What's Holding Back the Organic Food and Farming Revolution?

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What's Holding Back the Organic Food and Farming Revolution?

It’s not just the impact of organic foods on personal health that concerns consumers. Organic consumers express rising concern over the destructive impacts of industrial agriculture and factory farms on the environment, climate, animal welfare, farm workers and rural communities. Increasingly, consumers are coming to understand that industrial agriculture and factory farms are the leading cause of water pollution, soil erosion, deforestation, wetlands destruction, desertification, reduced biodiversity and, most important of all, climate-destabilizing greenhouse gas emissions.  (Photo: harvesturbanfarms.com)

There is growing alarm among conscious consumers and activists that our 21st Century food and farming system, and the government-corporate cabal that that props it up, is spiraling out-of-control. Chemical-intensive, energy-intensive, climate-destabilizing factory-farmed and genetically engineered food and farming are destroying not only our health and our environment, but also the soil fertility, biodiversity, and climate stability that make civilization possible.

U.S. sales of certified organic products hit $35 billion in 2013. Given that the organic products industry has seen four decades of steady growth, at a rate of 10-15 percent, sales will likely hit $40 billion in 2014. This amounts to approximately 5 percent of all grocery store purchases, 10 percent of retail fruits and vegetables, and over 20 percent of baby food. Organic sales are increasing 10-15 percent annually, more than five times the anemic 2 percent growth rate of conventional (i.e. chemical) foods.

The latest poll shows that nearly half of U.S. households now prefer organics; that most consumers buy organic foods and products at least on an occasional basis; and that most would buy even more if they felt they could afford to do so.

When asked why they prefer organics, health conscious Americans consistently state that they want to avoid toxic pesticides, synthetic hormones, antibiotic residues, and GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms).

Health-conscious consumers increasingly understand that the chemical and genetically engineered junk food (so-called “conventional” food) that typically makes up 80-90 percent of the U.S. diet is the primary cause of deteriorating public health and childhood disease. These foods have spawned an epidemic of obesity, diabetes, cancer, antibiotic-resistant infections, behavioral disorders, learning disabilities, autism, Alzheimer’s, and heart disease.

Organic foods on the other hand, especially raw fruits and vegetables, whole grains, healthy oils, and grass-fed, pastured meat and animal products, are recognized as safer, healthier and more sustainable  

But it’s not just the impact of organic foods on personal health that concerns consumers. Organic consumers express rising concern over the destructive impacts of industrial agriculture and factory farms on the environment, climate, animal welfare, farm workers and rural communities. Increasingly, consumers are coming to understand that industrial agriculture and factory farms are the leading cause of water pollution, soil erosion, deforestation, wetlands destruction, desertification, reduced biodiversity and, most important of all, climate-destabilizing greenhouse gas emissions.

Good news: Organic farming and ranching can regenerate soils and reverse global warming

The heretofore unrecognized “Good News” on the soil and climate front is that regenerative organic farming and ranching can save us from the catastrophe of runaway global warming.  The solution to our climate (soil and public health) crisis literally lies under our feet, and at the end of our forks.

According to a growing body of science, the qualitatively higher levels of photosynthesis and natural carbon sequestration on regenerative organic farms, ranches, rangelands, forests, and wetlands have the potential to move enough excess CO2 from the atmosphere, into the soil, to restore climate stability. By transitioning from industrial, chemical agriculture to organic, regenerative farming and ranching, we could reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere to a safe 350 ppm (particles per million). At the same time, we would qualitatively improve soil fertility, water retention, plant health, animal health and overall food production.

Bad news: Organic and climate-friendly food and farming are still a relatively small niche market

While organic advocates can perhaps pat ourselves on the back for finally crossing the 5-percent threshold in terms of grocery store sales, most people are still buying highly processed, chemical-contaminated and factory farmed food. Farmers continue planting GMO crops and spraying their fields and crops with toxic chemicals. Hapless, junk-food addicted Americans spend almost half of their food dollars “supersizing” themselves on GMO and factory-farmed fare in fast food outlets and chain restaurants.

Although there are a growing number of non-chain, “farm-to- table” restaurants where “cooked-from-scratch” organic foods and grass-fed meats and animal products are featured on the menu, most restaurant ( as well as school and institutional) food is still unhealthy, non-sustainable and expensive. Organic and climate-friendly food today represent no more than 3 percent of combined U.S. grocery and restaurant sales.

The life or death question is this: If the overwhelming majority of U.S. consumers say they prefer organics and would like to buy and consume healthier and more sustainable food, then why aren’t they doing so?

There appear to be several systemic, deeply embedded reasons why most Americans are still buying and consuming junk foods rather than “going organic.” These include the addictive nature and omnipresence of “chemically engineered” processed foods; lack of money and time; rampant nutrition and cooking illiteracy; and labeling fraud.

Let’s take a closer look at these problems.

Chemically engineered foods and consumers. According to recent studies, including the best-selling book by New York Times columnist Michael Moss, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, the bulk of the nation’s processed foods, beverages and restaurant fare have been deliberately “chemically engineered” (i.e. laced with addictive, unhealthy combinations of sugar, salts and fats) by a network of food technologists employed by large food corporations determined to turn us into food addicts.

As Moss explained to a CBC reporter:

I spent time with the top scientists at the largest companies in this country and it's amazing how much math and science and regression analysis and energy they put into finding the very perfect amount of salt, sugar and fat in their products that will send us over the moon, and will send their products flying off the shelves and have us buy more, eat more and …make more money for them.

These modern day alchemists, aided and abetted by an army of advertising wizards and lobbyists, have perfected the art of turning children and adults into junk food addicts. How? By changing our taste buds, altering physiological brain circuits, and engineering our appetites so as to reduce ingredient costs, maximize profits and keep a growing, bulging army of food addicts, especially children, adolescents and low-income Americans, coming back for more.

The nutritional bottom line is that even though most Americans are overweight and suffering from diet-related health problems, millions feel powerless and helpless, (much like tobacco addicts) to change their eating habits and sedentary lifestyles. The junk food addict (especially children), brainwashed by thousands of commercials and ad images, and whose sense of taste has been chemically mutated by constant exposure to junk food, truly believes that Coca-Cola tastes better than any beverage made from real, organic ingredients, and that a large order of fries or soda or sweetened breakfast cereal is necessary to satisfy their appetite.

Lack of money and time. The majority of Americans are victimized not only by a powerful, shadowy network of food technologists, chemical companies and mass media propagandists, but also by a corporatized and inequitable economy. Even if you want to feed yourself or your children organic food, and serve up healthy home-cooked meals, in today’s “Fast Food Nation” consumers face a host of major obstacles, including the high cost of living, lack of free time, lack of cooking skills, cultural distractions and sub-standard wages.

If you ask the majority of people why they aren’t buying more organic food and grass fed meat, their answer is certainly not that they prefer chemically engineered, GMO and unhealthy foods. What they complain about is “the high price” of organics or that they don’t have enough free time (and if you press them, adequate cooking skills) to cook meals at home from scratch.

What American consumers and workers really want and need in order to “go organic” is more money in their pockets, more free time, better nutrition information, and cooking/home economics skills.

But in fact U.S. organic and grass fed foods (especially non-processed organic foods) would not be that “expensive” if we lived in a society where there were meaningful and sustainable jobs for everyone willing to work; where the minimum wage was $15 an hour, rather than $7.25 (federal); where healthcare costs were not double what they are in other industrialized nations; and where rent, mortgage, educational and transportation costs were more affordable.  

The solution to the relative “high costs” of organics in comparison to so-called conventional food is not to pay organic farmers, ranchers or food chain workers less money, but rather to raise the standard of living of everyone, so that Americans can afford to go organic and take control of their health.

Organic food prices are not that expensive (especially non-processed organic foods, cooked from scratch), relative to what the average American households used to pay for their food. A full 34 percent of U.S. household income in the 1950s and 1960s was spent on food, compared to 13 percent now. U.S. households spend far less on food than most European or industrialized nations. Compared to the cost of eating out in restaurants—even junk food restaurants—organic home-cooked food is not more expensive.

Of course if you are poor, like the bottom 20 percent of U.S. households, organic food, or any food for that matter, is indeed expensive, since you are already spending 30 percent or more of your household income for food. And if you’re a single parent, or working two jobs, or if both parents are working long hours and commuting to and from work, it often seems as if there is no time to cook healthy family meals at home.

In the hustle and bustle of everyday life, it seems affordable to eat out at McDonald’s, or heat up convenience food in the microwave at home. But here’s the catch. In the long run, paying less for food often means paying much more in medical bills associated with poor health—which increasingly is being linked to poor diet.

Nutrition and culinary illiteracy. Most Americans say they’d like to eat healthier foods, and cook more at home, but typically have learned little or nothing about proper nutrition, the superiority of organic foods and grass fed or pastured meats and animal products, or how to affordably purchase healthy ingredients and cook tasty and nutritious meals at home.

Among the most destructive nutrition myths holding consumers back are the following.

•    Organic is no better than conventional/chemical/GMO food

Big Food and Big Ag bombard the public with the dangerous message that organic food is no healthier than chemical and GMO food. Although the majority of consumers may at least partially see through this propaganda, it undermines their incentive to pay a premium for organic foods, especially when cheaper so-called “natural” foods flood the marketplace.

Meanwhile hundreds of studies indicate that organic food and dairy, and grass fed/pastured meat and animal products are higher in vitamins, important trace minerals, essential Omega-3 fats, and cancer-fighting antioxidants than “conventional” chemical food. Organic food also contains very few or no antibiotics, pesticides, GMOs, pathogens or drug residues.

•    All fats are dangerous

Another destructive myth is that all saturated fat (whether it comes from organic or industrial/factory-farmed production) causes heart disease. The majority of U.S. consumers still don’t understand that the elevated proportion of Omega-3 fats in organic and grass-fed meat, dairy, eggs, coconut, avocados and cooking oils are good for you, whereas the saturated fat in non-organic and factory-farmed foods (many of which are deceptively labeled as “low-fat”) and cooking oils clog up your arteries, make you fat, and set you up for cancer and heart disease. While industry claims that low-fat foods prevent obesity and heart disease, foods labeled as “low-fat” are typically loaded with sugar and sugar substitutes.

•    Artificial sweeteners and low-calorie sodas are safe

Big Food companies tell us that artificial sweeteners are safe sugar replacements for diabetics, and help promote weight loss. In fact artificial sweeteners, whether chemical in nature such as Aspartame, or derived from GMO corn and sugar beets, are worse than sugar. The truth is that even an organic diet should limit sugar intake.

The more we eat like our ancestors, the better—fresh organic whole foods, locally and sustainably raised, and foods that are minimally processed or not processed at all. These are the types of foods that your genes and biochemistry are adapted to and will provide you with the ability to reverse and prevent most diseases. You can find these organic foods at your local farmer's market, food co-op, or in your own backyard garden. Be wary of nutritional advice from mainstream "experts" as this information may not be based on science, or may be based on information that is several decades outdated. Truthful, accurate information is your number one weapon in taking control of your health.

Fraudulent marketing, advertising, and greenwashing in the marketplace. Americans seeking healthier food are wasting several hundred million dollars a day buying products in grocery stores, or choosing menu items in chain restaurants, that are labeled or marketed as “natural” or “all natural,” under the mistaken belief that “natural” means organic or “almost organic.” When in fact it does not.

Organic foods are produced under strict organic standards, monitored by third-party certifiers, enforceable by law. “Natural” foods are typically nothing more than a marketing gimmick to trick you into paying more for conventional chemical foods. Most so-called “natural” foods have been produced with toxic pesticides, fertilizers and animal drugs. Most contain GMOs and synthetic ingredients, and are no healthier than any other junk fare or pesticide-laden foods.

Other scams include labeling non-organic fruits and vegetables or non-organic/non-grass fed or pastured meat and animal products as “local;” and the latest, labeling conventional foods produced using pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers as “Non-GMO.”

Organic standards prohibit the use of GMOs, toxic pesticides, chemical fertilizers, sewage sludge, nuclear irradiation and animal drugs. Organic by definition means Non-GMO. If you want to stay healthy and build up a sustainable and local system of food and farming, then search out produce and whole foods that are both organic and locally produced, and meat and animal products that are both organic and 100-percent grass fed (in the case of beef), or else organic and pasture-raised in the case of dairy, poultry and eggs. In addition, stay away from factory-farmed salmon.

Another major factor holding back organics is the federal government's failure to support transition to organic and organic programs for farmers and ranchers while meanwhile handing out billions of dollars in annual subsidies to chemical and GMO farmers. These subsidies, totaling tens of billions of dollars ever year, are delivered in the form of direct payments to (non-organic) farmers (for example cotton); multi-billion dollar subsidies to produce ethanol (derived primarily from GMO corn); or highly subsidized crop insurance programs utilized by GMO commodity farmers (soy, corn, cotton, canola, sugar beets). If there were a level playing field, whereby organics got the same level of support as chemical and GMO farmers, organic production and sales would no doubt surge.

How do we move from ‘Fast Food Nation’ to ‘Organic Nation’?

We start by raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, as San Francisco is proposing, and implementing a local-to-national “Green New Deal,” whereby we provide socially beneficial sustainable jobs (both rural and urban) for everyone willing to work, just as we did during the economic Depression of the 1930s. This Green New Deal must not only retrofit and repair the nation’s energy, residential and transportation infrastructure, but also regenerate soil fertility, biodiversity, and natural carbon sequestration.

Along with a living wage and a Green New Deal we need a moratorium on student loans and home foreclosures and a “Medicare for All” healthcare system that emphasizes natural health practices, disease prevention, proper nutrition, exercise and stress reduction.

We need to continue educating the public, especially children and parents, about the dangers of chemically engineered junk food. We need to expose and stop, just as we’ve done with tobacco, the 24/7 propaganda barrage that has turned the majority of the population into junk food addicts.

We need transparent labeling of GMOs, factory-farmed products, nutritional content, and pesticide and drug residues, both in grocery stores and in chain restaurants. We need to ban junk food advertising to kids and roll out a national program of healthy school lunches, nutrition education, cooking, gardening and home economics classes.

On the personal and household level we need to stop eating out in chain restaurants. We need to boycott factory-farmed food and chemically engineered junk food and sodas, improve our cooking skills, prepare home cooked meals, and take back control of our health.

Our health, climate stability, and future survival are at stake. Long live the organic revolution! Bon appétit!

Ronnie Cummins

Ronnie Cummins is a veteran activist, author, and organizer. He is the International Director of the Organic Consumers Association and its Mexico affiliate, Via Organica.

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