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:
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.
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 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.
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.