Why I No Longer Eat “Organic”

My wife is a tea drinker. More than that, she is a tea enthusiast, having collected teapots, infusers, cozies, sweeteners, and boxes and boxes of bagged and loose tea. Black tea, white tea, green tea, leaded and unleaded. It is from her that I learned that “herbal tea” is an oxymoron. If it doesn’t contain Camellia sinensis then it is not properly tea, but rather a tisane. Which she also drinks.

The responsibilities of parenthood have curtailed her various hobbies – long leisurely baths, margaritas with Mexican food, and, inevitably, tea chats with the girls. Our tea stock has dwindled to a mere two dozen boxes, and most of the teapots are still lovingly bubble-wrapped inside cardboard boxes from the last move. Abandoned mugs of once-hot tea, gone cold with neglect, litter the house. She is philosophic about this change in her life. Isn’t this why God created microwave ovens?

She does not mention it, but I am certainly a disappointment to her. I have always found tea to be a pointless exercise. What is the purpose of a beverage whose unadulterated taste ranges from weak to bitter?

Linus: How do you like the chocolate tea I made for you?
Lucy: It’s terrible! It’s too weak! It tastes like some warm water that has had a brown crayon dipped in it!
Linus: You’re right. I’ll go put in another crayon.

Not many days ago, she was complaining that her recent favorite – Good Earth(R) Original Sweet & Spicy(TM) Herbal Tea Blend – had fallen drastically in her esteem. Instead of inflating the sinuses with a pleasant, aromatic cloud, this tea developed an insipidity beyond the saving grace of any number of crayons. She went through three boxes of it to affirm that it wasn’t the unlucky chance of a bad batch.

Perhaps they had tinkered with the formula in an attempt to make it “new and improved?” She read the package label carefully and found no such evidence of formula tampering. On the other hand, she did discover a fascinating new magic trick!

Observe, side one (note the area circled in red):

 

Sounds pretty good, right? Now watch the magic trick. Flip the box over and …

Presto! Instant artificial flavor. Just add hot water.

I must have some youthful idealism left, because I am still astonished when someone lies directly in my face like this.

What is the socially appropriate thing to do? My social conscience says to call them on it. There was even a phone number right on the box. Customer service representatives were standing by waiting to wish me a nice day.

I dialed the number and a plummy English butler seated me in a virtual receiving room. “The Good Earth guide will be with you shortly,” I was politely informed, thought I was not offered any tea, real or virtual.

The guide did not keep me waiting long. His greeting was only slightly less civil than the butler, marred by an early morning stupor that flattened his intonation to a dull, metallic monotone. Perhaps Good Earth does not offer tea to its employees, either.

I stated the purpose of my visit, to wit, that his packaging contained a blatant prevarication upon the label. His stiff-backed and unhesitating admittance of guilt indicated that I was not the first to ask. Yes, there was a “misprint” on the packaging. The product did contain artificial flavor, in particular, a proprietary blend of spices.

“But wait. Spices are natural, aren’t they?” I asked. “Why ‘artificial flavor’ instead of ‘natural flavor?'”

Well, he was not at liberty to divulge the proprietary ingredients in the proprietary spice blend, but if there was a concern about a specific ingredient, I could have a doctor call to discuss it with them. And I should be “sure to have a nice day.”


My title promised a fascinating lecture on organics. Why on earth am I talking about tea?

To me, the story of Good Earth is a representative tale. The company started importing tea in 1972 in California. They sold organic blends, but not exclusively. It was a successful company with a popular product, and so it grew. A lot. Good Earth Tea is now available in Walmarts and Costcos across the country. A modern business fairytale. Like Cinderella, they soundly trounced the step-sister competition and won a prince, in this case, Tetley US Holdings Limited, a subsidiary of Tata Global Beverages, who owns them heart and soul.

This is now the de facto state of organics in America. What started as a boiling Movement now simmers on the back burner as a Consumer Option. Who turned down the heat on the stove? It’s an interesting story I’ve been trying to piece together.

We tend to forget that for the majority of human history, all agriculture  was organic, though it wasn’t called that. The term “organic” was popularized by J. I. Rodale in the 1930’s. It was a new name for the old way of farming, before petroleum, herbicides, pesticides, preservatives, patented flavors, international shipping, chemistry and industry rewrote the rules and forced us to come up with a separate name for “that thing we did for thousands of years and which we are no longer doing.”

By the time I  got involved in the 1980’s, the organic movement had been bicycling along the back roads of American agriculture for fifty years, while industrial farming took off on the Eisenhower interstate highway system. At that time, there were organic co-ops selling local produce and adding color to artsy midtowns and college campuses around the nation, but they were hardly a blip on the economic radar.

Except perhaps for tourism. Locals would bring their visiting relatives by the co-op to gawk at our fruit smoothies, our kale and bean burritos, and whatever it was we smoked back then. Most of us don’t remember. We were “the granola people” – fruits, nuts, and flakes – on display for the masses.

But about the time the world population tipped 5 billion, our quietly asserted message of health and environmental sustainability hit a chord. Articles were written suggesting links between chemical agriculture and a whole hosts of health and environmental ills. Word spread on the internet, itself a nascent, democratic means of communication. Sales of organic products began to take off. And we caught the attention of the global food industry.

To a certain extent, I mean that literally. We (some of us anyway) went looking for them.

Why? My understanding is that some organic growers wanted to grow bigger. It wasn’t enough to save the family farm anymore. They needed to save the world. What if we could convert a million acres of industrial farmland to organic production? How much less pesticides and herbicides would ends up in our lakes, streams, and air?

And they needed to make money. They were tired grubbing in the dirt for miniscule profits.

But in either case, the economic reality was, and is, if you want to grow, you need capital investment. So they began to court investors. But there was a problem. Up until this point, the organic movement was a loose confederation of local, home grown communities linking farmer, grocer, and consumer. Each region had its own organic standard and its own certification agency and process. This worked just fine for the growers, sellers, and consumers, most of whom were happy to get whatever was locally available. But an entrepreneur who wanted to sell a product nationally couldn’t reasonably meet hundreds of different organic standards.

So, along with some national food companies, who wanted a piece of the pie themselves, they lobbied the USDA for a national organic standard.

INTERLUDE: BEING A PARABLE OF GLOBAL FOOD INDUSTRY VS. ORGANIC AGRICULTURE

Imagine you are the general manager of large grocery store and you are always looking for ways to increase your income. Nostalgia brings to mind the idyllic lemonade stands of your youth, long before the Facebook, Ipods, and computer games saved our children from the dangerous streets. You decide to add a new revenue stream to your business – vending machines that sells cans of manufactured lemonade. It’s a steady profit, not huge, but requiring little effort and time on your part. You put your son in charge of the machines, hoping the lure of making money rubs off on him.

Then one morning as you are parking your Hummer in your store’s parking lot, you notice across the six lanes of traffic a real, honest-to-God, lemonade stand. A woman in colorful, retro, peasant garb fusses over the pitchers. She has bags of lemons, sacks of sugar, drums of fresh rain water, and she squeezes the lemons by hand with a cheerful intensity of purpose. The inefficiency boggles your mind and you think she is really a little too old to be playing games. You shake your head and walk into work.

Later in the day, once the sun and heat have cranked up, you hear the familiar sound of someone banging on the drinks machine trying to get some free change out of it. You yell for your son to shoo them off (this is part of his job), but he does not answer. Grumbling, you head outside to do it yourself but your attention is diverted by a large crowd of people across the street waiting to buy lemonade.

It takes the faux-peasant woman five minutes to make a glass of lemonade mostly because she chats with every customer. People don’t seem to mind the wait; they are smiling.

And then out of the crowd of people emerges your son. He is also smiling, and he is wiping the corner of his mouth with his index finger and licking it. He looks up and sees your thundering, disapproving glare, and meekly crosses the street (at the traffic light. He is a safety conscious lad).

“What are you doing, son?” you ask when he returns.

“It’s a new brand of lemonade,” he answers. “I thought I’d try it out. Check out the competition. She calls it ‘Homemade.’ It’s a subsidiary of …”

“So you bought a glass?”

“No, you only give me a dollar for an allowance, and it costs $4 a glass.”

“Four dollars!” You are astounded.

“Yeah. But she gave me a free sample. Oh, and also a brochure.”

He rummages in his pockets and pulls out a crumpled ditto-sheet, the sticky-sweet smell of sugar and lemons rising from it. Although it doesn’t mention your business or the lemonade brand by name, it references several scientific studies showing how the artificial ingredients in canned lemonade puts holes in your brain tissue, how the cheap high-fructose corn syrup corrupts your insulin chakras, how the lemon plantations are devastating the rain swamps of Ichupatu and exiling indigenous people to the slums of Porto Barbar, and how the profits are invested in various and nefarious political juntas.

“Well,” you bluster, trying to keep your anger in check, “at that price, she won’t get much business!”

Your son tactfully makes no comment about the growing crowd across the street.

Sweat breaks out on your forehead.  You sputter, “So how long has she been in business, right under our nose?”

“Oh, she’s been around forever. She started the business when she eight years old. Things have just … picked up lately.”

Your stomach hurts. You begin to wring your hands. You mutter, “This is terrible. This could severely damage our profit margin. We will have to do something about this. But what?”

“Well, she did mention that she was dreaming of expanding her business, perhaps a franchise. Maybe we could sell her product?”

“Are you serious?”

“Why not? It’s not like she has a trademark on the name or anything.”

Your hands cease wringing. “Trademark?” you repeat. Your eyebrows raise knowingly. A light bulb has gone off above your head. You nod and smile deliciously. “Son, I think you may be on to something there.”

“Thanks Dad. Hey, could I borrow three dollars?”


The USDA, who is a friend to Big Ag if nothing else, was most obliging. It not only proposed a national organic standard, it included language that made it a crime to label a product “organic” unless it met the federal standard AND had been certified organic by one of the expensive, government-approved certification agencies.

Ta-da: trademark is now ours.

Overnight, thousands of organic farmers became just plain farmers. The only ones who got to use the word “organic” were the ones lucky or smart enough to have named their business, “Bob’s Organic Produce.”

Do I sound like I’m verging on some anti-government, Tea Party platform? “Why is the Federal Guv’ment regulating these small businesses to death. This is outrageous. Someone get me Ron Paul’s phone number!” Well, it really isn’t that simple. For example, during this process, the government strove for rather weak standards and the organic industry fought for tougher standards – the only time in American history that an industry has asked for stricter regulation from the government. Why? Two reasons that I can find. The first is because consumers wouldn’t buy it. No one was going to pay a premium for organic food that wasn’t organic. Second, most of the organic entrepreneurs pushing for standards hadn’t sold out their values.

However most of these entrepreneurs have since sold out their businesses. The organic brands I knew twenty years ago are now all owned by international food companies. It is nearly impossible to find organic products today that are not owned by national or international companies who also produce and sell industrial food. And they sell a lot more industrial than organic.

Unsurprisingly, these companies play down any superiority that might damage their non-organic product lines. For example, they insist that organic food has no nutritional superiority to industrially produced food. In their PR world view, “organic” is merely a deluxe model of what they already sell. Replace the word “organic” with “blue,” and it would hardly matter. If people decided they wanted blue food, these companies would create genetically modified blue bacon and color their milk and oranges with patented blue food dye. They would demand a national standard of “blue” to control competition. And they would insist that blue food is really no more or less healthy than any other product they sell.

Go ahead. Ask it. You know you want to.

SO WHAT?

What’s the problem with this, really? If the product is USDA certified organic and people buy it, aren’t we putting less chemicals into the ground, water, and air as a result? Isn’t that a good thing?

Definitely, yes.

I don’t want to argue that point. My point is something different. I’ve hinted at it already (have a cup of tea?).

The organic movement championed an ethic that embraced broader values and concerns than just chemicals and nutrition. It included stewardship of the environment, ethical treatment of animals, and building relationships in communities. Unsurprisingly, the modern USDA organic certification program doesn’t address these issues. Quite the opposite. By stacking the deck for large-scale agriculture, which is the current USDA priority, it actively works against these values.

Some examples. In today’s world, those organic tomatoes you bought in December were probably shipped from Argentina using plenty of crude oil. That organic lettuce from California was packed in non-recyclable plastic bags inflated with greenhouse gases (CO2) to keep it fresh. The organic milk you drink came from cows that never walked in pasture or stood in daylight, and their manure, rather than being composted and recycled into the soil, is sluiced into pits where the pathogens can float down into the water supply when it rains.

Meanwhile, the small scale organic farmers, who were miraculously saving their family farms in the 1980’s and 1990’s, are now going bankrupt. They cannot compete against price-gouging agribusinesses who can undercut prices with slimmer margins and afford to pay the inflated certification fees demanded by USDA approved certifiers. And the farm animals that were grazing in fields are now back in confined “organic” feedlots, and being butchered in cruel “disassembly” lines that we are not allowed to see for fear we might choose to stop buying meat if we knew.

When’s the last time you saw a farm animal (for meat, not a pet) grazing in a field?

So while I would love to eat only organic, the best most of us we can do is USDA Organic (R). And the cherry on top? The USDA organic label only ensures that 95% of the ingredients in a package are organic. What about the other 5%? Who knows? There is a separate “100% USDA organic” label for purists, but I have yet to see it on any product in a grocery.

There are still farmers out there who raise their food “old school organic,” grown and sold locally without chemicals, hormones, antibiotics, pollution, erosion, tilling, petroleum, or cruelty. More than half of my family’s food budget goes to them. I would like to say we are doing our small part to save the water, the air, and the soil, that we are helping to provide jobs in our community rather than line the pockets of CEOs and investors. That’s all true, but the real reason? Homegrown, fresh, organic food tastes SOOO much better. We are eating like kings.

Shh. It’s our little secret.

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