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Do We Really Need “Organic” Gardens?

January 7, 2011

Last weekend, while sharing the holiday with friends in Vermont, I landed myself in a slightly heated debate over ‘organic’.  We were staying in a house with four families and as it turns out, 3 of the 4 generally buy their groceries with very different priorities than the other.  Since we were shopping as a group and cooking and eating as a group, naturally, when one family chose perfectly formed processed chicken nuggets at 4 bucks for something like a 100 nuggets, and others spent nearly 20$ for organic free range antibiotic free chicken for only 4 people, we had a little conflict.  I won’t bore you with a blow by blow because what is more interesting, at least to me, is that in the midst of the conversation, I started to put to words for the first time some of my own thoughts and beliefs.

Where did I fall in all this? — Somewhere in the middle (but totally unwilling to let those nasty nuggets pass the threshold of my mouth or my kids) —  and with a resolution to educate myself more so that as this conversation gets revived over the course of this winter (we have rented this house with these other families for the whole season) I am better prepared.

As it stands right now, (and I fully recognize that this is an exploratory process and I need to know more), I am a little ‘blah’ on the organic thing and here is why:

green roof rabbit hutch

Angora bunnies reside in a green roofed pen that was constructed of re-cycled pallets.  The garden’s owner harvests their fur for knitting projects.

1) I don’t understand why organic uniformly costs at least 20 percent more. I’m generally frugal but willing to splash out on the right things, but organic doesn’t always make sense to me.  I don’t think doing things organically actually (as a rule) costs more, warranting higher prices.  I am inclined to think that there is more than a little price gouging going on here.  It’s like the 20% hike in deodorant costs because it is in a pink bottle rather than a blue one.  (I buy the blue one because I refuse to be tricked by this).  Marketers know that people will blindly buy and pay more if marked with certain labels.  As a slightly more educated consumer, I resent that and have a hard time getting over it – even if it might be good for me.

2) I am not sure that organic means the same thing for every product. For this I simply don’t know the answer and I suspect that most don’t (because science hasn’t completely explored the subject).  What I am thinking about is this.  Take a strawberry and an apple.  Is it as important to go ‘organic’ on the apple as it is on the strawberry?  I think it might not be.  I have read that it might not be.  The apple has biological qualities that presumably protect it from being as influenced by what comes in contact with its skin.  I think you can wash off an apple and radically reduce chemical exposure, whereas a strawberry, which has a different more porous skin is a different story.  And the same holds true for absolutely every single possible thing you can eat.  Some plants absorb different things from the air or the soil and process it in a variety of ways.  Some don’t.  Different rules apply, each plant has a different set of parameters and one size does not fit all. I’m not sure ‘organic’ is so important everywhere.

compost fence garden seattle

This fence holds garden waste as it slowly composts down to feed the plants at its base.  As the seasons pass, it is re-filled from the top.

3) I don’t fully understand the ‘organic’ label. (and unless you are in the employ of the USDA or something, I defy you to claim that you do.)  Do we know what we are getting when we buy ‘Organic’? Who can use the label and why or why not? (yes, it is easy enough to google this answer — like here — but I have little faith in the USDA to actually be in control of this – they have bigger fish to fry — many of which are all stinky and rotten).  Is it a complete federal thing, or are there additional local regulations?  Is it really regulated at all?  It seems like it might be easy to do some ‘organic washing’ in the same way many retailers are green-washing lately.    At my farmers market, I have found it hard to find an “official” organic producer, but easy to find lots of farmers who can talk intelligently and openly about how they raise their crops and what methods they use.  I find that most are very responsible,  and share my concerns about the environment, the world and the food we choose to put into the mouths of our children. But for one reason or another many say that they can’t ‘officially’ call themselves ‘organic’.   I am wondering if the ‘organic’ label (at least in Massachusetts) is a bit over the top in its requirements?  Somewhat unattainable (especially for small holders) and because of this, perhaps not so useful to consumers?

4) ‘Chemicals’ and ‘pesticides’ are the nine letter horticultural versions of four letter words.  We shudder and fear in their presence. Unreasonably.  They are just words, and there is a huge grey area here too.  I can kill weeds with horticultural strength vinegar as opposed to Round-up.  That is the organic – right thing to do.  But I would like to point out that both are chemicals and I would dare to speculate that if horticultural vinegar were used more widely and dedicatedly, we might see  plants emerge with resistance to that too.   Or if we had a big industrial vinegar spill we’d probably  see lots of dead fish in our rivers and birds falling from the sky.   The problem isn’t ‘Chemicals’ and ‘pesticides’ per se,  it’s our lack of understanding of them and how they effect our ecosystems.  It is our blind mis-understanding and general lack of knowledge.  Lots of these products ARE evil, and many are considered not, but I suspect that most of the so -called safe ones are actually somewhere in the middle and a giant question mark floats over their heads (give it ten years….).  We don’t know the answers to so many questions.  I think we fool ourselves to think that organic is the high road-right way to a better world….it’s not that simple.

water butts in the garden rain collection system

Water Barrels collect thousands of gallons of rain over the course of the year to feed the garden in dry periods.

5) I resent the whole organic ‘lifestyle’ package. I hate that Whole Foods and other Organic/Natural/Health food shops make the explicit implication that if you want to eat healthily or environmentally responsibly, you must also be into alternative medicine.  It’s bullshit; one does not equal the other.  I for one would love to shop in a Whole Foods-type store that doesn’t make me feel as if I am somehow dirty and or un-pure because I want to be able to go to the headache aisle and get some straight up hard core Aleve or Nyquil.  Yes, the lavender satchel is nice, it might be helpful….and the echinacea tea too, but come on.

I love that Whole Foods and many outlets like them provide me with a certain peace of mind.  That I can trust that they have scoured the region for local food sources, that they give excellent opportunity to the small, the artisanal, the responsibly intentioned and the local.  I trust that they they won’t knowingly buy from vendors who are blatantly irresponsible and I want to support them in that….they have done some level of my homework for me and for that I am thankful.   But I am sick of them acting like this all means that I also believe in things like homeopathy – because I don’t. I think this tactic, by association, marginalizes the importance of eating responsibly and unfortunately, puts off people like family #4 in our ski house.

green garden seattle eco garden

The owners replaced a concrete patio with permeable solution to cause less runoff.

6) Local makes more sense to me. I can have an ‘ask and answer’ relationship with my food producers.  I can even ask them about some of their growing techniques to implement in my own garden.  I can navigate the vast gray area with some facts. I think it is the way forward for populations to know what they are eating, why they are eating it and at what cost. When it’s local, its right there, in your face, easier to get.

If organic means to produce agricultural products without the input of chemicals and pesticides, antibiotics or bio-engineering, I guess I think that’s great.  But, I am concerned about the fact that vast regions of the Midwest, our breadbasket, reportedly has no useful topsoil. That plants can’t grow there unless buoyed by chemical stimulants is a problem, A HUGE problem.  But it is a reversible one.  It is one that requires us to grow things in a way that replenishes the earth and works within the environmental parameters of the place.   It requires us to let fields rest, to feed them with organic materials, and plant things that are not mono-cultures that risk wipe-out, but rather only those that work uniquely in that particular region.  I don’t think any of these requirements are truly dealt with under the ‘organic’ notion.   If we work to re-built the soil and the ecosystem that supports harvest-able plants, our breadbasket can morph back into a sustainable environment.  I don’t wholesale equate organic with the solution to this problem.  I think we limp around lamely on ‘organic’ and think that it is right thing to do….I challenge you (and myself also) to gain a greater understanding of this issue and not let marketers lull us into thinking we are solving our environmental problems and eating healthily just because it is ‘organic’. It is perhaps a good first step, but certainly not an answer.

….All of this bring me to this garden — which I adore and am happily sharing with you for the plethora of well executed ideas on display.  (I simply feel compelled to bring myself back to talking about gardens — this is a garden design inspiration blog after all)

The Seattle Times, who first published this garden, calls it “organic” though? Which is what got me started on this whole topic.  What the hell does that mean?  Responsible and thoughtful? Yes.  These owners are making every current effort known to create a garden environment that produces less waste and works within it self by encouraging nature to take care of itself naturally, Yes….but “organic”?  hmph, there goes that word again – my jury is out and I expect it to come back hung.

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  1. Tim Lee says:

    This same thing drives me crazy on a daily basis. I think you really captured much of my same frustrations and issues with the ‘organic’ label. Especially the price gouging, I’m just not going to pay those prices and shouldn’t feel guilty about it. I have the same grips with much of the green washing out there today. I grew up in Indiana the bread basket you speak of and learned to garden from my grandparents. That garden was our lifeline through the winter. They could always afford to buy and use chemical controls yet somehow we still had bountiful harvests every year. Maybe it was the soil. healthy soil healthy plants. Sometimes i think we get too caught up in doing what we think society tells us is the right thing when the choice is really very simple and just takes some common sense. Or horse sense as my grandmother would say.
    Thanks for starting an important dialog, look forward to reading more. -Tim

  2. matt says:

    I’d honestly rather be labeled as one of those alternative medicine types (Does anyone else think that they whine a lot? The one’s I’ve met seem to whine a lot. Seriously I’m not telling you to become a drug addict, just take some Tylenol.) than let someone believe it’s okay to feed me processed chicken spheres. I could never understand families who would blissfully feed other people’s kids garbage. If one of my friends parents tried to feed me that when I was little, I’d just sit there and not eat it.

  3. tennis says:

    I think organic to me means grown naturally and ethically, the way things were done before there were 15 kinds of pesticides and 30 million food additives. I don’t want chemicals in my food or those of my loved ones. For health reasons, and because it’s the way food is supposed to be.

    Organic costs more because it’s more work. It doesn’t come from factory farms by definintion. It comes from people who actually care about our planet.

    You come across as someone who was born after DDT. You might find Rachel Carsons Silent Spring to be interesting.

    I believe in eat local (as much as one can) and I pay extra to support my farmers through drought and feed price hikes.

    The more I learn, the more I am willing to pay more and pay locally for my food. Alternative medicine is great, if it works for the person taking it. Did you now ever winter tomato is pretty much picked in florida by migrants held in slave-like work conditions? This is a great article:

    end of the day? Buy what’s right for you and don’t let people give you a trip about it. It’s about what you put in your body and your health, not what other people think.

    • rochelle says:

      Hi Tennis – I am not sure you are completely understanding what I am saying — I don’t want all those additives and pesticides in my food either (as a general rule) – but I think that to shun them wholesale is a bit Luddite. The organic label doesn’t seem to allow for much in the way of modernization.
      I also (even after having an intense debate over dinner tonight with my husband about this) don’t fully buy into the wholesale statement that organic costs more. I grow my own food, and I do it “organically” – many of the things I grow need no other input and if I were to start treating things with lots of pesticides and chemicals, it would cost alot more. Perhaps for some crops, yes, there are threats that are hard to deal with sans chemicals, but not for everything. My point here is that organic is very black and white to a fault and I think that most things are in the gray area. This is point I am going to look into more, but I stand by my price gouging, higher profit margins on organic products statement. I would love for everything to be grown or raised in a cleaner, healthier, better for our environment sort of way (what many would call organic) but i think that the organic label that we all currently know is misleading, archaic, and not doing enough to get us to that reality.
      You are right, individuals need to choose what is right for you. But how can anyone truly know what is right for them (food wise) with out knowing more about what goes into our food production? Organic does not do enough to fix the bigger problems we have at hand. Further, I would never judge anyone who uses homeopathy or any other placebo effect treatment, but but like the organic argument I am making, it is irresponsible for the purveyors of these sorts of treatments to lead people to expect results that are just not based in science. I am off to go check out your links….they look interesting and I look forward to reading them…thanks for commenting.

  4. Brianna {RMV} says:

    I totally get you on the “Wholefoods” vibe. I’m into a lot of hippy-trippy stuff but I still feel like an outsider when I try to go shopping their. Luckily our local grocer (Ingles) has started carrying a lot more organic items.

    I’m not a huge fan of the organic label, to become USDA organic it takes a ton of money and testing etc. Some of that is the reason for the increased cost. Plus engineered crops mostly produce larger and faster. Commercial non organic chickens can grow so fast they are ready for a table in as little as 6 weeks (and often can’t even stand because of this growth). The faster yields allow for quicker turn around and larger profits. So some of that has to be added into the cost. Sadly too, some of the cost is because it is what the market will yield.

    If you can find a local farmer with growing practices you like then you can save a ton even if they aren’t labeled organic. However, the label is nice for the commercial growers in the fact you know that can’t be lying about certain methods they use. However, it is important to know that organic doesn’t always mean they use a certain method. It has more to do with the pesticides and soil amendments used and less to do with the sustainable cycle. Though, most organic farmers realize you’ll get better yields if you work with the whole cycle.

    BTW, since you used the example, apples use some of the highest and most toxic pesticides, well and potatoes. I know an apple farmer who reserves some trees for his families consumption and not commercial production. Hello! He won’t even eat the regular apples.

    It’s a hard choice, especially as we are a barely middle income family. We make sacrifices to eat healthier, but even we can’t afford the total organic package.

    If you are honestly curious I would really suggest searching out the documentary Food Inc. It gave good insight into America’s food production. They even took the time to get interviews with both organic AND traditional farmers. Plus it totally made my nugget loving husband rethink the whole organic thing. We are now on the same page with grocery purchasing.

    You brought up some great points, I did a lot of research and am lucky enough to live in an area with farmers (we even have an organic division at the local test farm) who have slowly educated me. You’ve made me want to dig deeper.

  5. Chet says:

    I don’t buy ‘this is the way food is supposed to be’ arguments: human food production is highly artificial, and has been for thousands of years. We’ve changed how we’ve produced food continuously over the millennia to improve yield and to improve taste. At any point we could have just stopped and said, ‘no, apples aren’t supposed to be big and sweet, they’re supposed to be small and bitter’ or ‘this ground is too hard for a wooden plow — we’re just not supposed to plant here’. But we didn’t make these choices, and now we accept the results of plant breeding or the steel plow as normal, natural, and the way food ought to be.

    All our choices haven’t been good ones: some pesticides have had terrible effects on the environment. Some farming techniques lead to soil loss, or to algal blooms in lakes, or excessive petroleum use, or crop failure. But we should make choices based on evidence, not on arbitrary labels. All our food is ‘full of chemicals’ — we need to decide, based on evidence, which chemicals are going to hurt us. All of our farming practices have an environmental impact — a lower yield technique may mean more forest converted to farmland, which may mean more runoff into streams or reduced biodiversity, whereas a higher yield technique may mean more of certain kinds of pollution — but we need to decide, based on evidence, which practices are best for the environment.

    Organic farming has some evidence on its side — pesticide residues tend to be lower in organic food, for example, which is a good thing. But the fixed nature of the organic standards for pesticides are nevertheless anti-scientific and somewhat arbitrary. There’s a fixed list of allowable pesticides, which are all ‘plant based’, not ‘synthetic’. The standard would be much, much better if it established clear criteria for how a pest control technique could become approved, one that took into account only the health and environmental effects of the technique, and had no a priori exclusions.

    The general ban on GMO in the organic standard is problematic as well. It’s not clear that there’s any strong GMO benefit that organic farmers are currently missing out on, but the standard should be open to the inclusion of any crop (or, perhaps, any crop enencumbered by intellectual property issues) if it can be shown, with substantial evidence, to have a clear benefit with no adverse health or environmental impact.

  6. Laguna Dirt says:

    wow, what a provocative post, in a good way! there are foods that are more important to buy organic. peaches, apples, celery, strawberries, usually top the list, as do meat and dairy products. more on that:
    i also have trouble when i feel as though i’m being exploited, especially when it’s fear-based. whole foods turns me off, mainly because everything costs way too much. we are lucky to have trader joes (a chain that has what i consider reasonably priced organic products) and a weekly farmer’s market. even costco has organic food–milk, eggs, some chicken, etc.–but that goes back to what is really pure. i try to be balanced, but i think it’s good to try to support those who are providing an alternative for us, especially if you are someone who can afford it. we can only hope that will put the pressure on others to do the same, and prices will fall for everyone at some point.
    there are a slew of excellent docs out there (most available on netflix), if you want to learn more about how our food is grown, sold, marketed. food nation, “food, inc.” “food fight” “fast food nation” “kind corn” “supersize me” etc. anyway, the best thing we can do is get informed and strive to make reasonable, good decisions that will help everyone!

  7. I’m right there with you- awesome post… and amazing photos!

  8. Private says:

    Every person has their own path, but don’t blame Whole Foods for having sections that don’t appeal to you. Should I blame Home Depot for having departments I don’t use?

    Poison ivy is entirely natural, and brushing your teeth is not natural at all. Like anything else, food and gardening decisions need to be made based on applicable research and not generalizations. If you don’t understand what organic means in a context, surf on it.

  9. Janet Glaser says:

    Good for you! I love folks who tell it like it is. You have written thoughtful post here with so many good points. I am in a small town with no access to Whole Foods Market, so no experience there. But I do go to the store where organic is the buzz word so the food is twice as expensive. I think you are right on about the marketing aspect of being organic. Thanks for sharing this provocative post.

  10. michael says:

    i would jsut like to point ou that yes vinagar would kill fish if tons of it would be spilt in to our lakes and rivers but also plants would not be able to become resistent to it as it is an acid although hundreds to thousands of years plants can addapt to acidic soil although not direct acid thoubh but thanks for sharign this post it was very .. interesting

  11. michael says:

    uh.. i agree with ur idea about the whold foods having unethical ways about producing food. althouhg in nature monoculture is not found ane were (monocultire: is only one species found in an area, ith no other species or animals aroud ect. a field of corn is monoculture) also the pesticides are harmful to our environment evey time they use on pesticide with repeted exposure the bugs develope resistence by the proces of natural selection. were the weeker die out and the stronger survive and breed, like crazy… any waus each time the farmers have 2 use a stronger and stronger pestocide like biosides which kills all living things in th area.
    also with roundup ready corn ( corn that has round up built in to the cell structure) we do not know wut we are putting in our systems, as we are eatign these pestocides. also they put wax on apples to keep them shiney, so they look go to buy, in truth we are suppose to wash them wiht sope to remove this. ( i use to work att a grosery store in the back were the truck drivers unload the friut) they told us that we are actualy suppose to wash many friut that have skins on them with soap and warm water to completely remove the pestacides. on another note many of the imported friut liek grapes and apples and plums..ect. have been gasses with a chemical called ethylene which although nautraly found in friut is toxic to us humans as a gass in concentration. this gass ethylene helps the friut ripen, as the farmers have to harvest them earlier for if they were harvested while they were ripe they woudl start to rot on the way here from india, china, europe, asia or were ever the friut coem from, if you’ve ever noticed the fine white powder on the grapes you whould know that is the resinents of what is left of the gas ethylene in truth your suppose to soak the grapes or th friut in warm water for half an hour before eating it. then continue to wash normaly

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