Certified Organic

Otto Kramm used to come home from work at night and warn his toddlers to keep their distance until he'd bathed and changed his clothes. He wasn't just trying to keep them clean. As a vegetable farmer in California's Salinas Valley, Kramm spent his days covered in pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, and he worried about their effects on young children. "I didn't know what was on my clothes," he says, "or how it might affect the kids 15 years down the road." The more he thought about it, the less he liked the feeling. So in 1996, Kramm did something radical. He bought into a farm that was being cultivated organically. "It was scary," he says. "I couldn't fall back on the tools I'd always used to fight the pests and the weeds." But he worked out a new relationship with the soil and ended up not only cleaner but more prosperous. Today Kramm has 6,000 acres on three farms. The nation's largest organic-produce distributor, Earthbound Farm, is buying up everything he can grow. And he's never off-limits to his kids.

Organic farms are still sprouts in a forest of industrial giants. They provide less than 2 percent of the nation's food supply and take up less than 1 percent of its cropland. But they're flourishing as never before. Over the past decade the market for organic food has grown by 15 to 20 percent every year--five times faster than food sales in general. Nearly 40 percent of U.S. consumers now reach occasionally for something labeled organic, and sales are expected to top $11 billion this year. Could dusty neighborhood co-ops sell that many wormy little apples? Well, no. That was the old organic. The new organic is all about bigger farms, heartier crops, better distribution and slicker packaging and promotion. Conglomerates as big as Heinz and General Mills are now launching or buying organic lines and selling them in mainstream supermarkets.

What exactly are consumers getting out of the deal? Until now, the definition of "organic" has varied from one state to the next, leaving shoppers to assume it means something like "way more expensive but probably better for you." Not anymore. As of Oct. 21, any food sold as organic will have to meet criteria set by the United States Department of Agriculture. The National Organic Rule--the product of 10 years' deliberation by growers, scientists and consumers--reserves the terms "100 percent organic" and "organic" (at least 95 percent) for foods produced without hormones, antibiotics, herbicides, insecticides, chemical fertilizers, genetic modification or germ-killing radiation. Food makers who document their compliance will qualify for a new USDA seal declaring their products "certified organic." "This really signifies the start of a new era," says Margaret Wittenberg of the Whole Foods supermarket chain. "From now on, consumers will get a very solid idea of what is organic and what is not."

Yet for all the clarity they provide, the standards say nothing about what's worth putting in your shopping cart. "This is not a food-safety program," says Barbara Robinson, the USDA official overseeing the effort. "We're not saying that organic food is safer or better than other kinds of food." How, then, should we read the new label? Does "certified organic" tell us anything worth knowing about a chicken breast or a candy bar? Are organically grown grapes more nutritious than conventional ones? And is organic agriculture a viable alternative to modern factory farming? These are complicated, politically charged questions, but they're questions worth asking ourselves--both as consumers and as citizens.

When the counterculture embraced organic food and farming in the early '70s, the motivation was more philosophical than practical. Maria Rodale, whose family runs the pro-organic Rodale Institute in Kutztown, Pa., sees the current boom as evidence that people are still "expressing their values about the environment and even spirituality and politics through the food choices they make." Market research suggests she's about 26 percent right. When the Hartman Group of Bellevue, Wash., surveyed consumers two years ago, only one in four cited concern about the environment as a "top motivator" for buying organic food. Flavor was a bigger concern, cited by 38 percent as reason enough to pay a premium of 15 percent or more. Sophisticated chefs have responded in droves, many now serving only fresh, seasonal food from small local growers. "The difference is huge," says Peter Hoffman, owner of New York's Restaurant Savoy and chairman of the Chefs' Collaborative. "When people taste asparagus or string beans grown in richly composted soil, they can't get over the depth and vibrancy of the flavor."

To most consumers, though, organic means healthier. Fully 66 percent of the Hartman Group's respondents cited health as a "top motivator" as will almost any shopper on the street. "Buying an apple that has poison on it, even if you wash it you don't know how much has come off," says Wendy Abrams, a suburban Chicago mother with four kids at home. Abrams buys organic milk and stocks her pantry with Newman's Own pretzels and raisins on the theory that anything organic is less likely to harbor cancer-causing chemicals. "There have been six cases of cancer on my street," she says. "It's just weird."

All of these folks--market analysts refer to them as "true naturals," "connoisseurs" and "health seekers"--seem happy with their purchases. But are they getting what they're seeking? It's hard to argue with the connoisseurs, and not just because they know what they like. A tomato grown on a vast commercial plot is bred less for taste than for durability, notes Bob Scowcroft of the nonprofit Organic Farming Research Foundation. It has to resist disease and ship well. Organic growers, with their smaller harvests and their reliance on nearby markets, can plant delicate heirloom strains and give the fruit more time on the vine. "They pick it when it's ripe," says Marion Cunningham, author of "The Fannie Farmer Cookbook." "No one goes around picking organic fruits when they're as hard as little rocks."

The health seekers may have common sense on their side, but no one has found a way to determine whether people eating well-balanced organic diets are healthier than those eating well-balanced conventional ones. No one denies that nonorganic produce contains pesticide residues that would be toxic at high doses. Nor is there any question that children (because of their size) consume those residues in higher concentrations than adults. But there is still no evidence that pesticides cause ill health at the doses found in food, or that people who eschew them come out ahead. Technological optimists find it ludicrous that anyone would fret over pesticide residues when the hazards of foodborne bacteria are so much clearer. E. coli is "perhaps the deadliest risk in our modern food supply," says Dennis Avery of the Hudson Institute--"and its primary hiding place is the cattle manure with which organic farmers fertilize food crops." So wash your produce, but don't let it scare you. Organic or conventional, fruits and vegetables are the best fuel you can put in your body.

Dangerous bacteria are even more common in animal products, but the organic program is not a germ-control initiative. Under the new guidelines, meat and dairy labeled organic must come from creatures that are raised on organic grains or grasses, given access to the outdoors and spared treatment with growth hormones and antibiotics. Experts agree that by spiking animal feed with antibiotics, conventional farmers are speeding the emergence of drug-resistant bacteria. Buying organic is one way to vote against that practice. But in terms of your own health, you'll profit more from holding back on animal products than by eating organic ones. In one study, Danish research found that organic chickens were actually more likely than conventional ones to carry campylobacter, a pathogen that can cause severe diarrhea.

So organic food is tastier and more appealing, but not demonstrably better for you. If you're shopping with only yourself in mind, maybe you'll save your money. But if you pause to think about what you're buying into with every food purchase, organic goods start to look like a bargain. Our current agricultural system took off in the years following World War II, when farmers discovered that chemical fertilizers could force higher yields out of tired soil--and that pesticides could clear croplands of competing species. As farmers saw what the new chemicals made possible, American agriculture was transformed from a rural art into a heavy industry dominated by large corporations growing single crops on vast stretches of poisoned soil.

As any ecologist might have predicted, the new approach was hard to sustain. A small, varied farm can renew itself endlessly when managed with care. Last year's bean stocks help nourish next year's cantaloupes, and a bad year for tomatoes may be a good year for eggplant. As they lost sight of those lessons, the factory farmers grew ever more dependent on chemicals. Insects died off conveniently at first. But each application of insecticide left a few hearty survivors, and within a few generations whole populations were resistant. Today, says Scowcroft, "we're applying three times as much chemical as we were 40 years ago to kill the same pests." It's not just insects. Conventional farmers now use herbicides to kill weeds, fungicides to kill fungi, rodenticides to kill field mice and gophers, avicides to kill fruit-eating birds and molluscicides to kill snails. Strawberry growers now favor all-purpose fumigants such as methyl bromide. "You inject it into the soil and put a tarp over it," says Monica Moore of the Pesticide Action Network of North America. "It kills everything from mammals to microbes. It's a complete biocide."

These practices may not be poisoning our food, but there is no question they're killing off wildlife, endangering farmworkers and degrading the soil and water that life itself depends on. Pesticides now kill 67 million American birds each year. The Mississippi River dumps enough synthetic fertilizer into the Gulf of Mexico to maintain a 60-mile-wide "dead zone" too choked with algae to support fish. And soil erosion threatens to turn much of the world's arable land into desert. "Conventional agriculture still delivers cheap, abundant food," says Fred Kirschenmann of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Ames, Iowa. "But when you factor in the government subsidies and the environmental costs, it gets very expensive. We're drawing down our ecological capital. At some point, the systems will start to break down."

Can organic agriculture save the day? Not if it's just a boutique alternative. But as demand grows, more and more farmers are taking a leap backward--and landing on their feet. They're discovering they can enrich the soil and manage some pests simply by rotating their crops. They're learning that they can often control insects with other insects--or lure them away from cash crops by planting things they prefer. Well-run organic farms often match conventional ones for productivity, even beat them when water is scarce. Creating a sustainable food supply may well require advanced technology as well as ecological awareness. But an organic ethic could be the very key to our survival.


In "Certified Organic" (Sept. 30), we should have said the girl pictured is named Nicole Mikshowsky.