, sell at local farmers markets and co-ops, get to know their customers, and invite people to ask questions about their goods. This, my friends, is the new organic in my opinion. It doesn't matter a hoot whether a corporation advertises as organic (and by now we know that the requirements for certified organic farms are not all that stringent) if the customer still doesn't know where their food comes from.

There is, however, another, more complex issue at hand. The issue of organic animal husbandry. The small goat dairy that I work at is not organic. We do not give our goats hormones or steroids or other freaky things, but we do give them antibiotics. When we do, we make sure not to use milk from the vaccinated animals in our cheesemaking, but just the fact that we use antibiotics rules us out of the organic clique. I asked Chris how it would be possible to keep animals healthy without antibiotics. Grazing animals are especially susceptible to parasites and bacteria even in the cleanest of environments. She told me that the important thing to remember about the organic label is that it favors industry. When an animal in a huge "organic" dairy gets sick, they get rid of the animal and buy another one. On our farm, however, the goats are family. All of them have names. When one of them gets sick, it isn't a matter of tossing out the old in favor of the new. It's about getting the goat healthy again. One of our goats is nine years old and still producing milk, most likely due to the care given to it, and antibiotics are a part of that. Besides that, it just isn't economical to get rid of an animal when it gets sick. Maybe if you have a budget of a few million, but not for people who still make most of their money from farmer's markets.

I am disposed to think labels are silly. They are limiting and are never honest. They do not do justice to reality and the complexity of any situation. I don't know whether or not we should contrive to come up with a new label for organics that takes the holistic picture into account. I think it would probably be better if we just kept going to our little neighborhood markets and asked questions of our growers and vendors. Let the fat cats have organic. We've got the good stuff.

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