Is Organic Really Organic?: Pollan and the Critique of Industrial Food Production

Think all the way back to the Stone Age. Food variety started and ended at whichever animal you were able to hunt that day. Today we live in an age where the food choices are virtually endless. You have your choice of fast food, processed food, locally grown or food from the other side of the world. With all these choices some must be better than others…right? In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, the author Michael Pollan explores alternatives to the industrial food systems, looks closely at local food systems and compares them to their organic alternative which he refers to as “Industrial Organic”. This essay will argue that local food systems have a multitude of advantages over “Industrial Organic” in terms of its production, distribution, and consumption.

Pollan refers to the term “Industrial Organic” throughout this book and coins the term based on its heavy influences by Industrial Logic. Industrial Logic is complex but its position is clear; they favor quantity over quality and in the food industry that means calories are calories no matter how poor quality. A considerable downside of Industrial Logic is that it fails to account for externalities. Pollan describes the externality that cheap food is not actually cheap. After the costs of the petroleum, fertilizer and the costs to society ( i.e. runoff and waste management ) we can see that the food isn’t cheap at all. He also describes industrial logic as “a mad rush for profit that deters from morals”. Many of the ideas surrounding Industrial Logic also coincide with the ideas of Industrial Organic. The primary example Pollan uses to describe Industrial Logic is the corn industry. When speaking on the corn industry Pollan claims “Very simply, we subsidize high-fructose corn syrup in this country, but not carrots. While the surgeon general is raising alarms over the epidemic of obesity, the president is signing farm bills designed to keep the river of cheap corn flowing, guaranteeing that the cheapest calories in the supermarket will continue to be the unhealthiest.” ; which further supports what is believed about Industrial Logic. In this instance, cheap corn is being produced over quality corn for the sake of profit. It is overproduced and processed to be used in just about anything from cereals, breads, and animal feed to ethanol, all because it is the cheapest way to produce calories.

The Organic movement originated in the 1960s this was a time where large groups of people in The United States were against the war and were, in turn, protesting the food that was associated with the military industrial complex. For example, the same company that manufactured pesticides for crops also manufactured Agent Orange which is a poisonous herbicide the U.S. military used during the war in Southeast Asia. These so-called “hippies” wanted to separate themselves from a materialistic and corporate system by planting things naturally. The word “organic” is no longer a movement but, a word owned by the government. The United States Department of Agriculture developed a legal standard for what “Organic” is based originally on the movement in the ’60s but later adapted to accommodate big business. Organic was once the opposite of industrial but, once the United States Department of Agriculture got involved Organic became industrialized and lost a lot of its values. For example, the Organic Movement of the ’60s supported chemical-free production meaning no pesticides, artificial fertilizers for the plants and no growth hormones or antibiotics concerning the livestock. The USDA spent years debating the standards for Organic. In 1997 they set their standards, which were weak and received a lot of backlash due to the fact that they allowed for the use of genetically modified crops, sewage sludge and irradiation in the production of organic food.

In 1990 the USDA organic standard banned additives and synthetics, but this was later overturned in the 1997 standards when Industrial Organic argued that organic processed food would not be possible without the use of synthetics. Now the standards allow for a list of synthetics and additives including ascorbic acid and xanthan gum. Had it not been for these watery standards, Industrial Organic would have ceased to exist. Industrial Food wanted to profit off and exploit the organic market and make it its own sector within the Industrial Food Industry. These corporate businesses wanted to take these concepts that the people seemed to love so much, and mass produce it in the cheapest way possible despite the fact that in order to accomplish that, they may not stick to the foundations of the Organic Movement. Local Food Systems and “Industrial Organic” can be split up and compared into production, distribution and consumption. Pollan describes that the early organic movement sought to “establish not just an alternative mode of production (the chemical-free farms), but an alternative system of distribution (the anti-capitalist food co-ops), and even an alternative mode of consumption (the ‘countercuisine’). Although Industrial Organic is organic, local food systems more closely embody the traditional values of the organic movement. In terms of production, local food systems have a variety of advantages over its industrial counterpart.

To investigate local food systems Pollan traveled to Polyface Farm owned by Joel Salatin. Salatin’s farm produces its food without the use of chemicals, pesticides and man-made fertilizers. They also do not rely on the use of petroleum to run their farms. They do this by relying on the energy of the sun to supply all of their needs. The livestock eat grass which has obtained its energy from the sun, as opposed to antibiotic and growth hormone processed corn feed. The grass continues to grow because the cow’s excrement serves as a natural fertilizer which eliminates the need for synthetic fertilizers. As a result of growing multiple crops and having various animals on the farm, unlike industrial organic which is hard set on monocultures, the biodiversity has also eliminated the need for chemical pesticides. Salatin explains to Pollan that nature does what it is intended to; certain species keep other populations in check and vice versa. By relying solely on solar energy, Salatin’s farm also creates no waste. There is no hazardous chemical runoff or unused manure. The sun gives the energy to the grass, the grass to livestock and the livestock back to the land. These are all considerable advantages over industrial organic which relies on petroleum as well as chemical fertilizers to run and creates hazardous waste in order to produce the food in the largest quantities possible at the lowest cost to the producers despite the health hazards it may create for the livestock and its consumers. Animal treatment also varies widely between local food systems and industrial organics. On Salatin’s farm, the cows are grass-fed and are able to live and be herded on pastures. The livestock are not fed antibiotics or growth hormones. The chickens raised on the farm are also free range.

When talking to Pollan about his farm versus industrial organic farms Salatin makes the argument ‘There are a whole lot more variables in making the right decision than does the chicken feed have chemicals or not. Like what sort of habitat is going to allow that chicken to express its physiological distinctiveness? A ten thousand bird shed that stinks to the high heavens or fresh green grass every day? Now, which chicken shall we call ‘organic’?’. This statement supports the argument that even though something is labeled ‘organic’ it is not inherently better than alternatives such as local food systems. Distribution and consumption are also important to consider when comparing the advantages of local food systems over industrial organics. Local food systems like Salatin’s do not distribute their food very far if at all. When Pollan requested to have a steak delivered from Polyface farms Salatin responded that he would have to come to get it. Local food systems often deliver their produce to farmer’s markets, local restaurants or take part in co-ops. From this, we can infer that the food is fresher because it has not had to travel great distances and is always in season because it is not coming from somewhere else. Industrial organic food distributes food internationally. The food on your table may be considerably older than its local alternative. In an attempt to keep these foods fresh they are often frozen or processed with chemicals approved by the USDA that will increase their shelf life and travel long distances. Industrial organic foods are often found in large scale grocery stores and supermarkets. These establishments are known for their variety of produce which they are able to accomplish by importing food that is out of season locally from other places around the world. The petroleum used in the long-distance distribution is another reason that cheap food, like corn, isn’t actually cheap at all due to the cost of petroleum and its part in air/water pollution.

The many advantages of local food systems over industrial organics concerning production, distribution, and consumption are evident, as close reading of Pollan’s evidence indicates. Local food systems are generally chemical free and rely on solar power whereas industrial organic only complies to USDA standards as far as which chemicals and synthetics are allowed to be used and in what quantities. Industrial organic also relies on non-renewable resources to power its farms and distributions. There are many different food systems with their own advantages and disadvantages, but next time you’re enjoying a meal consider where it came from and how it got to your table. If you knew, would you have chosen differently?

Bibliography

Pollan, Michael. The Omnivores Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. NY, NY: Penguin Books, 2016.