Organic is becoming unsustainable

As a child, my favorite treat was a cheeseburger. Not just any, but a Burger King cheeseburger “minus mustard”. Years later, a cashier pointed out that BK cheeseburgers didn’t have mustard on them, but nobody had ever corrected me. Have it your way indeed. I’ve had innumerable meals out. I’ve eaten too much fast food, candy, sodas, and junk food. A few years ago, while we lived in Austin, my wife and I somehow began to contemplate eating healthier. I don’t know if it was the arrival of our second child, or what happened – but one of us started to consider the origin of our food, and it pretty much threw everything asunder. We started really trying to eat organic. Now, when I say try to eat organic, I really mean that. It is an ordeal for an American to truly eat organic, and it’s getting harder.

If you’re unfamiliar with organic food, this Wikipedia entry on organic food may familiarize you with it. By and large, the idea behind organic is that the “inputs” (seed/feed/and pest/weed controls) to create a food are not synthetic. So the use of chemical fertilizers, radiation, or genetic modification are all forbidden.

Unfortunately, as organic food has become mainstream, as books,  documentaries, and films such as Food Inc. (book/DVD), Foodmatters, King Corn, Super Size Me, Tomatoland, and even Fast Food Nation have changed how many consumers view their own “inputs”, many of the multinational corporations that sell us food have realized what an important revenue source organic food could be for them, and grabbed hold of one organic company after another. What happens then? This:  How “natural” claims deceive consumers and undermine the organic label. Most likely in order to reduce costs, reduce price, maximize market and maximize profit, organic ingredients are slowly removed from “formerly organic” products, resulting in products that were organic now being largely or entirely conventional. I found it sad walking the aisles at a grocery the other day, just to check them, and indeed a few Annie’s products said, “made with organic pasta” but of course there was a grab bag of conventional ingredients in there, possibly even including GMO ingredients.

So as we watch the US organic food market get consumed by the big industrial packaged goods manufacturers, and slowly shed most or all of its organic ingredients, what happens next? Stores like our local co-op, PCC, and Whole Foods, and anyone else trying to still offer organic foods to those of us trying to avoid eating GMO or other conventionally processed foods have to reach farther and farther away to find organic foodstuffs. Recently, I’ve started aggressively checking labels on our organic food. If you eat organic and watch closely, you’ll see more and more of your food being imported, because it’s cheaper, easier, or both, for manufacturers to source abroad instead of the US. So you get organic canned fruit from Asia. Frozen organic peas from China (yes, China). Organic honey from India, jelly from Italy… It seems like it gets farther and farther away all the time.

For me, this means a couple of things. 1) I need to start buying local organic, in season, and store it. 2) I need to learn how to jar and possibly can my own foods and jellies. 3) I need to find more locally sourced food direct from farmers.

I’ve been learning to make my own yogurt and cheeses, initially for fun, but as I do it, I’m starting to realize there may be a financial upside to it as well, in addition to the fact that I know all of the ingredients that went into it.

All that aside, it concerns me how organic is getting shoved farther and farther out of the limelight. It shocks me what some people will put into their body and call “food”. Yet the big industrial food concerns in the US control the message, they control the packaging, and they control labeling and government. Until we replace our current crop of politicians (outside of a few) with those who are more concerned with the health and well-being of citizens, not the whims of agribusiness, this won’t change. Until we overhaul the USDA and FDA to be organizations there to be citizen-focused first, and be averse to the desires of these corporations, this won’t change.

It shouldn’t be hard to buy sustainable, affordable, organic products in the United States. But I feel like it’s getting harder and harder.

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