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Understanding Organic Food: The Struggle Between Profitability and Sustainability

Posted by Maddie Berkvam on

When you walk into the produce section of just about any grocery store, you’ll probably see the familiar scene of fresh fruits and vegetables, enticing you with their clean, wholesome allure. Spritzed with water every few minutes, shiny, unscathed – the uniformity of each vegetable is no mistake. Everything from the red barn on the packaging to the particular selection that’s labeled “organic” constructs the image of the nature in which we imagine our food grows. Nowhere to be seen are images of factory farms that likely grew the product, any sort of indication of environmental degradation ripple effects of the industry, or warning labels with the pesticides that were used; such a frightening word of caution would not only seem ridiculous but would surely hurt sales. In fact, the term “organic” – in short, natural, eco-friendly farming methods that exclude pesticides to include the health of the environment and community (Moses 3-5) – is ostensibly intended to eradicate these worries of the consumer. Although organic agriculture is still a current controversial issue shaped by its ever-present ‘gray area’, the pros certainly outweigh the cons of this expanding method in farming. A brief exploration comparing the specific brands of Dole and Earthbound Organic baby spinach – though only skimming the surface of a bigger picture – will show that the ecological impacts of conventional farming are detrimental, and despite the developing problems and loopholes in the organic industry, organic foods are absolutely worth the extra dollar.

Food

Standing in Fresh Market Madison and holding a different brand of baby spinach in each hand – one organic and the other conventionally grown – I wonder to myself the general significance of the organic label to most consumers and if that includes the consideration of larger environmental issues. Comparing the obvious of the two products, the Earthbound Farm Organic baby spinach displays a golden sun on the front, the claim “USDA Certified Organic” and well, that’s it. The “Dole” conventional spinach leaf is about 3 times bigger, the bag not only tells me this type’s specific brand of taste and texture, but also offers recipes. On Dole’s website, there’s a “sustainability” section that describes in disappointingly vague, upbeat generalizations their philosophy on environmental health, while avoiding any confining claims (Dole Food Company Inc.). The slightly more expensive bag of organic baby spinach of course begs the question: why should I spend the extra 59 cents?

Simply upon taste appeal, I would easily hand it to Dole. However, as informed shoppers today know, organic is about more than what meets the eye. Conventional agricultural proposes environmental concerns such as soil fertility, pesticide use, consequential pest resistance to sprays, soil erosion, antibiotic use in meat leading to human antibiotic resistance, contaminated groundwater, pollution from fertilizer runoff, native plant and animal biodiversity, and the list goes on (Robbins)... In terms of pest control, organic farms can prove surprisingly more effective in prevention. The avoidance of broad-spectrum pesticides promotes a balance compatible with many insect species rather than one, out-of-control enemy pest. According to Dr. Crowder at Washington State University, “There are more natural enemies and they do a lot better job in organic fields controlling pests.” (Robbins, par. 10) In addition, the crop yield and future growth can be protected by increased soil fertility accomplished through ‘cover-cropping,’ a highly effective organic method that involves intermixing crop species to prevent nutrient depletion, control pests, and erosion. (Robbins, par. 20, 21) These approaches, among countless others, have the potential to change the way the food industry thinks about organic and moreover, about sustainability for the future.

Unfortunately, the sustainable, environmentally precautious ideals of the organic movement are frequently interwoven with the priorities of economic efficiency that often have needlessly degraded the environment in their process. The Earthbound Organic Farm would be a rare but model example of a trend in the opposite direction (Earthbound Farm Organic). Without a doubt, profitability controls many of decisions made in such a large industry, including other large organic companies. A spokesman of Grimmway Organic Farms in CA even admitted to not necessarily being a fan of organic and further stated, “Right now I don’t see that conventional farming does harm. Whether we stay with organic for the long haul depends on profitability.” (Pollan, 21) This attitude protects the sort of “powerful industrial idea” that companies, like Dole, utilize to maintain a huge output that can result in the ecological damage that comes with the combination of efficiency and lack of environmental responsibility (i.e. methods like pesticide spraying or monocultures that deplete the soil). In contrast, despite their industrial size, Earthbound estimates that the land they’ve taken out of conventional practice farms has “eliminated some 270,000 pounds of pesticide and 8 million pounds of petrochemical fertilizer that otherwise would have been applied, a boon to both the environment and the people who work in those fields. Earthbound also uses biodiesel fuel in their tractors.” (Pollan, 16) Furthermore, Cornell ecologist David Pimentel estimates that the process from growing all the way to delivery of an organic salad takes about 57 calories of fossil fuel energy for every 1calorie of food energy. It should be noted that this figure would be at least 4 percent higher if it were grown conventionally (Pollan, 17). While perhaps these impactful initiatives are only a drop in the bucket, they pave the way for a more sustainable hand-in-hand relationship between the environment and the business of the food industry. It is their philosophy and continued course that supports a smaller carbon footprint and a healthier future environment in which to grow our food, making your dollar worthwhile.

Overall, the large-scale organic farms of today often represent the ongoing battle between profitability and sustainability, a fight that will in large part be determined by the choices of the consumer to either support or opt out of the organic system. Though in many ways the “big-organic” companies illustrate a still flawed system in the works, the organic idea holds the possibility of a future shaped by more consistently fertile soil, healthy environments feeding healthier people, and a method allowing for long-term success. Not to mention, after a blind taste test (carried out by my unquestionably qualified roommates), it was decided that the organic Earthbound spinach did, in fact, win in the category of deliciousness. As with many controversial environmental questions, there’s rarely a black and white scenario, seldom a right or wrong answer. Big chains require big farm suppliers, and not all organic farms can boast the massive acreage expansion of Earthbound (Pollan, 14), so how do we make that organic vs. conventional decision in the checkout line? From the sole prospect of the customer, the only way to change the system is to consistently support the one that best represents your environmental values. As farmer Sarah Huntington explained it, therein lies the precise conflict of the pressure in the food industry: “That’s the challenge – to change the system more than it changes you.” (Pollan, 15)

This article was written by Maddie Berkvam, a biologist, botany expert, and world traveler.

Sources
  • Dole Food Company, Inc. "Baby Spinach." Dole. 2012.Web. <http://www.dole.com/EatRightLanding/EatRtProductIndex/Salad/
    PackagedSalads/PackagedSaladDetails/tabid/606/Default.aspx?contentid=1447>.
  • Earthbound Organic. "Spinach." Earthbound Farm Organic. 2012.Web. <http://www.ebfarm.com/products/salads/spinach>.
  • “Guidebook for Organic Certification: Answers to Common Certification Questions”, Fifth Edition, July 2011. Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Services (MOSES). Available:
  • Pollan, Michael. 2006, “Chapter Nine: Big Organic”. in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. The Penguin Press.
  • Robbins, Jim, “Farmers Find Organic Arsenal to Wage War on Pests”. The New York Times. November 29, 2010. Available: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/30/science/30farm.html?pagewanted=all.

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