Plenty of consumers are already “voting with their forks” in favor of a new sustainable food system by buying organic and local whole foods in record numbers. And this newly honed interest in how food is produced will serve us well as the organics market becomes larger and more complicated.
The good news: As giant food companies jockey for their share of the organics market, more and more farmers are abandoning chemically intensive farming methods and treating their livestock with greater compassion. Sizable farm cooperatives like Organic Valley and Niman Ranch provide a stable market for small organic producers, helping more of them stay in business.
On the flip side, as multinational food companies get into the organics game, some bend the rules, following technicalities instead of traditions. In 2005, when Wal-Mart and other big retailers began carrying organic milk, for instance, demand increased beyond the means of small-scale farms to meet it. So, some larger milk producers ramped up production by taking their cows off pasture and grain feeding them instead.
Three years later, as much as 30 percent of organic milk now comes from grain-fed cows in confined conditions, according to the Organic Consumers Association. Technically, it’s still organic, because labeling standards require that animals be raised hormone- and antibiotic-free but not be grass-fed. Still, the traditional practice — pasturing cows on grass — is one of the main reasons why organic milk is better for you than conventional milk. A green-grass diet increases the amount of vitamin A, omega-3s and beta-carotene in a cow’s milk, and pasturing provides a low-stress environment that keeps milk and meat free from stress hormones like cortisol.
Such industry contradictions are troubling — and confusing — but alone they’re no reason to give up on big organic producers. They just demonstrate why it’s necessary to do background research on your favorite organic labels to see who’s walking their talk. (You can start with the directory for pastured milk and meat products at www.eatwild.com.) Don’t bypass the uncertified stands at your local farmers’ market either, as many small sustainable producers forgo the labeling system because of its expense.