This is Part II of my summary review of The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan (The Penguin Press, 2006). In this book, Mr. Pollan traces the history of four meals partaken by himself and his family, from their inception on the farm or in the woods to the actual meal itself. In Part I , I summarized the author's "industrial meal," which chronicles the rise of the corn empire and how corn pervades much of what we eat, beginning in an Iowa cornfield and ending up at McDonald's. Now, in Part II, I review the author's look at what he terms the "industrial organic" meal.
Part II: Industrial Organic
After his McDonald's "industrial" meal laden with corn, the author decided to investigate what would appear to be the polar opposite of industrial agribusiness - organic farming. And this may be true on a small scale. Yet as you read through Mr. Pollan's look at large scale organic farming, you get the impression that everything is not what it seems to be.
But first, a history lesson.
The roots of modern organic farming really took hold in the 1930s/1940s, thanks to the work of Sir Albert Howard, an English agronomist. His publication An Agricultural Testament is a landmark essay on the philosophy and methodology of converting organic waste into compost and replenishing the soil, and treating the farm as a natural process. Another pioneer is Rachel Carson, who published Silent Spring in 1962, thus bringing to the forefront the dangers of synthetic pesticide use and effectively beginning the modern environmental movement. The counterculture movement of the 1960s gave rise to People's Park in Berkeley, one of the first organic communes at the time. It also led to a man named Gene Kahn forming his own organic commune farm just north of Seattle in 1971, which is now one of the largest organic brands in the world. And that is where Mr. Pollan's examination of his organic industrial meal (or, as he also calls it, supermarket pastoral)begins.
Cascadian Farm. Gene Kahn's Cascadian Farm is one of the most well known organic companies, due in no small part that it has morphed from an organic commune in the 1970s to a brand name now owned by General Mills. The author implies that the story of Cascadian Farm is a fitting representative of the industrial organic movement. Because while Mr. Kahn was an organic farmer, he was also a businessman, and by the late 1970s he realized that by focusing on processing foods grown by other farmers (such as freezing fruits and vegetables) and distributing them throughout the country, he could make more money.
And then came Alar. Remember Alar? Alar was a pesticide used by apple growers. It is also an EPA-listed carcinogen. A 1990 60 Minutes feature exposed the dangers of Alar. And in the aftermath, the demand for organic foods skyrocketed. Cascadian Farm, like many other organic companies, incurred heavy debts as they expanded to meet the demand. But once Alar left the headlines, so did the demand. And Mr. Kahn, in order to pay off his debts, was forced to sell a majority stake in Cascadian Farm.
Today Mr. Kahn is the Vice President for Sustainable Development at General Mills. In his words (as told by the author) when he sold Cascadian Farm he wanted to use his position to influence how food is grown, and not so much how it is distributed, and not to influence people on what to eat. That goes against some of the fundamentals of the organic movement, but also is a reality of large scale organic agribusiness.
The Organic Food and Production Act. The Alar scare wasn't the only thing that impacted the organic food industry in 1990. In that same year, Congress passed the Organic Food and Protection Act (OFPA) the first Federal Legislation that recognized organic agriculture, and a mandate for the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to establish uniform national standards for organic farming. Examining this act is the next part of Mr. Pollan's journey into the world of organics.
NOTE: In the interest of full disclosure, I work for the US Forest Service, which is part of USDA.
In addition to figuring out what exactly "organic" meant in a legal sense, the implementation of OFPA ultimately became a struggle between what the author calls Big and Little Organic - or the large scale organic industry and the small scale traditional organic movement. In all the cases the author cites, Big Organic ended up victorious. To wit
And then there's the case of the free range chicken, but more on that later...
Earthbound Farm. The next phase of the author's supermarket pastoral meal involved salad, which necessitated a visit to Earthbound Farm , one of the largest organic growers in the country. In the author's words, Earthbound Farm may represent industrial organic farming at its best. Earthbound Farm began life as a roadside organic farm selling baby greens to a local chef in the Carmel CA area. When the chef moved on, the owners, Drew and Myra Goodman, began selling prewashed salad mixes through local produce retailers. Thus began the prewashed salad business that is so popular today. As orders increased, and large retailers such as Costco and Albertson's began carrying their product, the Goodmans entered into partnerships with established growers in the Salinas Valley CA area. The immediate benefit of this arrangement was that these growers, used to growing in the "industrial" way, now grew the organic way - no synthetic pesticides or herbicides or fertilizer. Today 135 farms grow fruits and vegetables for Earthbound Farm, representing over 25,000 acres of organic farming, much of which was converted from conventional farming methods.
And yet, Mr. Pollan states, this is where the traditional organic portion of the process ends. State of the art equipment is used to pick the greens, which are then placed in plastic bins, placed in a refrigerated truck and then sent to a refrigerated warehouse, where the lettuce is sorted, mixed, washed, dried, and packaged. All of this is done at a temperature of 36° to preserve freshness. The processing plant handles about 2.5 million pounds of lettuce per week.
The real cost, the author writes, is in the amount of fossil fuel needed for this operation - about 4600 calories for a box of lettuce if it's flown to a store across the country. That's about 57 calories of fossil fuel energy for every calorie of food. A similar mix grown and processed the conventional way would only be about 4% higher.
Much like Gene Kahn, the Goodmans feel that everything, including organic gardening, eventually falls in line with the way the world is. Of course, owning a $350 million company helps clarify that thinking. And certainly eliminating pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers from 25,000 aces of land does a lot of good. But the large scale evolution of organic farming have left many of the smaller growers thinking that the the word "organic" has been redefined to the point that it doesn't apply to them anymore, and they are now "beyond organic."
Petaluma Poultry. Mr. Pollan's final stop on the journey to his industrial organic meal is Petaluma Poultry , home of the organic free range chicken. But, like most of the other stops on his journey, life isn't what it seems to be on the packaging. The idyllic farm depicted on the Petaluma Farms packaging is just that - a depiction on the package. Petaluma Farms headquarters is actually located in an office building in an industrial park.
The success in Petaluma Poultry, the author learned, lies in marketing. They do not just provide free range chickens, but a wide variey of chickens, depending on the day of the week. One day, kosher chickens, complete with Rabbi. Another,asian chickens, with head and legs attached. A third, natural chickens, with no antibiotics or animal by-products in the feed. And a fourth, organic chickens - same as natural chickens but fed organic feed. The chickens are Cornish Cross chickens, genetically engineered to grow to broiler size in 7 weeks.
Petaluma raises its organic chickens in a (presumably) cage free environment - a "coop" almost the size of a football field that houses up to 20,000 chickens. Of course, with so many chickens in close quarters and no antibiotics used, the risk of infection is very high. But, according to the company, the chickens have a little more space than conventionally raised chickens. And, they get a few more days to live before they are slaughtered.
The chickens are also considered "free range." But what did that mean? Mr. Pollan found out that at Petaluma, it meant that there was a 15 foot wide patch of grass running the length of the coop, and a door on the either end of the coop gave the chickens the option to range outside freely. But given that the doors are shut for the first five weeks of life, and then the chickens are slaughtered at 7 weeks, they really don't have too much time to free range. And in fact, as the author watched and waited to see if any chickens would come out, not a single one made the plunge. Not that they were encouraged to do so...
The Industrial Organic Meal. The author treated his family to an industrial organic meal using items bought entirely from his local Whole Foods - the "free range" chicken from Petaluma Farms (which was even given a name - Rosie), vegetables marketed by Cal-Organic (another large food grower who only got into the organic business after seeing an opportunity for profit), organic asparagus flown in from Argentina, salad mix from Earthbound Farms, and a dessert consisting of organic vanilla ice cream and organic berries imported from Mexico. As an added bonus, the author bought an organic frozen dinner for lunch, marketed by Gene Kahn's Cascadian Farm.
First, the frozen dinner. The first thing the author noticed is that the dinner itself contained 31 ingredients, thanks to all of the synthetics allowed under OFPA. These synthetics, the author surmised, are what made the creamy herb sauce creamy, considering there were no dairy products listed. Comparing apples to apples, the author felt like the dinner held its own against conventional TV dinners. But it was still a highly processed meal.
The rest of the meal was, the author states, better. For the most part. A main point Mr. Pollan was trying to make in his dinner selections was that organic industrial fruits and vegetables, much like conventional fruits and vegetables, can be had year round, hence the asparagus from Argentina. Taste is another story - the asparagus tasted like wet cardboard. And then there were the other, as the author puts it, ethical questions, such as the amount of fossil fuel required to harvest the asparagus in Argentina, pack it, chill it, and then jet it to California so it can be sold at Whole Foods the next day.
All of the other foods, even Rosie, were found to be quite tasty, more flavorful even than conventional foods. In part, this is because the foods were locally grown (even though they were large producers shipping all over the US), and also because they were grown organically. The tomatoes, produced by Cal-Organics, have been found to have more natural sugars than those grown conventionally. The same is true with the lettuce. And Rosie tasted better than a conventional grown chicken because, the author speculates, the bird was not fed animal by products nor given antibiotics, which tends to make for mushier meat.
In the end, the author attempts to make comparisons between his industrial organic meal and the same meal had it been conventionally grown or raised. Although Federal regulations do not make health distinctions between industrial organic foods and conventional foods, there is growing scientific research that suggests that some organic foods have higher nutritional values than their conventional counterparts. And, at least when it comes to produce, organic food is certainly better for the environment, since synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides are not used. And yet, as Mr. Pollan repeatedly points out, the amount of fossil fuel used to get the meal from the farm to his kitchen is comparable to the amount for a conventional meal, since the vast majority of the energy footprint is due to the processing and shipping of the food. And, as Petaluma Farms and Horizon Organic exemplify, organic free range cows and chickens are often free range due to a technicality.
The cost of the meal? $34 for a family of three, which included a second meal made from leftovers. Of course, $6 was the asparagus that no one liked, so let's call it $28. Realistically, this is not a bad price - comparable to eating in a sit down restaurant. But certainly more expensive than what the same conventional meal would cost. On sale, a conventional Rosie could be had for $0.99 per pound instead of $2.99 per pound, and a salad mix for half the cost of the Earthbound Farm mix - at least those were the prices I found when I went to Rosauers last night.
Certainly the higher price is worth the positive impacts on the environment, and the potential positive impact on our health. And yet, Mr. Pollan seems to believe that the large amount of fossil fuel use, rendering the industrial organic pathway unsustainable (and totally contrary to the original meaning of the word organic), is too much to stomach.
Please stay tuned for Part III of my review of The Omnivore's Dilemma, where the author visits a farm where grass is king, and the animals do all work.