Monday, January 01, 2007

The Organic Debate

I’m facing a dilemma here. I’ve been doing a lot of reading about food in general, and more and more I’m feeling like I should be considering organic foods, in particular milk, meat and produce (I can’t see much benefit to things like organic steak sauce or corn chips). Oh yes, the organic food movement annoyed me excessively when it started. The fact that Safeway and Wal-Mart have both started marketing their own line of organic products is almost a strike against organics, in my opinion, but I’m starting to question my prejudice.

I have said, and I still believe, that organic will be to Americans in this decade what fat free was to Americans in the 1980s. Horror stories were famous of dieticians and nutritionists in the 80s whose clients weren’t losing weight, or were even gaining it, and, when asked what they’d eaten, would reply “An Entenmann’s Fat Free Danish.” The dietician would ask “One serving?” and the client would reply “No, one whole Danish” (meaning one whole 10” cake). Fat free, we were admonished, did not mean calorie free. I see organics headed in this direction. Every time I walk into my local Safeway, I see huge cardboard display cases with O Organics Tortilla Chips. I can just hear the puzzled client saying to his or her nutritionist “Yes, I did eat the whole bag, but they’re organic.”

Of course, as Americans we always go to extremes. A little is good, therefore more must be better. If organic produce, meat and dairy products are good for me, then I should also eat organic cookies, soy sauce, potato chips, and Pop Tarts! Surely if it says organic on it, it really can’t be that bad for me.

However, I’ve read several different books lately that talk about the growth hormones in milk and meat, and the pesticides used on crops. The idea of eating those chemicals, or letting my kids eat them, is starting to seem less and less appealing.

We have to use common sense, of course. An organic peach flown from South America someplace to my neighborhood grocery store is a lot less good for the environment than a peach grown using conventional methods (and in season) in a farm 200 miles from my house. The amount of pollution generated by the South American peach getting from the farm, onto an airplane, across a continent (or two), and from the airport to my local store is a lot greater than the amount of pollution generated by the truck that drives from the local peach farm 200 miles away. Although environmental health isn’t what’s making me think twice, it’s still a concern.

Cost is another fact that presents itself and bears consideration, and it concerns me how much of a price difference there is between conventional and organic products. Just for laughs, I looked up the prices Niman Ranch charges for their beef. Niman Ranch is a California cattle ranch that sells hormone free, antibiotic free, humanely raised beef, pork and lamb. It started as a single guy raising cattle and selling it to restaurants like Chez Panisse (which I have long called Chez Painintheass, and still find to be pretentious and annoying), and has grown to be a network of like-minded ranchers selling their meat under the single, recognizable Niman Ranch name. Niman Ranch charges $45.95 for two 7-oz filet mignons. That’s almost fifty bucks for under a pound of meat. I can’t justify that, I’m afraid. Vegetarianism beckons if that’s the price I’m going to have to pay.

The other alternative for meat is to find someone who raises their own cattle in a healthy way and buy directly from them. I used to have a friend back East who raised cattle. She couldn’t legally call them organic, but they were as close to organic as you can get without the actual label. The organic designation, she told me, requires all kinds of testing and paperwork. The grass the cows eat must be organic—no chemical pesticides used on it. Their feed must be certified organic. The water they drink must be tested regularly for various chemicals. I think she did qualify for a humanely raised designation, because her cows truly were (as she herself said) the happiest cows in Loudon County. I met them—they were happy. I ate them, and if flavor is in any way attributable to temperament, they were deliriously happy. They received no growth hormones, and very little in the way of antibiotics. Occasionally one of her calves would have a little illness in its early days, and she’d give it an antibiotic to clear it up. They received no antibiotics on a regular basis.

In any event, this woman would sell you a side of beef for about $2.50 a pound for everything. You paid that price for what was called the “hang weight” (meaning the weight of the animal after slaughter, but before any trimming or cutting had taken place). The hang weight on a side was about 300 pounds, give or take. You could specify what size roasts you wanted, how thick you wanted the steaks, and so on. Everything else was ground up into hamburger. The first year we wound up with about 60 pounds of hamburger. In case you can’t visualize 60 pounds of hamburger, let me help you: it’s a lot. We actually bought a quarter chest freezer to accommodate all our beef. This was the best beef I’d ever had, and the price was hard to beat.

That was back East though. Now I live out West, so I’m going to have to find someone to sell me a side of beef. I doubt I’m going to find that person the same way I did back East—hiring them as my replacement when I go out on maternity leave from a high tech company, and having them stay on when I return, become my friend, and sell me meat. Not a set of circumstances that’s likely to ever occur again, I’m afraid. So I’m looking through more conventional channels. I think I’ve found someone who does lamb, and possibly pork, so maybe that person knows someone who raises beef cattle.

Your objections, you may say, are somewhat vague. You just say “not good for you.” What do you mean? Well, without getting into endless details about how cattle are raised, post World War II munitions plant repurposing, and the chemistry of growth hormones, let’s just say that a “normal” cow (such as those happy ones raised by my friend in Loudon County) takes two years (or even three) to be ready for slaughter, and is grass fed and “grain finished,” as they say. The cattle that are sent to slaughter commercially in this country are about twelve to sixteen months old, and are grain fed for as long as possible (because grain is cheaper than grass—it costs less to buy grain feed than it does to buy grassland and put the cattle out to pasture). When the cattle are started on grain too early, it makes them sick (just as starting a human baby on solid food too early would make it sick). To combat these sicknesses, the cattle are given antibiotics aplenty, which don’t leave their system when they’re turned into Beef Wellington. They’re also given more chemicals in the form of growth hormones to make them bigger, faster, therefore providing the seller with more meat (more meat, as you may gather = more money). Again, these chemicals stick around in their flesh and go right along into the Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese.

[As an aside here, I should point out that although I refer to beef cattle as “cows” regularly, I am aware that those animals that are sent to slaughter are steers, not cows. Cows are the things that have the calves, steer are the things we eat.]

As far as produce goes, the best choice, of course, is local organic produce. Well, sure. You find it for me, and I’ll eat it. Oh and it has to be somewhat reasonably priced. My grocery store sells organic baby spinach. From California. That to me is not local. California is two states away. Two big states. I love the idea of farmers markets, but they’re not open all year long, and often they’re only open when I’m at work. When I lived back East there were a couple of farmers markets I could go to—with one exception, they operated at times like 9 to noon on Tuesdays. Hey! What a coincidence—I work then too! I believe I’ve ranted about this phenomenon before, so I’ll stop there.

There is a market that I could go to, and it’s about a mile from my office. When I go back to work (from my current maternity leave) I’ll arrange to leave work early and walk up there one day a week to buy produce. I’ll be somewhat limited to how much I can carry since I’ll be walking. I also have reservations about just how much of what I’ll be buying is truly “local.” This market caters to both “townies” and tourists, and in my experience when something caters to tourists, it tends to put appearances before ethics (if you will). I suspect that if they got a case of really gorgeous strawberries that weren’t local and weren’t organic, they’d put them front and center in the display, which kind of makes me wonder what else they’d readily sell without full disclosure. Of course, I can always ask, but really the whole idea behind farmers markets is that the products are local—to not say “Product of Argentina” on something is deceptive, letting the consumer assume that what they’re getting is locally grown when it’s not. The prices will probably be higher at this market too.

So as I say, all this reading I’m doing is making me think, but then the price comparisons I’m doing are making me think too. I also have a problem with the idea that I’m just jumping on a bandwagon for the sake of jumping. I don’t believe that I am, but I’ve been so scornful of organic food for so long that I have difficulty overcoming it. At the same time, however, I don’t want to let my stubborn prejudice affect mine or my children’s health. I don’t want to cut off my nose to spite my face, to employ a cliché. Or my kids’ faces either.

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