Can Organic be Perfect?

By Harriet Behar

blue sky fall empty fieldAt a meeting I recently attended a consumer representative stated she wanted “organic to be perfect.”

This statement brought many questions to my mind. Would my perception of perfect be the same as hers? Are organic farmers, ranchers, processors, brokers, retailers etc. striving for “perfection” in all they do? Does this mean there are unrealistic consumer expectations of producers which create a rift between organic producers and the customers they serve?

The organic community has worked diligently to build trust in the organic label. We have promoted organic agriculture as a way to provide healthy food while continually building up soils and enhancing natural resources. Organic advocates point to studies that show higher levels of antioxidants and other nutrients in organic foods as they are grown in balanced, vibrant living soils and ecosystems. We go further and tout organic as a way to reverse climate change, through carbon sequestration performed on organic farms through the use of cover crops and diverse rotations that include perennial crops.

Organic agriculture can be thanked for saving many a family farm and bringing young people and nontraditional farmers to the land, supported by the economic benefits that organic can bring. Rural revitalization can be tracked to organic agriculture in some areas, especially where there are concentrations of organic farmers and businesses that service their needs and market their products.

How Clear is the Picture?

It is easy to see how, through our own optimism about organic agriculture, we have perhaps built an image that is unrealistic. I remember giving out samples of organic cheese at a consumer event where numerous people said “oh, look, healthy organic cheese; that means there is no cholesterol in it, right?” I probably should not have been surprised that they assumed that since organic dairy is so wonderful, it probably would not contain that evil cholesterol!

However, I had to correct them, sharing that organic cheese has just as much cholesterol as non-organic. I also informed them that the animals were fed organic feeds tailored to maintain their optimum health, that antibiotics were forbidden, and their living conditions were mandated to provide for natural behaviors and lessening of stress. These consumers now had the information they needed to decide if these conditions provided them the extra value they were seeking.

Since farming is the profession of less than 1% of the American population, it is no wonder that most people do not understand the compromises farmers need to make every day. Should that tree line be removed to open up the land for a few more rows of crops, even though it reduces wildlife habitat? Should the beef cattle be allowed to drink from the stream, even though there will be some erosion at that spot? Should that field be tilled or cultivated one more time to lessen the weed pressure, even though we know that it uses fossil fuels, destroys organic matter and has a negative effect on soil structure?

There are even questions about pasteurizing and homogenizing milk; do these processes lessen the nutritional value and make the organic milk less perfect?

Is Perfect the Goal?

As organic producers we strive to continually improve our operations, not only to make them more profitable, but also to make them more sustainable from both an environmental and an economic standpoint. But are we looking for “perfection?” I am not sure that any farmer could say their operation, or the food they produce is “perfect.” Kathleen Merrigan, former USDA Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, warned the National Organic Standards Board before a recent meeting to “not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” This could be seen as encouragement to compromise principles and move the agenda forward. Or, it could be acknowledgment that we will never reach perfection, especially in the complex world of food production from farm to table.

For some, perfection would be a weed-free field, and for others, it would be a field that is growing native plants that have never been disturbed.

The strength of the organic movement has been based in a strong partnership between consumers and producers. The growth of organic production is based on more farmers responding to growing market demand by becoming certified organic. Organic producers and organic consumers need each other. However, over the past few years, I have seen a growing rift between consumer groups and organic producers over what type of production systems and materials should be used under the USDA organic label.

Certified organic production differs from non-organic in that it restricts the use of most synthetic materials, even though they might be useful in a farmer or processor “toolbox.” Organic is about finding the “middle ground,” allowing synthetics only when there are no natural alternatives, or those synthetics essential to a specific type of production. There are many compromises on the National List of approved substances. However, the synthetics on the National List are the least toxic alternatives and compatible with organic production systems.

For instance, when looking at the National List we see synthetics such as petroleum-based oils that are allowed for spraying on fruit trees in the spring to smother insects; a variety of synthetic drugs to promote organic animal health; and many processing aids and ingredients to produce the wide variety of foods from baked goods to juices and fermented products. Do these synthetics make organic foods less perfect, or can we justify their use to have organic apple juice, yogurt, and muffins?

Bridging the Gap

More and more, consumers and farmers are speaking a different language when talking about the topic of organic agriculture. A lack of understanding of the complexities and difficulties inherent in the uncertain profession of farming can lead the consumer to think that seeds simply get put in the ground and a bumper crop harvested a few months later. Producers have not been very good at explaining the serious challenges they face when running their operations. Ups and downs just come with the territory, and farmers tend not to complain about their lot in life. On the other hand, consumers have not been very clear on what their expectations are, so producers can try to meet those expectations or explain why it is unrealistic to do so.

Those of us involved in the production side of agriculture need to educate consumers about the realities of organic food production, and how hard we work to protect the land and humanely raise livestock. But consumers also need to understand that there is no perfection, but instead decisions made that result in the least damage, with continual improvement over time.

I was visiting an organic farm a few years ago while they were hosting a busload of “city folks” to see how they grew their crops. For weeks before the tour, the whole family and many of the neighbors had walked the 100s of acres of edible beans hand hoeing out weeds. The visitors saw long, clean rows of pintos, black beans, navy beans and soybeans. Perhaps it would have been a better learning experience if they would have been handed a hoe to weed a few hundred feet when they got off the bus, so they could experience the sweat and blisters that resulted in those beautiful fields.

I believe that people with home gardens make better consumers for farmers’ market vendors and organic retailers. Customers with gardens know that it is not easy to grow a big carrot, a cosmetically beautiful tomato or a worm-free ear of corn without resorting to the use of toxic materials and environmental degradation. They are perhaps more willing to pay a fair price for high quality organic produce.

Food producers must do a better job of sharing not only the feel-good side of organics, but also the hard work and difficulties inherent in farming. This will build a stronger partnership with customers. There must be more open discussion and a willingness to learn from both sides. This will develop a foundation for continued growth and trust of the organic label in the marketplace. It is only through communication that we can build compassion for each other’s position and develop a very, very good system of agriculture that all of us realize will never be perfect.

HarrietHarriet Behar,
Organic Specialist
Home Office: 608-872-2164


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