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June 21-27, 2006

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Live Feed - Stett Holbrook

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Big Bad Organic?

By Stett Holbrook

DON'T PANIC, it's organic. So goes the popular marketing ditty. But as the organic food industry continues to grow, it's becoming clear that not all organic food is created equal. The organic food business has left its hippie roots in the dust and is now a $15 billion industry. Critics like author Michael Pollan have decried the rise of "big organic" corporations and the watering down of organic food standards. In his newly published book The Omnivore's Dilemma, Pollan faults the rise of big organic as an industrialized, commodity-based, petroleum dependent version of the very agribusiness it sought to replace. Now Wal-Mart, the epitome of the low-prices-at-any-cost big box store, is stocking organic produce that sells for about 10 percent more than conventionally grown fruits and vegetables. You can bet it's not small family farms that are supplying that cut-rate lettuce and broccoli. It's big corporations with thousands of acres around the world producing year round. "Organic is becoming what we hoped it would be an alternative to," says a consumer advocate Pollan spoke with.

So what's a well-meaning consumer to do? Isn't buying an organic product better than not buying organic at all? Not necessarily.

In addition to the marketing cachet of the term organic, the word helps consumers decide what to buy. With so many product choices and concerns about harmful ingredients and pesticides in the food we eat, the organic label affords consumers a level of security. But just as important as the organic stamp is the origin of the food.

Faced with a choice between organic apples from Chile and nonorganic apples grown by a Watsonville farmer, I'll take the local stuff. Sure, the Chilean produce was produced without pesticides, but the jet fuel it costs to send the apples here cancels out a lot of the benefits of organic production.

What's more, as organic produce becomes a commodity, companies like Wal-Mart and Whole Foods ($5 billion in sales last year) will demand the lowest price. If China or Chile can grow apples cheaper than U.S. farmers, that's what the market will demand. Surrendering what I eat to the lowest common denominator and a globalized economy doesn't whet my appetite.

Seeking out local, organic growers at farmers markets and grocery stores (Whole Foods does offer a mix of local and far-flung produce) is an easy decision. But when it comes to local, nonorganic vs. organic imported, I'd argue your money is better spent on the local stuff.

I'm all for supporting U.S. jobs, but this isn't a protectionist "buy American" argument. My point is the more local farmland we can keep in production, the better off we are. Local farms mean more local control of what we eat and a closer connection to the source of our food. A local farmer may not be certified organic, but because he's nearby, you're free to call him or visit him at the farmers market and find out how he does grow his crops. Offshoring our food supply to whatever agribusiness conglomerate can grow it cheapest—organically or not—removes that connection.

In Silicon Valley, agriculture is more of a quaint memory than an industry. The few South County farms that are holding on are all we've got left. Fortunately, the greater Bay Area has plenty of small-scale farms in operation that give up plenty to choose from. When it comes to organic produce, caveat emptor, not panic, should be the guiding principle.

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