Saturday, July 9, 2011

Does the label make the food? Does the cloth make the man?

What is Organic food? Is it really good for you, for the environment, for our communities, simply because it has a federal government label?

Does the label make the food? Does the cloth make the man?

Some would say yes; but they also worry about how they look, what they drive, how much money do they make, what kind of job they have. I struggle each day not to be one, but it is hard. It’s what everyone else is doing, resistance may be futile.

I don’t think these people worry about how others live, how the poor people breath polluted air, or how the economy should bubble destructive business practices. They often act and believe within the confines of their own ego: profits should be maximized at all cost, poor people are to blame for the world’s problems, and starving children are non of their business and their kids should be entitled to all the government subsidies for their overpriced charter schools.

I hope I don't ever become one of them.

The Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) of 1990 and Title 7, Part 205 of Code of Federal Regulations set the parameters of Organic labeling, and the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) defines organic food as

"produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation. Before a product can be labeled "organic," a Government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards. Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified, too."

Simply stated, organic produce and other ingredients are grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms, or ionizing radiation. Animals that produce meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products do not take antibiotics or growth hormones.


Sounds great, right? Who wouldn’t want to eat fresh vegetables grown without pesticides, petro-chemical fertilizers, sewage sludge?

But the problem isn’t in the label or the law. It’s in the way it is implemented in the market place. The label serves as a marketing incentive for industrial agriculture businesses to produce “Organically” and up-sell their food to you. Converting land to “Organic” production land is an intensive process that takes three years and probably a mountain of paperwork and documentation. The sheer cost of conversion keeps smaller operations from becoming organic while big agri-businesses can achieve the economy of scale and bring organic food to you at a more competitive cost.

But these big agri-businesses are still taking away farmland from the local communities, squeezing profit from the poor uninformed local farmers, treating their animals inhumanly, driving up fossil fuel consumption, eliminating biodiversity; they are still no more concerned with economic viability as before and have yet to look up what sustainability really means for the poor.

But those are just my opinions. You make up your own mind about who you want to be and how you want to see the label for what it is. If it makes you happy and be accepted in your soccer-mom get-togethers by offering up “Organic” chicken kabobs with fancy peppers from half-a-world away, be my guest. It’s a free country and you do what you must to make yourself happy.

My focus is sustainable culture. Food, to me, is something intimately important. Sustainability is about the health and environment, basic quality of life standards, and progressive economics. Sustainable food should be for everyone, poor and rich alike; it should be beneficial to the people and environment, not destroy them; it should balance and distribute resources to the local communities, increase local labor and reduce bureaucratic redundancies.

Our recent consumer survey population reported 3:1 ratio between localvores naturalists and ”Organic” buyers. I suspect the “Organic” movement we see in the market place may be correlated with the “local” movement. I focused my report analysis taking this assumption.

We found the local procurement industry will grow from $5.2 billion in 2008 to $8.8 billion in 2013. Mintel, February 2009. Over 50% of the consumers stated the local economy as the number one reason they would buy local; convenience followed second in a list of reasons. For the purpose of process improvement, we noted retailers are likely to drive credible green products. We are working to include features that cater to this demographic in our application build-outs.

There are five million fewer farms today than in 1930. Of the two million remaining, only a quarter of the farms are family operated. Yet we are not making more healthy food or improving our environment. Just buying “Organic” is not enough, we have to start buying local and organic.

Buying local and organic, not “Organic,” means more Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) groups, more community gardens. We can form these in blight neighborhoods in Indianapolis and use the displaced population and land. There may be synergies between trying to get a homeless population engaged and employed and creating local urban farms to feed the local population. Soup kitchens can organize these and benefit from it at the same time. We can use DOL funding to create health urban agriculture that engages the community and improves quality of life. Increasing local demand for local products also increase producers. This may develop those farming jobs once lost to the machines.

I know I’m dreaming big. I have no idea how to implement all of this. I leave that to the politicians. I know information and digitization, so I will do my best to bring you the best information technology package to help facilitate that process. This will take a long time. It’s not just a mobile app that I need. I need a whole community to come together and create a market place and reallocate resources locally and develop opportunities locally. That is easier said than done. But a dream starts somewhere.

My dream starts here: I encourage you to buy more locally. I will do my part to try and identify local producers and bring you that information. I'm not necessarily against Organic labeling. I think there ought to be government control and regulation at some fundamental level. But in the mean time, support your local producers and let the market grow to mature. 

(Note: I am aware our consumer survey size is very small and the survey is limited in scope. The point of the initial VOC we conducted is not to capture the most detailed information possible to publish the findings. Our purpose is to have enough information to start building an application. We follow a organic application development process and focus on agile parameters.)

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