As I continue through The Omnivore’s Dilemma, there is just so much that I want to write about! I am working through the chapter on “Big Organic” right now, and I quickly realized that I’d have to break this into several blog entries. There’s just too much to say.
So, let me start with the first half of the chapter. It has given me a LOT of new books to add to my TBR list 😉
The last chapter, which I didn’t write about, covers a really interesting farm philosophy where the grass is nourished since it is what feeds all of the rest of the crops. It is really good stuff. The farmer that he follows, Joel Salatin has a “revolutionary” farm that is actually sustainable. The crops feed the animals, the animals feed the crops with their waste, and it works as a system, not just in parts.
Pollan starts chapter nine with a visit to Whole Foods, where he browses the aisles and imagines life on an organic farm: roaming cows, family farms, simpler times…. Not really. He explains how they fared against journalistic scrutiny
I learned, for example, that some (certainly not all) organic milk comes from factory farms, where thousands of Holsteins that never encounter a blade of grass spend their days confined to a fenced “dry lot,” eating (certified organic) grain and tethered to milking machines three times a day. The reason much of this milk is ultrapasteurized (a high-heat process that damages its nutritional quality) is so that big companies like Horizon and Aurora can sell it over long distances. I discovered organic beef being raised in “organic feedlots” and organic high-fructose corn syrup–more words I never expected to see combined…
I visited Rosie the organic chicken at her farm in Petaluma, which turns out to be more animal factory than farm. She lives in a shed with
twenty thousand other Rosies, who, aside from their certified organic feed, live lives little different from that of any other industrial chicken. Ah, but what about the “free-range” lifestyle promised on the label? True, there’s a little door in the shed leading out to a narrow grassy yard. But the free-range story seems a bit of a stretch when you discover that the door remains firmly shut until the birds are at least five or six weeks old–for fear they’ll catch something outside–and the chickens are slaughtered only two weeks later.
And yet people think that just because they are at Whole Foods, they are eating from a beautiful, sustainable farm. That’s just not the case. Whole Foods will try to convince you otherwise.
Lining the walls above the sumptuously stocked produce section in my Whole Foods are full-color photographs of local organic farmers accompanied by text blocks setting forth their farming philosophies. A handful of these farm–Capay is one example–still sell their produce to Whole Foods, but most are long gone from the produce bins, if not yet the walls. That’s because Whole Foods in recent years has adopted the grocery industry’s standard regional distribution system, which makes supporting small farms impractical. Tremendous warehouses buy produce for dozens of stores at a time, which forces them to deal exclusively with tremendous farms. So while the posters still depict family farmers and their philosophies, the produce on sale below them comes primarily from the two big corporate organic growers in California, Earthbound Farm and Grimmway Farms, which together dominate the market for organic fresh produce in America. (Earthbound alone grows 80 percent of the organic lettuce sold in America.)
CSAs, people. You need to get your produce from CSAs!
Pollan then goes on the Cascadian Farms property with its founder, Gene Kahn. Kahn is now a vice-president at General Mills, which owns Cascadian Farms. Kahn pushed for synthetic ingredients and was on the panel that decided what was allowed in organic foods. The standards went the way of “Big Organic”, and factory farms, cows without pastures, and synthetic chemicals were all allowed.
The same might be said for the biggest organic meat and dairy producers, who fought to make the new standards safe for the organic factory farm. Horizon Organic’s Mark Retzloff labored mightily to preserve the ability of his company–which is the Microsoft of organic milk, controlling more than half of the market–to operate its large-scale industrial dairy in southern Idaho. Here in the western desert, where precious little grass can grow, the company was milking several thousand cows that, rather than graze on pasture (as most consumers presume their organic cows are doing), spend their days milling around a dry lot–a grassless fenced enclosure. It’s doubtful a dairy could pasture that many cows even if it wanted to–you would need at least an acre of grass per animal and more hours than there are in a day to move that many cows all the way out to their distant acre and then back again to the milking parlor every morning and evening. So instead, as in the typical industrial dairy, these organic cows stood around eating grain and silage when they weren’t being milked three times a day. Their organic feed was shipped in from all over the west, and their waste accumulated in manure ponds. Retzloff argued that keeping cows in confinement meant that his farmhands, who all carried stethoscopes, could keep a closer eye on their health. Of course, cows need this sort of surveillance only when they’re living in such close quarters–and can’t be given antibiotics.
I’m pretty sure we’ve all drank Horizon Organic’s milk, so I find this super fascinating. If you go to a mainstream store and want organic milk, this is probably the only brand you’ll see. It doesn’t sound like its worth the extra 2 bucks, does it?
So what about farms?
When I think about organic farming, I think family farm, I think small scale, I think hedgerows and compost piles and battered pickups–the old agrarian idea (which in fact has never had much purchase in California).Â I don’t think migrant labor crews, combines the sizes of houses, mobile lettuce-packing factories marching across fields of romain, twenty-thousand-broiler-chicken houses, or hundreds of acres of corn or broccoli or lettuce reaching clear to the horizon.
So is there anything wrong with that?Â Kahn (the founder of Cascadian Farms) says absolutely not.Â He says it is the only way for organic to survive.Â But is organic really different?
In many respects the same factory model is at work in both fields, but for every chemical input used in the farm’s conventional fields, a more benign organic input has been substituted in the organic ones.Â So in place of petrochemical fertilizers, Greenway’s organic acres are nourished by compost made by the ton at a horse farm nearby, and by poultry manure.Â Instead of toxic pesticides, inspects are controlled by spraying-approved organic agents (most of them derived from plants)… and by introducing beneficial insects like lacewings.Â Inputs and outputs: a much greener machine, but a machine nevertheless.
Hey, its better…
Perhaps the greatest challenge to farming organically on an industrial scale is controlling weeds without the use of chemical herbicides.Â Greenway tackles its weeds with frequent and carefully timed tilling.Â Even before the crops are planted, the fields are irrigated to germinate the weed seeds present in the soil; a tractor then tills the field to kill them, the first of several passes it will make over the course of the growing season.Â When the crops stand too high to drive a tractor over, farm workers wielding propane torches will spot kill the biggest weeds by hand…Â But this approach, which I discovered is typical of large-scale organic operations, represents a compromise at best.Â The heavy tillage–heavier than in a conventional field–destroys the tilth of the soil and reduces its biological activity as surely as chemicals would; frequent tilling also releases so much nitrogen into the air that these weed-free organic fields require a lot more nitrogen fertilizer than they otherwise might.Â In a less disturbed, healthier soil, nitrogen-fixing bacteria would create much of the fertility that industrial organic growers must add in the form of compost, manures, fish emulsion, or Chilean nitrate–all inputs permitted under federal rules…Â Not surprisingly the manufacturers of these inputs lobbied hard to shape the federal organic rules; in the end it proved easier to agree on a simple list of approved and prohibited materials rather than to try to legislate a genuinely more ecological model of farming.
So again we are messing with the system in order to get quantity over quality.Â The same problem keeps resurfacing.Â Pollan talks about how smaller-scale farms are able to farm in a sustainable say, but the WalMarts of the world don’t want to buy from them, because they can’t offer a one-stop-shop for all of the WalMarts in the world.Â Instead, they could only supply a small amount of many different kinds of crops, and the big names don’t want that.
So now he moves on to one of the farms owned by Earthbound Farm.Â I have seen their story on TV before.Â They started out as twenty-somethings who rented some land and made their own lettuce and raspberries.Â Local chefs bought their baby greens.Â They figured out a way to keep them fresher longer, and soon they were selling to huge stores, like Costco. Â Costco didn’t want the “organic” label because people associated organic with being high-cost and low-quality, so they dropped the name organic, even though they still used the standards.Â Today, Earthbound still plants trees to offset their fossil fuel consumption, and they use biodiesel on the farm.Â They are at least better than Cascadian…
Pollan goes on to describe what the new, much larger, Earthbound Farm looks like as it operates.
Earthbound’s own employees (who receive generous benefits by Valley standards, including health insurance and retirement) operate the baby greens harvester, but on the far side of the field I saw a contract crew of Mexicans, mostly women, slowly moving through the rows pulling weeds.Â I noticed some of the workers had blue Band-Aids on their fingers.Â The Band-Aids are colored so inspectors at the plant can easily pick them out of the greens; each Band-Aid also contains a metal filament so that the metal detector through which every Earthbound leaf passes will pick it up before it wind’s up in the customer’s salad.
For anyone who isn’t on GCM or didn’t read it, this reminded me of the story of the bullet in the Earthbound salad.Â Man, that was nasty.Â Read it for laughs and quivers.Â OK, moving on…
He then talks about the machines, washers, and processing (chlorine wash, anyone?) that the lettuce has to endure.Â You get the ideaÂ ;)Â Read the book for the details.Â The point is that it is trucked and processed so much, that the energy used is still hardly better than conventionally grown foods.Â Its not so natural.Â On to talk about the chicken.Â We now try to find “Rosie”, the chicken at Petaluma Poultry that he bought at Whole Foods.Â Petaluma is hardly an enviro-friendly company though.
When its founder, Allen Shainsky, recognized the threat from integrated national chicken processors like Tyson and Purdue, he decided that the only way to stay in business was through niche marketing.Â So he started processing, on different days of the week, chickens for the kosher, Asian, natural, and organic markets.Â Each required a slightly different protocol: to process a kosher bird you needed a rabbi on hand, foe example; for an Asian bird you left the head and feet on; for the natural market you sold the same bird minus head and feet, but played up the fact that Rocky, as this product was called, received no antibiotics or animal by-products in its feed, and you provide a little exercise yard outside the shed so Rocky could, at his option, range free.Â And to call a bird organic, you followed the natural protocol except that you also fed it certified organic feed (corn and soy grown without pesticides and chemical fertilizer) and you processed the bird slightly younger and smaller, so it wouldn’t seem quite so expensive.Â Philosophy didn’t really enter into it.
Crap!Â I’ve bought Rocky and Rosie!Â I’m such a schmuck.
Rosie the organic chicken’s life is little different from that of her kosher and Asian cousins, all of whom are conventional Cornish Corss broilers processed according to state-of-the-art practice.Â The Cornish Cross represents the pinnacle of industrial chicken breeding.Â It is the most efficient converter of corn into breast meat ever designed, though this efficiency comes at a high physiological price: The birds grow so rapidly (reaching oven-roaster proportions in seven weeks) that their poor legs cannot keep pace, and frequently fail.
That’s just lovely.Â I’m feeding my kids a seven week old who can’t even stand on her own weight.Â Maybe we should all be vegetarian.Â Even if I don’t eat it, I’m putting money in Petaluma’s pocket.
After a tour of the fully automated processing facility, which can translate a chicken from a clucking, feathered bird to a shrink-wrapped pack of parts inside of ten minutes, the head of marketing drove me out to meet Rosie–preprocessing.Â The chicken houses don’t resemble a farm so much as a military barracks: a dozen long, low-slung sheds with giant fans at either end.Â I donned what looked like a hooded white hazmat suit–since the birds receive no antibiotics yet live in close confinement, the company is ever worried about infection, which could doom a whole house overnight–and stepped inside.Â Twenty thousand birds moved away from me as one…Â Twenty thousand is a lot of chickens, and they formed a gently undulating white carpet that stretched nearly the length of a football field.Â After they adjusted to our presence, the birds resumed sipping from waterers suspended from the ceiling, nibbled organic food from elevated trays connect by tubes to a silo outside, and did pretty much everything chickens do except step outside the little doors located at either end of the shed.
Ah, “free range”.Â I’m feeling great for supporting this industry.
Compared to conventional chickens, I was told, these organic birds have it pretty good: They get a few more square inches of living space per bird (though it was hard to see how they could be packed together much more tightly), and because there were no hormones or antibiotics in their feed to accelerate growth, they get to live a few days longer.Â Though under the circumstances it’s not clear that a longer life is necessarily a boon.
Running along the entire length of the shed was a grassy yard maybe fifteen feet wide, not nearly big enough to accommodate all twenty thousand birds inside should the group ever decide to take the air en masse.Â Which, truth be told, is the last thing the farmers want to see happen, since the defenseless, crowded, and genetically identical birds are exquisitely vulnerable to infection….Â But the federal rules say an organic chicken should have “access to the outdoors” and Supermarket Pastoral imagines it, so Petalum Poultry provides the doors and the yard and everyone keeps their fingers crossed.
It would appear Petaluma’s farm managers have nothing to worry about.Â Since the food and water and flock remain inside the shed, and since the little doors remain shut until the birds are at least five weeks old and well settled in their habits, the chickens apparently see no reason to venture out into what must seem to them an unfamiliar and terrifying world.Â Since the birds are slaughtered at seven weeks, free range turns out to be not so much a lifestyle for these chickens as a two-week vacation option.
Remind me again why it would be worth it to pay $8/lb for organic free-range chicken breasts when they never leave their coop?Â That clicking sound is the sound of my brain re-figuring why I feed my kids chickens that aren’t local.
The chapter wraps up with a discussion of the fact that two companies pretty much control all of the organic produce available.Â Its not all negative though.Â The fact is that if you are buying organic, you are generally getting a healthier product.Â He goes on to state all of the studies that have proven that they really are better
What I could prove, with the help of a mass spectrometer, is that it contained little or no pesticide residue–the traces of the carcinogens, neurotoxins, and endocrine disruptors now routinely found in conventional produce and meet… I very much like the fact that the milk in the ice cream I served came from cows that did not receive injections of growth hormone to boost their productivity, or that the corn those cows are fed, like the corn that feeds Rosie, contains no residues of atrazine, the herbicide commonly sprayed on American cornfields.Â Exposure to vanishingly small amounts (0.1 part per billion) of this herbicide has been shows to turn normal male frogs into hermaphrodites.Â Frogs are not boys, of course.Â So I can wait for that science to be done, or for our government to ban atrazine (as European governments have done), or I can act now on the presumption that food from which this chemical is absent is better for my son’s health than food that contains it.
Uh, yeah.Â I’ll pass on the stuff that turns boys into hermaphrodites.Â I’m not really up for dealing with that right now.
Organic food also contains more polyphenols and vitamins than conventionally grown foods, even if they are grown right next to each other.Â This goes a long way towards explaining why highly processed conventional foods still don’t make you feel as good as organic whole foods can.Â It seems that the reason they are healthier and tastier is because they have to grow stronger cells since they don’t have fertilizers and pesticides doing the work for them, so they grow better.Â This cell strength translates to better taste and nutrients.
The earth is better off without the chemicals as well.Â Of course, that can easily be negated if we are buying food that comes from a far-off land so that we can enjoy it off-season.Â By the time it is flown, trucked, and packed at Whole Foods, it is no better for the environment, and it generally tastes pretty crappy too.Â There’s a reason why certain foods grow in certain seasons.
Again, I am feeling very pleased with my decision to use local farms.Â The more I think about it, the more that I am seeing benefits beyond supporting your community.Â You are also doing more for your health and the land.Â Its good stuff.
There was a whole ‘nother section about fertilizers that I’d LOVE to write about, but for now we’ll call it quits.