For about six months after college I spent my time traveling the world. This was brought on by equal parts curiosity and absolute fear about coming home and needing to find a "real job," but I figured that travel and life experience etc. could only help in making me an actual person and not the student I had defined myself as for the past 17 years. So I packed a backpack and flew to New Zealand, where I spent a few weeks working on various farms in exchange for a place to sleep and regular meals.
One farm an hour north of Auckland was what has to be every hippie's dream. Chickens running around, eating worms and bugs off the orange trees. Shittake mushrooms growing on wet logs. A shack piled high with poetry books and a writing desk overlooking an asparagus patch. Breakfasts of fair-trade coffee and avocado on toast, with egg yolks firm and the brightest shade of orange I'd ever seen. Once a week, the family who ran the farm would sell eggs, pumpkins, and bags of salad with edible flowers at the local farmer's market, sharing a booth with two women who make every type of jam imaginable. It was in all senses of the word, organic.
Yet these folks were not allowed to label their produce organic, for various reasons that only escalate in ridiculousness. Despite their protests, the city sprays the sides of the road with pesticides not approved by the organic board, so occasionally the strips of their land right by the street (none of which are used for farming) are doused. The brand of pesticides they use is not approved by the organic board, even though it has even fewer of the harmful chemicals than those brands that are approved. Their chickens eat bugs and worms and grass (you know, what chickens are supposed to eat) instead of board-approved vegetarian feed. According to the government, they cannot be organic.
Ideally, the label wouldn't mean as much as the philosophy. All day at the markets they argue their case to customers, reminding them that their chickens are eating a natural diet, and showing them ingredient lists of their pesticides. Those customers who know them swear by their produce, but those new to the market see that they're not "organic" and take their business elsewhere. What good is a philosophy when no one's buying?
In America, things aren't much better. Powdered wood pulp is regularly added to organic shredded cheese to keep it from (gasp) clumping. The USDA allowed synthetic additives to be added to most organic baby food after a heavy lobby from the formula makers. Many organic foods boast "natural flavor," even though there's little difference between that and "artificial flavor." And yet many of us still reach for the organic blueberries flown in from Chile in January, convinced that we're doing something better for our bodies, or for the world.
Author Michael Pollan sums this up much better than I can, with lots of stuff about corn and hunting boars and guys on meth with knives. But what I am constantly surprised about is how quickly we forget our basic instincts for the gloss of an "organic" label. And I think that part of the problem is that we forget how food really works. I am absolutely guilty of needing to consult a chart that tells me what food is in season, as I'm frequently tempted to buy raspberries in the dead of winter. And sometimes I cave. Shit happens. But we've substituted an altar to all things "organic" for an intelligent, informed process of buying food.
For instance, take the above anecdote about chickens. Everyone knows that birds eat worms. There is a well known saying about birds and worms and being early (don't ask me what it is, I slept in and now I'm sleepy). And yet there is much ooh-ing and ahh-ing over "vegetarian fed" chicken and the eggs from those chickens. This could most definitely be from a deep-seated fear of chickens being fed other chickens, á la cows. It's probably safer to go with a chicken that's been fed nothing but grass than a chicken that's been fed its sister. But any "vegetarian fed" eggs will not come from chickens that have free range to eat what they're designed to eat, like worms and bugs.
It's true that "organic" is about more than just food. It's about work conditions and the "humane" treatment of animals and making sure land doesn't get over farmed. It's about at least making an effort to ensure lots of chemicals don't come into contact with what we put in our bodies. But a true organic diet is about understanding what the labels mean, not blindly beelining for anything with a picture of a friendly farmer on it. And sometimes it means not buying asparagus in October. Sorry.