By Mark Morford
San Francisco Chronicle, Oct. 13, 2006
Straight to the Source
The Sad Death Of 'Organic'
How weird and depressing is it now that Kellogg's and Wal-Mart are hawking 'natural' foods?
By Mark Morford, SF Gate Columnist
I was a little unprepared. The commercial came on and I heard the familiar ukulele strums of the late Hawaiian singer Israel Kamakawiwo'ole's famous and famously beautiful version of "Over the Rainbow" (I know, but it really is quite lovely) and my first reaction was merely to cringe and wince as yet another exquisite and plaintive song was whored out to the advertising demons, just one of thousands.
But then came the barrage of images: the requisite shot of the Perfect Mom feeding her Perfect Child some sort of Perfect Food, all bathed in soft morning breakfast-sy light with happy trees peeking through the windows of the Perfect Kitchen in some utopian hunk of Perfect America, a bizarre scene that of course does not exist anywhere on this planet given how there weren't three empty wine bottles and some used underwear and a stack of dirty dishes and a fresh bottle of Xanax and an open newspaper offering up giant headlines about murders and nuclear warheads and Korean sex slaves anywhere in sight.
And then it happened. The logo. The product shot. The soothing voice-over. It was a commercial for a brand-new product: Kellogg's Organic Rice Krispies. And your heart goes, Ugh.
You say it aloud and the words tend to catch in your throat and make you sort of gag. Kellogg's Organic Rice Krispies, with "organic" in big scripted flowing font across the top of the box, all steeped in bogus warmth and happiness and false notions of health and nature and protecting your Perfect Child from the millions of icky poisons and unhealthy crap churned out by giant megacorps exactly like, well, exactly like Kellogg's.
Kellogg's Organic Rice Krispies. It's sort of like saying "Lockheed Martin Granola Bars" or "Exxon Bottled Spring Water." Self-immolating, and not in a good way.
That's when I heard it. The plaintive wail, the sigh, the crack and the moan and the whimper, like a tree shooting itself in the head. It was the final death knell of the "true" organic movement, breathing its last.
Because yes indeed, it's over. Organic is dead. Corporations have officially bought it out, the USDA has weakened its definition to near death, Whole Foods has made it chic and popular and profitable and yet has compromised its integrity like no other by being forced to pretty much ignore small, local farms and ideas of sustainability in favor of staggering commercial growth. And now this.
Did you know? Did you already understand the real definition? Because that's what "organic" was really supposed to mean, way back when: local, sustainable, ethical, connected to source, pesticide- and hormone-free. But the vast majority of organic product now flooding the market only gloms on to that last aspect (and sometimes, barely even that), to meet the USDA's impotent organic guidelines. Ah, government. There's just nothing like it to make you want to smack yourself in the skull with a brick.
One example: Stonyfield Farm's organic yogurt. As BusinessWeek points out, the stuff is made not on an idyllic working farm like the one on the label but rather in a giant industrial factory. They get their milk trucked in from a whole range of suppliers and it's possible they will soon begin to import some of their organic ingredients -- in dried, powdered form -- from New Zealand, so as to meet national demand, delivering it all over the country via pollutive trucking companies.
This is the harsh reality, the real cost of mainstream organic. There apparently aren't enough happy small, Earth-conscious local farms around to produce this stuff in sufficient quantities to feed the entire Wal-Mart nation. Massive compromises have been made. And those compromises mean "organic" is a shell of its former self.
"Organic," according to the lobbyist-friendly USDA, does not have to mean the food is grown using sustainable (read: nondestructive) farming practices. It does not mean locally produced. It does not mean the ethical treatment of animals. Nor does it mean the companies that produce it need be the slightest bit fair or trustworthy or socially responsible. All it means now: no pesticides, no chemical fertilizers, no bioengineering.
So is that enough? After all, the fact that megaproducers like Kellogg's and General Mills and frightening discount megaretailers like Wal-Mart are going big into organic certainly will translate into an enormous reduction in chemicals in the American diet, thousands if not (eventually) millions of pounds of pesticides and hormones and fertilizer removed from the food chain as a whole. The benefits of this cannot be understated: It's a great thing indeed.
But there's a massive snag: Thousands of products now claim to be organic, but many merely replace the chemicals and pesticides with a slew of other industrial, pollutive, destructive processes that easily offset any health benefits -- most notably the extra shipping and global delivery these "industrial organic" producers employ to obtain and deliver organic ingredients, which pumps so many chemicals back into the environment it probably counteracts all those saved in growing the stuff in the first place.
(On that note, if you're going to read one astounding book on the subject of farming, organics, fast food, and the American diet overall, let it be Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma." He maps it all out far better than I ever could. It's your must-read of the summer, even though it's now fall.)
Whole Foods? Perhaps the greatest mixed blessing of all, an amazing company that has single-handedly done more to bring the organic movement to the mainstream and raise awareness of healthy foods and improve farming and meat-quality standards across the board, not to mention the pleasures of food shopping overall. Yet at the same time, merely by its sheer size and success, they've simultaneously done more to dilute the real meaning of "organic" than any other company.
Put another way: Unless you shop at farmers' markets or quasi-hippie co-ops or unless you do your homework and find a true family-run farm within 100 miles of your home and establish a relationship with them and really begin to buy local, the odds that the next "organic" product you buy truly meets the original definition is about as likely as finding real breasts at the Playboy mansion. And for now, maybe this is just the way it has to be.
Which brings us back to Kellogg's Organic Rice Krispies. Industrial to the hilt, not the slightest bit locally grown, not the slightest bit sustainable, from the same company that poisons your kid with Pop-Tarts and Froot Loops and Scooby-Doo Berry Bones and cares about as much for the health of the planet as Dick Cheney cares about pheasants. And of course, they ship the crap all over the country in planes and trucks that burn enough oil to make Bush leer and the oil CEOs grin and it's all just one big happy joke. On you.
But hey, at least they're helping remove millions of pounds of chemical crap from the food chain, right? At least they pretend to care. Problem is, they've merely replaced those chemicals with an even more toxic additive: hypocrisy. Now, can you swallow it?