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Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2011

Beyond Organic: One of Many Choices

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In 2006, investigative journalist and author Michael Pollan revealed the enormity of “industrial organic” to the mainstream in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. The organic movement, a “fringe movement” from the 1960s, had become big business and “the fastest-growing corner of the food industry.” Through no fault of its own, the organic movement was bested by “big organic,” threatening to put the concept under the thumb of conglomerates.

The evolving meaning of “organic” has driven some farmers to move “beyond organic”—to try to distinguish their philosophy and practices from larger corporations and better address issues of product quality, labor standards, distribution and sustainability. Locally, advocates say we have benefited tremendously from the contributions of “beyond organic” farmers, but some within the organic farming community are wary of the “beyond organic” label and its implications.

Faye Jones, executive director of Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES), says she is put off by the “beyond organic” label because she feels it can imply a level of superiority unfair to other organic farmers. “We don’t need to be saying that something is better or worse. It’s just another choice,” she says.

MOSES, an “education outreach organization” located in Spring Valley, Wis., helps farmers to “successfully use organic and sustainable practices” and organizes what is now the largest event of its kind in North America—the MOSES Organic Farming Conference, held annually in La Crosse.

Jones says she often participates in discussions with farmers about USDA organic certification and additional labels. Ultimately she feels that presenting one label as better than another, whether it is “natural,” “local,” “organic” or “beyond organic,” is divisive and counterproductive to the movement.

“We need to get away from ‘big is bad’ or ‘certified (organic) is bad,’” argues Jones, who works with farmers who grow canning vegetables for Dole. Such relationships mean that more struggling family farms can have diversified income, she says, pointing out that many of the infrastructural changes we want, like healthier food in schools and hospitals, are also dependent upon cooperation from larger corporations.

Jones is also familiar with the criticisms directed at the USDA organic label and certification process, which she says is not cost- and paperwork-prohibitive. “What I hate to see is organic farmers that choose certification to be put down, like they’re doing something wrong. Organic (certification) is a marketing tool... It’s just a tool a farmer has,” Jones says, adding that whether or not a farmer pursues certification is dependent upon which market(s) the farmer wants to sell to.

“It isn’t good or bad, it’s just a choice. In what I love to call the food revolution, whether it’s organic, local, or what you call ‘beyond organic,’ it’s all just one of many pieces,” Jones adds.

And those pieces, or rather, options, can meet consumers where they’re at.

“Where are you in the course of your day? Is it 2 o’clock and the farmers’ market is open? Or is it 5:30 and you have screaming, hungry kids in your backseat and the co-op is on the other side of town. Well, then maybe the Cal Organic carrots will be OK,” Jones explains.

“Where are you in the moment? That’s what I like people to think,” she adds, referencing the “Beyond USDA Organic: The Evolving Organic Food Lifestyle” pyramid of Organic Valley, the nation’s “largest cooperative of organic farmers” and one of the most popular organic brands. The pyramid is a consumer guide to the “organic marketplace” continuum, as well as an illustration of Organic Valley’s belief that, with the myriad of options available to consumers that exceed USDA organic regulations, the future will be “organic and sustainable.”

Jones has similar hopes, but also is calling for solidarity among farmers, because she feels that division within the community is futile.

“It’s like we’re missing the point,” she says. “It’s like a farmer saying, ‘My cows are better grass fed because I move them every day, instead of every third day,’” Jones explains. “(Instead) we should be saying, ‘His cows are great and so are mine.’

“We need to stop criticizing each other,” she concludes. “It’s just not getting us anywhere.”