Omnivore’s Dilemma, Part 2: The Idyll of Organic

After prizing open the lid of Industrial Agriculture, Pollan will now checks out Big Organic, but before he does, he previews part 3 of his book.

Down on Polyface Farm

We find him taking “the ant’s eye view”, prone in a field in Shenandoah Valley, just an hour’s drive from Jefferson’s Palladian house at Monticello. If Tyson World employs methods like CAFOs and gleaming Rube Goldberg industrial plant, then Polyface’s factories live here, in the dirt. There are the grasses: orchard grass, foxtail, timothy and several others. There are the legumes: red and white clover, dandelion, Queen Anne’s lace and more. Then there are the cast of invertebrates: “eelish nematodes”, “shrimpy rotifers” and Charles Darwin’s favorite – the earthworm. To represent the mammals are moles and woodchucks. The whole lot supported by the biochemical wizardry of hosts of bacteria species and Andy-Warhol-hair-like mycelium masses of fungi. A “healthy soil digests the dead to nourish the living [which is why] Salatin calls it the earth’s stomach.”

Joel Salatin is a “Christian-conservative-libertarian-environmentalist-lunatic farmer” and Pollan’s Virgil. Like Dante, Pollan visits the darkling negative of this organic world-view; not one of weeping trees and simonous popes, but one which has been rested from farm stalls and market garden plots to become Big Organic.

Supermarket Pastoral

Pollan likes “shopping at Whole Foods nearly as much as [he enjoys] browsing in a good bookstore” which “is no accident: Shopping at Whole Foods is a literary experience, too.” Steaks in Walmart may be described as USDA certified; in Big Organic World the “range feed” sirloin steak” was part of a steer who “spent its days “living in beautiful places” ranging from “plant-diverse, high-mountain meadows to thick aspen groves and miles of sagebrush-filled flats.”: a short life but a happy one. There is a lot more where that came from:

  • “wild salmon caught by Native Americans in Yakutat (population 833)”,
  • “heirloom tomatoes from Capay Farm ($4.99 a pound), “one of the early pioneers of the organic movement” and
  • “Rosie” the chicken from Petaluma Poultry “a company whose “farming methods strive to create harmonious relationships in nature, sustaining the health of all creatures and the natural world.”

It seems as wholesome as The Sound of Music.

Tyson World marketing, the kind pumped out by Industrial Agribusiness and can be found in a newspaper or on show at Walmart does not include much about where and how the food on offer was produced. A picture of 534 (Steer Number 534 was bought by Pollan in order to follow his journey from birthing shed to abattoir) standing hock deep in cow slurry does not seamlessly transfigure into steaks sizzling on the barbie. Neither do the details about the chemical plant which made your soda have much yum appeal. Tyson World marketing is about price and a little bit about how your friends and neighbors will think that your food is great.

Vegetables in Whole Foods Market by Masahiro Ihara

Vegetables in Whole Foods Market by Masahiro Ihara

Shopping at Whole Foods or World Market is a whole lot more classy, literate and concerned, which is why the “wordy labels, point-of-purchase brochures, and certification schemes” are there. Indeed, “the word ‘organic’ has proved to be one of the most powerful words in the supermarket”, a Pied Piper which has grown into “an $11 billion industry and is now the fastest growing sector of the food economy. Pollan’s day job is as professor of journalism at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, so words, and wordsmiths grinding out copy purposed to persuade, is very much his brief. And his professional professorial opinion is complimentary, describing “Supermarket Pastoral” as “a most seductive form”. Supermarket Pastoral is Pollan’s term for the artwork of “the grocery store poets”. Their work offers “a landscape of reconciliation” harking back to an Arcady enjoyed by Virgil’s shepherd Tityrus” which Pollan finds “beguiling enough to survive in the face of a great many discomforting facts.”

These facts begin their discomforting with the “full-color photographs of local organic farmers” and “their farming philosophies” decorating the “sumptuously stocked produce department”. All but “a handful” of these spokespersons belong in a long gone past where “they do things differently ”. “That’s because Whole Foods in recent years has adopted the grocery industry’s standard regional distribution system, which makes supporting small farms impractical.” This industry standard means “tremendous warehouses” which are principally supplied by the “tremendous farms” operated by the likes of Earthbound Farms and Grimmway Farms which owns the Cal-Organic brand.

These are big corporations. For example, Earthbound Farms “grows 80 percent of the organic lettuce sold in America.” and they have strayed somewhat from the bucolic idyll that Whole Foods uses for decoration. Pollan “learned, for example that some (certainly not all) organic milk comes from factory farms” albeit where the cows eat “(certified organic) grain”. Organic beef have their own version of CAFOs, “organic feedlots”, where the animals diet includes the oxymoronic “organic high-fructose corn syrup”.

From People’s Park to Petaluma Poultry

On Dwight Way in Berkeley, home to the University of California, is the People’s Park. It’s seen better days. It has become a “tattered camp of a few dozen homeless people”. A few “still [effect] hippie styles of hair and dress” and occasionally “spend time tending scruffy little patches of flowers and vegetables – a few stalks of corn, some broccoli plants”. Yet it was here on April 20, 1969 that the organic movement sprung to life, when the self-proclaimed Robin Hood Commission seized the vacant lot, and went on to plant trees and grass, “and perhaps most auspiciously, putting in a vegetable garden.”

Yup, organic is an LA sixties thing along with environmentalism, feminism, and personal computing. Although we might have a more cynical, jaundiced view of those times and those movements, there was also a lot of genuine passion for good. “In People’s Park … food would be organic, a word that, at the time, brimmed with meanings that went far beyond any particular agricultural method.” As a pop song of that year (July 1969) went “Something was in the air.”

The year before, on December 24, 1968 to be precise, William Anders on Apollo 8 took an unscheduled color photograph which has become known as “Earth Rise”. Rachel Carson’s dire warnings in Silent Spring, published in 1962, had not gone away. It was well known that American forces were using Agent Orange and Agent Blue in Vietnam. The sea off Santa Barbara was black from an oil spill and “Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River had caught fire.”

Earthrise by By NASA / Bill Anders

Earthrise by By NASA / Bill Anders

During 1969, an obscure magazine called Organic Gardening and Farming was catapulted into public awareness by “an ecstatic review in the Whole Earth Catalog”. From now on the sixties zeitgeist would also seek “an alternative mode of production (the chemical-free farms), … an alternative system of distribution (the anticapitalist food co-ops), and even an alternative mode of consumption (“the “countercuisine”).” Taking “you can never do only one thing” as its mantra and the instructions from J. I. Rodale the founder of Organic Gardening and Farming, the movement wished to build “a pastoral utopia in miniature, such a garden embraced not only the humans which tended and ate from it but “as many life kingdoms as possible”. So “organic” meant all this, and was regularly contrasted with regular “plastic food” which was made by the likes of Monsanto and served up by your parents.

So, lots of people, “with a head full of pastoral ideals and precisely no horticultural experience”, attempted to set up organic farms, only to find it difficult and hard work, which explains the “sorry-looking organic produce” “on display in the food co-ops” “for many years. “But [a few] freak farmers stuck with it, following Rodale’s set-by-step advice, and some of them went on to be excellent farmers.”

Cascadian Farm and Gene Kahn

Cascadian Farm Multicolored Carrots by GeneralMills

Cascadian Farm Multicolored Carrots by GeneralMills

“One such notable success was Gene Kahn, the founder of Cascadian Farm,” In 1971, “Kahn was a twenty-four-year-old grad school dropout” from Chicago’s South Side who began “a quasi-communal hippie farm, located on a narrow, gorgeous shelf of land between the Shagit River and the Northern Cascades about seventy-five miles northeast of Seattle.” “Like most of the early organic farmers, Kahn had no idea what he was doing at first, and he suffered his share of crop failures.” His efforts as part of an “ad hoc grassroots R&D effort” got “no institutional support”. Rather “the USDA was actively hostile” “viewing [organic farming] – quite rightly – as a critique of the industrialized agriculture [that it] was promoting.” Recall about this time Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz was setting out to make corn king.

Still the hippies could read and at the top of their reading list was “The Soil and Health” and “An Agricultural Testament“ by the British agronomist Sir Albert Howard, who had spent his life working in India. “This last book may fairly be called the [organic] movement’s bible.” It was written in 1940 and is well ahead of its time. It is technical, devoting “many of its pages to the proper making of compost”, but it is also a philosophical work drawing a web of connection “from soil fertility to “the national health” into a “genuinely holistic concept”.

The concept promoted by Earl Butz et al was originally invented the century before by Baron Justus von Liebig in his Chemistry in Its Application to Agriculture. The good baron had found that fertilizing with just three chemical elements could radically increase crop yield. Those elements are Nitrogen (chemical symbol = N), Phosphorus (P) and Potassium (K). Hence the NPK “designation printed on every bag of fertilizer”. To reduce the complexity of soil and its myriad of organisms to three elements is to stretch the term simplistic beyond any possible breaking point, and Howard would have none of it. “Artificial manures lead inevitably to artificial nutrition, artificial animals and finally to artificial men and women.”

Justus von Liebig

Justus von Liebig

“An Agricultural Testament” was in part written as a critique of the efforts of “England’s agricultural ministry” to introduce NKP into that “green and pleasant land” and many “farmers [had] complained [that] their pastures and animals had become less robust as a result.” “The great humus controversy”, as it was called, actually reached the floor of the House of Lords in 1943, a year when one might have thought there were more pressing matters on the agenda.” “Needless to say, the great humus controversy… . was settled in favor of the NPK mentality” but not before Howard had fired the charge that “history will condemn [chemical fertilizer] as one of the greatest misfortunes to have befallen agriculture and mankind.”

“By the late seventies, Kahn had become a pretty good organic farmer and an even better businessman.” He reinvented the conventional agribusiness wheel. He found that there was more money in processed food than the raw stuff, and then, that it was cheaper to buy the raw stuff from others less evolved. As Kahn said to Pollan: “The whole notion of a “cooperative community” we started with gradually began to mimic the system… . I was bit by bit becoming more of this world, and there was a lot of pressure on the business to become more privatized.” And “that pressure became irresistible in 1990” following the Alar scare.

Alar is a growth-regulating chemical which “the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had declared a carcinogen”. It was the subject of “a somewhat overheated 60 minutes exposé on [the] apple growers” using it and as a result “Middle America suddenly discovered organic. Demand for organic food boomed.” Kahn duly “borrowed heavily to finance an ambitious expansion” only to “watch in horror as the bubble of demand subsided along with the headlines about Alar.”  Kahn had a simple stark choice of bankruptcy or selling “a majority stake in his company – to Welch’s – and the onetime hippie farmer set out on what he calls his “corporate adventure.”

Organic was shorn of the notions of distribution – via co-ops – and consumption – the counter cuisine – to become a niche product “which could be marketed through the existing channels.” So after a gritty slogging match, the USDA came out with its National Organic Standards, and despite people like Joan Dye Gussow wondering out loud “Can an Organic Twinkie Be Certified?”, “Big Organic won”. Cascadian Farm has become a General Mills brand selling “organic TV meals”. The packaging of organic milk “with its happy cows and verdant pastures” shows “a venerable ideal [has been] hollowed out, reduced to a sentimental conceit printed on the side of a milk carton: Supermarket Pastoral.”

EarthBound with Myra Goodman

Earthbound Farm Kale Italia by theimpulsivebuy

Earthbound Farm Kale Italia by theimpulsivebuy

“’Get over it,’ Gene Kahn would say” but Pollan preferred to go get a second opinion. He went to Myra Goodman, a cofounder of Earthbound Farms, “a company that arguably represents industrial organic farming at its best”, and met the “tanned, leggy, and loquacious forty-two-year-old, over lunch at the company’s roadside stand in the Carmel Valley.” Earthbound, “unlike Cascadian Farm, “is still very much in the farming business”. Myra and husband Drew started “a roadside organic farm” while “living near Carmel, killing time before heading to graduate school”. One day in 1986, they were told that their main customer for baby lettuce was letting them go, and they had a shot at selling their lettuce crop as bagged “prewashed salad mix”. “Produce managers greeted the novel product with skepticism” but agreed to their sale-or-return offer. When none of the product was returned, “the “spring mix” business” was born. The spring mix notion went on to dethrone iceberg lettuce “by introducing dozens of different salad mixes and innovating the way lettuces were grown, harvested, cleaned and packed.” Myra’s father, “an engineer and inveterate tinkerer” pitched in with the design for “gentle-cycle washing machines for lettuce.” Earthbound also “helped pioneer the packing of greens in specially formulated plastic bags pumped with inert gases to extend shelf life.”

Then in 1993, “Earthbound Farm’s growth exploded after Costco placed an order”. They needed help in learning how to run a business at this scale, so they partnered with two established conventional growers, “Mission Ranches in 1995 and then Tanimura & Antle in 1999.” Myra explained, “Costco wanted our prewashed spring mix, but [post the Alar episode] they didn’t want organic”, “but the Goodmans were committed to organic farming practices, so they decided to sell Costco their organically grown lettuce without calling it that.” Orders from “Wal-Mart, Lucy’s and Albertson’s soon followed.” They now have 25,000 organic acres” which they estimate has “eliminated some 270,000 pounds of pesticide and 8 million pounds of petrochemical fertilizer”. which is “a boon to both the environment and the people who work in those fields.”

Naturally, Pollan wanted to see the farm at work. He finds the fields are “a giant mosaic of giant color blocks: dark green, burgundy, pale green, blue green” which are divided into “a series of eighty-inch-wide raised beds”, “smooth and as flat as a table top”. “To control pests, every six or seven strips of lettuce [are] punctuated with a strip of flowers: sweet alyssum, which attracts the lacewings and syrphid flies that eat the aphids that can molest lettuces.” It is an industrial operation albeit with a “much higher level of precision – time as well as space are scrupulously managed on this farm”. The machines are supplemented with “crews of migrant workers, their heads wrapped in brightly colored clothes against the hot sun, [who] do a last pass through each block before the harvest, pulling weeds by hand.”

Pollan admits he “had never before spent quite so much time looking at and thinking about lettuce” and has to wonder whether a plastic carton of Earthbound spring mix in a Manhattan Whole Foods would accurately describe what “the first users of “organic” had in mind?”

Rosie’s home

Anchorage chickens by mazaletel

Anchorage chickens by mazaletel

His last port of call was Petaluma Poultry to “meet Rosie, the organic free-range chicken. “There’s little farmland left in Petaluma, which is now a prosperous San Francisco bedroom community”, just the Petaluma HQ “in an industrial park just off Route 101”. But he is taken to see Rosie.

He/she is a Cornish Cross which is “the most efficient converter of corn into breast meat ever designed”. This means the bird grows to “oven-roaster proportions in seven weeks” with the unfortunate side effect (for the birds) “that their poor legs cannot keep pace, and frequently fail.” Rosie lives in something like “a military barracks: a dozen long low-slung sheds with giant fans at either end.” Pollan has to don “a hooded white hazmat suit” to protect the antibiotic-free birds from Pollan’s bugs, and goes in to meet “twenty thousand birds [who move] away from [him] as one, like a ground-hugging white cloud, clucking softly. The air is warm and humid and smelled powerfully of ammonia”. After the birds had gotten used to the humans they went back to chickeny things, “sipping from waterers suspended from the ceiling, “nibbling organic food”, “everything much chickens do except step outside the little doors located at either end of the shed.” Those doors lead to “a grass yard, maybe fifteen yards wide,”  “running the entire length of each shed” which is “seldom … stepped upon” yet is scrupulously maintained” “to honor an ideal nobody wants to admit has by now become something of a joke, an empty pastoral conceit.”

Industrial Organic: the TV dinner and Rosie

 I don’t think that Pollan was anymore taken with Industrial Organic than simple Industrial, which means that the prospect of him enjoying its fare is rather poor.

First off, he tried a Cascadian Farm organic TV dinner. As he “peeled back the polyethylene film covering the dish, [he] felt a little like a flight attendant serving meals”; in some former life, perhaps. “The chunks of white meat had been striped nicely with grill marks” and the “natural chicken flavor” gave the meat “that slightly abstract chicken taste processed meat often has”. Pollan speculated that the creaminess of “creamy rosemary dill sauce” had more to do with “xanthan gum (or maybe the carrageenan?)”  “since no dairy products appeared among the ingredients.” Overall, “the entrée looked and tasted very much like airline food” and “to be fair, one shouldn’t compare an organic TV dinner to real food but to a conventional TV dinner, and by that standard (or at least [his] recollection of it) Cascadian Farm has nothing to be ashamed of, especially considering that an organic food scientist must work with only a tiny fraction of the synthetic preservatives, emulsifiers, and flavor agents available to his colleagues at Swanson or Kraft.”

However, “Rosie and her consort of fresh vegetables fared much better at dinner, if [he didn’t mind saying so [himself].” He did not like the asparagus grown in Argentina. His “jet-setting Argentine asparagus tasted like damp cardboard. After the first spear or two no one touched it”, perhaps because it was “out of place in a winter supper”. “The other vegetables and greens were much tastier – really good, in fact.” Pollan reckons “meat is a harder call. Rosie was a tasty bird, yet truth be told, not quite as tasty as Rocky, her bigger nonorganic brother. That’s because Rocky is an older chicken, and older chickens have more flavor”; so, a cautious one-thumbs-up for the Rosie dinner.

“Rocky and Rosie both tasted more like chicken than mass-market birds fed on a diet of antibiotics and animal by-products, which makes for mushier and blander meat. What’s in an animal’s feed naturally affects how it will taste, though whether that feed is organic or not probably makes no difference.”

“Better for What?”

So, Industrial Organic is better than plain Industrial, but “Better for What?” His “Whole Foods dinner certainly wasn’t cheap”. It cost $34 “to feed a family of three at home. Though [it] did make a second meal from the leftovers.” Is Industrial Organic healthier? According to the US government, no. In 2000, while “inaugurating the federal organic program, the secretary of agriculture, Glickman, said, “The organic label is a marketing tool. It is not a statement about food safety. Nor is “organic” a value judgment about nutrition or quality.” Pollan continues, “Some intriguing recent research suggests otherwise.” Research published in the Journal Agriculture and Food Chemistry in 2003 “found that organic and otherwise sustainable grown fruit and vegetables [contain] significantly higher levels of both vitamin C and a wide range of polyphenols.” Polyphenols “play an important role in human health and nutrition. Many are potent antioxidants; some play a role in preventing or fighting cancer; others exhibit antimicrobial properties.” Pollan does realize that science is a human enterprise and as prone to error as any other: “Obviously, there is much more to be learned about the relationship of soil to plants, animals, a health, and it would be a mistake to lean too heavily on any one study.”

Living creatures are the most complex entities we know of, so anyone “would be hard-pressed to prove [Industrial Organic food is healthier than regular Industrial] scientifically.”  Pollan’s bête noir, Justus von Liebig, he of “the spectacularly ironic surname” wrote that book way back in 1840, when most people still believe living things ran on vital fluid. The term biochemistry was not coined for another 60 years and figuring out the structure of macromolecules, such as hemoglobin or DNA only began in earnest after World War II. That we can understand what a polyphenol is due to the work of people like Liebig, let alone understanding any role that class of chemicals has in living things. The simplicity is all ours.

As Pollan illustrates information from government funded organizations is not necessarily reliable. “Back in the fifties, when the USDA routinely compared the nutritional qualities of produce from region to region, it found striking differences: carrots grown in the deep soils of Michigan, for example, commonly had more vitamins than carrots frown in the thin, sandy soils of Florida. Naturally this information discomfited the carrot growers of Florida, which probably explains why the USDA no longer conducts this sort of research.” It is deeply ironic (and another American Paradox) that it was not left to The Market to sort out issues such as where is the best place to grow carrots. Many things can grow in Florida which are much more difficult to grow in Michigan.

Pollan’s conclusion is that we should “develop a deeper respect for the complexity of food and soil, and perhaps, the links between the two” to get a clear understanding of health issues. I think Pollan would agree that it seems fairly self-evident more careful farming methods with fewer non-biological shortcuts should make for healthier food.

The better for what?

The better for what? question about my organic meal can answered in a much less selfish way: Is it better for the environment? Better for the farmer who grew it? Better for public health? For the taxpayer?” Pollan reckons that “the answer to all three questions is an (almost) unqualified yes. To grow the plants and animals that made up my meal, no pesticides found their way into any farmer’s bloodstream, no nitrogen runoff or growth hormones seeping into the watershed, no soils poisoned, no antibiotics were squandered, no subsidy checks were written.”

The trouble is that most people and therefore most consumers live in cities, “so only a fifth of the total energy used to feed us [organically] is consumed on the farm; the rest is spent processing the food and moving it around. In that respect organic food contributes to our currently unsustainable world. There will come a time to pay the piper.

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