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Is Organic Better and How Free is the Chicken on the Range?

February 18, 2015
This week, GWG returns to The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan.  Previously, on December 10 and 31, 2014, and January 14, 2015 we reviewed highlights from Pollan’s exploration of industrial agriculture and our corn-based diet.  He turns his attention next to organic farming and wholesome, healthy foods-- the much touted alternative to industrial food.    For many reasons, we think “organic” and it’s synonymous with pro-environment, anti-chemical, and pro-animal rights, among other things.  We learn it’s not as simple or ideal as we might imagine.
The opening scene finds the reader at PolyFace Farm in Virginia, a hundred acre farm that raises chickens, beef, turkeys, rabbits, and pigs and grows a variety of fruits and vegetables.  The animals here don’t eat corn, they graze on grasses. The farm lives up to our classic image of what most of us expect of an organic operation that follows nature’s way.  Chickens take their turn after the cattle in the pasture, spreading natural nitrogen fertilizer as they go.  Pollan includes a surprisingly interesting history about grasses over history from the age of perennial grasses such as bluegrass to the age of annuals, such as corn, from which much of our diet now comes.  PolyFace farm represents the vision of agronomy that was first written about in the 19th century, both as a philosophy for agriculture as well as in application.  Pollan speaks to the elusive definition of “organic” and learns that the owner of PolyFace Farm believes he is “beyond organic”.  Organic is a term owned by the federal government, which since 1990 and the passage of the Organic Food and Production Act gave the US Department of Agriculture the authority to set standards for organic food and farming. 
Most organic foods we buy today in supermarkets come from what Pollan notes is an $11 billion industry and describes as “Big Organic”, as distinguished from “Little Organic”, which we are more likely to come across in our local, farmers markets.  For example, Earthbound Farm, which he found to arguably represent industrial organic farming at its best, grows 80% of the organic lettuce sold in America.  Earthbound is a network of 135 farms and 25,000 acres, no small operation.  While the produce is organic, success relies on conventional transport to market, and the numbers suggest buying organic can use as much fossil fuels as conventional food products.  Cascadian Farms, another organic business that was started in 1971 as a quasi-communal farm by a pioneer of the organic movement, Gene Kahn, is now a subsidiary of General Foods.  Pollan makes a convincing argument that organic farming is very much a big business proposition.
Pollan spends time in a Whole Foods market where he peruses the labels and notes about foods and produce that evoke an agricultural and pastoral utopia of bucolic pastures, verdant fields, and barnyard critters strutting in open range on small farms.  We buy the image as much as the promise that what we are buying is healthier for us and has been grown using methods that do not deplete the resources of the earth.  Just as Pollan investigated the world of industrial agriculture, he examines the real world of organic foods and traces some of them back to the farms where they originate. 
In a visit to Petaluma Poultry in California, he gets up close with the chickens.  According to “organic” standards the 20,000 chickens must have access to “free range”.  In reality, the doors through which the huddled masses could escape for a stroll into the outdoors didn’t usher one chicken out for a breath of fresh air, for which he was very grateful after inhaling the ammonia laden vapors of the coops.
The chapter closes with Pollan buying organic ingredients for a meal he prepares.  Unlike his family’s drive-thru meal from McDonald’s, this one he cooks at home.  It’s a mixed review.  The meal cost more, some items were tastier, and he comforted himself knowing the ingredients had no pesticide residue and weren’t injected with growth hormones or potentially harmful herbicides.  Research comparing the nutritional value of organic foods to conventional is sparse, but he notes a study from the University of California, Davis in 2003 that concluded organic foods are more nutritious and contain higher levels of vitamins and polyphenols, which scientists find more and more are important in health and nutrition. 
What big organic can’t escape is that only 20% of the energy used to feed us is consumed on the farm.  Most of the fossil fuels spent are used to process and get food to our tables.   But to answer the hard questions—is organic better for the environment?  Better for the farmers who grew it?  Better for the public health?  Better for the taxpayer?  Pollan believes the answer to all is “yes”.  
The big take-away from these summarized chapters, is that we have to put away our imaginary thinking of what “organic” means.  There’s no room for purists in the supermarket aisle.  When we choose organic, we are making a better, more sustainable choice for a number of reasons, in most instances.   But we won’t be saving the planet from the effects of climate change.    

Next time we continue our review of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, we’ll follow along as Pollan joins the workforce at PolyFace Farm.  Read more.

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