I had a fascinating conversation yesterday with Mark McAfee, founder of Organic Pastures Dairy Co., an organic raw milk dairy farm in Fresno, CA. Among the many topics we discussed was what McAfee calls the “second wave” of the organic food movement.
As you’re probably aware, many large, commercial grocery chains, like Wal-Mart and Safeway, now offer organic products. But just how organic are they? These products may be technically organic, meaning they are produced without the use of herbicides, pesticides or genetically modified seeds in the case of produce, and without hormones or antibiotics and with the use of proper feed, in the case of meat and dairy products. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are produced in keeping with the original ethos of the organic movement. For example, Wal-Mart’s organic dairy products could come from cows that are fed properly and are not subjected to hormones or antibiotics, but still spend their lives in cramped, unnatural feed lots. The fact that a product is USDA certified organic doesn’t necessarily mean that the product was produced in a way that’s environmentally responsible or kind to the animals.
This is a reality I have personally struggled with. How should the organic movement react to the increasing participation of commercial grocery chains? On one hand, if these large chains take over the movement, then the organic certification could become nothing more than a marketing gimmick. On the other hand, it might be necessary for such chains to offer organic products if the movement hopes to become more mainstream and if organic products are to become more widely available. After all, even Wal-Mart’s organic products are healthier than their non-organic counterparts.
Yesterday, McAfee presented a solution. In his mind, there is a place both for locally and ethically produced organic foods and organic products offered by large, commercial chains. The key, he says, is to distinguish between the two. In Europe, he explained to me, organic foods are labeled as “local organic” or “commercial organic.” This is a brilliant idea. It allows for the presence of organic products at large, commercial stores while also ensuring that customers know that not all organic products are alike.
And this brings me back to the “second wave” of the organic food movement. McAfee explained that over the last decade, organic food has become increasingly popular, but now, customers are interested not only in whether a product is organic, but also whether it was produced using sustainable practices. If this is the case, then labeling organic foods as “local” and “commercial” could support those interested in ethically produced products by providing them with valuable information so they can shop consciously. It would also defuse some of the tension created by concern over the sustainability of the practices employed in producing organic products sold at commercial grocery chains. The practice of labeling is, therefore, beneficial for all concerned.