Indulge me: in discussion of organic vs. traditional.

Mostly, here, I’m talking about meats, but produce can apply in some sense. A discussion started over at Cheap Healthy Good over Leigh’s post involving the issues surrounding vegetarianism – why people have made the choice to leave meat behind, and would they ever go back to eating meat? Most responses there have been of the vegetarian or vegan opinion (though flexitarians and a few carnivores are present), and several have referenced their desire to get away because of the ethical concerns – scare-tactic food documentaries, PETA objections to corporate cruelty, and the environmental impact of meat operations. I don’t believe in any of those things, only what I’ve experienced – and what I’ve experienced in my life doesn’t lead me to understand the basis of belief for some, even if I accept them.

The thing I don’t understand, and please don’t take me for being ugly about it, is that so many comments (not just on this page, but others throughout my life) have referenced “organic” and “grass-fed” as if the labels are some kind of magic wand. Or that traditionally raised beef (for example) meant that it was somehow defective because of the methods used to raise them. Maybe it’s just growing up as I did, but ALL our cattle were happy. We usually got between 100-250 weaned 500-lb calves every week. We rotated pastures (six pastures split over 2500 acres) weekly or biweekly to give the calves access to new grass and water. They got grain once every other morning in the summer and hay in the winter. We vaccinated for blackleg, four-way and micoplasma – all common diseases that will wipe out herds in a matter of days – but never injected with growth hormone or feed-supplemented with BGH. They roamed, ran, kicked, played and swam; the herds were never confined, chained to a cage, kept on dirt pens, beaten, hit with a truck or heavy equipement, etc. We worked cattle from horseback and on foot, and more often than not, got hurt way more often than any steer did on that farm. Yet, many people have called me “cruel,” “heartless,” “evil” and worse because my cattle were not certified organic. Which automatically meant that I routinely beat the cattle I raised with 2×4 piece of lumber and let them limp around with broken legs and get tangled in rusty fence and die of tetanus and gangrene.

The farms I’ve visited and the families that I grew up around that raised their own have been grouped into this stigma of cruel heartless people that shock defenseless animals with prods and run them over with trucks. Why? We don’t do these things. But because our meat doesn’t have an organic label slapped on it, we’re automatically designated as the enemy of all that is good. Why?

Economically speaking, these things are not profitable. An animal that can’t walk off the truck doesn’t get sold, and a no-sale steer is just dead-weight on the trailer. So there’s no reason to damage these animals for any reason, or to leave them un-vaccinated against the diseases that have made their way over from Europe that would taint the market and harm consumers and producers alike, or to confine them unreasonably for ease of access (which, by the way, no one I know of does this or would think of doing this). Ethically speaking, it’s stupid to accuse this of most farmers.

Sidebar: I’ll admit there are some stupid, unreasonable folks in the world who get cattle because of some desire to control something “beneath” them. There are also people in this world who have good intentions and want to raise animals because they love seeing them out in pastures looking all Country Living, but these types of people, despite good intentions, can be just as harmful if not more so, than the previous example of cruel and unusual.

Ethically speaking, farmers don’t raise animals to be cruel, or to have something to beat on. They raise animals because 1) they enjoy the life and 2) for the most part, it’s all they know to do, and they’re quite proficient at it. The people that are raising your meat and growing your produce still adhere to a standard of living that (if you’ll excuse me) urbanization and technology have wiped from recent generations. If you’ll notice, those fat, pasty, video-game-playing teenagers whose health Congress is so allegedly concerned about are the same teenagers with no sense of decency, common sense or courtesy, who expect everything will be handed to them on a silver platter, that will grow up into the self-same adults that will instill the self-same “values” into their children. These are the type who don’t know where their meat comes from beyond plastic-wrapped on the grocery store shelves or in plastic tubs with labels glued on, or that their produce doesn’t appear magically from behind the racks in the fresh section, or frozen or canned and placed in the grocery.

The people that raise the meat and grow the produce that sells at the grocery or at the local farmer’s market are not corporate ag – they’re consumers, producers, people just like you and me. They’re just trying to survive the best they know how, without sacrificing their own sense of ideals and ethics. Many of them don’t believe in organic labels because they’re barely surviving on traditional markets, and believe it or not, the organic market thrives far better on paper than it does in real life. It is growing, yes, but a certified organic label takes a few years to achieve, along with a complete change of farm setting and knowledge. For men and women who are living off their farm as it is, how can they be expected to change over to a completely different market solely, sight unseen with very little subsidization for the change and no ability to save or pay for their own groceries, simply because Food Inc. or The Omnivore’s Dilemma has convinced people that their time-proven techniques are the devil’s profit?

What I’m trying to understand is the attitude. I’m really not trying to be ugly about this, but it’s something I feel very passionately about and am trying to comprehend. Maybe I’m just behind the times. Maybe I’m deliberately blind. Whatever the case, I’d love some discussion – either to hear your opinions or to refine my own, please feel free to comment.

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5 thoughts on “Indulge me: in discussion of organic vs. traditional.

  1. From what you’ve described, I don’t see any reason why your herd shouldn’t be called organic.

    I don’t eat meat because I don’t trust labels, and I don’t have the means to get farm-fresh meat. Your post, along with other things I’ve read, make me think that it is not so much the farmers who are at fault as the current corporate agricultural industry standards. And I believe that is hard and risky to switch to organic production. I think the “organic” label, though, has lost a lot of its meaning– if it ever had any.

  2. Lord, what a hornets nest got stirred up here. If they only knew what really happens in the agricultral world.

  3. Hi Kate,

    It’s illuminating to see this issue from the point of view of someone who has formed an opinion based on experience. I can imagine how frustrating it must be to be judged by all these people who really don’t know a thing about raising cattle, or farming of any sort, because they will believe anything they are told and think the world is divided clearly into right and wrong, and have decided where traditionally-raised meat lies.

    I am a city gal who knows nothing about raising cattle or farming of any sort. However, I am trying to educate myself. I do so through a lot of reading, and I don’t automatically trust everything that I am told. I also don’t automatically trust that the plastic-wrapped meat on the grocery-store shelves is a-OK, nor do I see the USDA’s Organic seal as a signal for a better product. Likewise, while I respect your opinion and appreciate hearing it, I will not automatically subscribe to it because you have experienced raising cattle firsthand. I don’t know how you grew up, but from what I gather, yours is not the kind of farm that most people who have made any kind of an effort to educate themselves object to. Correct me if I’m wrong (and I very well could be), but the objection most people have is with CAFOs and while again, I will not automatically label them as “evil”, it seems to me that there is a problem here. The animal’s suffering is up for debate, the healthiness of eating the animals whose lives end here is up for debate, but from what I gather, the negative environmental impact is undeniable.

    I agree with Liam above: let’s not attack Food Inc. or Michael Pollan for trying to educate people and at least get them to think more about what they are eating, though they may fall into the trap of sensationalizing things in order to scare people into believing what they are trying to convey. Actually, I am currently halfway through The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and I wouldn’t say that he’s employing scare tactics–I think he’s exposing what he has learned and backing up his point of view with sound evidence.

    If you read my most recent blog post, you might be frustrated by my endorsement of Pollan’s book, as well as my recent practice of eating less meat and going more organic. But try to understand what I am saying: I am making an effort to educate myself, and while I know that I actually know very little, my knowledge is gradually increasing. I am trying to adjust my life accordingly. While I have no ethical issue with eating meat, I do believe that in the past, I was eating too much of it. I also believe that the quantity of meat being produced and consumed in North America right now is having a major negative impact on the environment, and while I don’t believe that we should all become vegetarians, I think this can be fixed by cutting down on our consumption. I’m trying to do my part.

    I also mention in my post that I was buying organic and humane meat and dairy from Whole Foods and PCC Natural Markets. I do understand the problems with USDA’s Organic, both for farmers and with the products themselves (I don’t see Organic as a magic wand), but it still seemed like the best option for me, based on what I had read and learned. I have since found a better source for meat and dairy where I can get local products from small farms, which as Liam touches on above, is more important than that expensive and time-consuming USDA Organic seal. I have that luxury, though, and not everyone does. Not all of us live close to farms where we can buy local meat, so maybe buying a grocery store’s organic meat is the next best thing. Maybe I’m wrong.

    Anyways, this is the way I see things. I know I have a lot to learn, but at least I’m making an effort to learn!

    -Jessica

  4. For the record, I am totally comfortable with buying non-Organic meat and I do it regularly… just not from a grocery store or a restaurant. For that, I want to know a farm and the farmer first.

  5. Hi Kate,

    Great post. I think the heart of the issue is the attitude that the general American public takes towards food. Now, when I say that, I’m not talking about farmers who raise animals and I’m not talking about chefs and I’m (mostly) not talking even about a lot of people who take the time to cook their own meals. Most of these people, in my experience, are fairly knowledgeable about food and eager to learn more.

    The problem is, as I see it, that the -average- person does not want to have to put any effort into making decisions about their food. It’s not that they don’t necessarily care about what they’re eating, but even if they do care – they still want the quick fix. They want the easy answer that doesn’t involve any research or effort – they want to know they are doing the best they can but they don’t really want to -actually- do the best they can. Enter Organic certification.

    People see that big capital O on their products with the USDA shield and they assume that’s the best it can be. They don’t bother to take into account what might be required for that certification, and what kind of unnecessary burdens that might impose on food production (and in turn, what other shortcuts it will then make people take). They simply see two food products on the shelf – one organic, one traditional – and the answer seems simple. Easy. The quick fix. Even if it’s a little more expensive, it’s doesn’t require much more actual thought behind it.. and isn’t that what every American really wants? =)

    This is why local is so much more important than Organic. I capitalize Organic here because I do believe organic and sustainable farming is the way to go, but I want to draw a line between Organic and organic. What you describe above in the farms you have known sounds wonderful, and I’m sure that the animals were raised very well. And I’m sure that the people who knew your farm and knew your farm products thought the same and were very comfortable purchasing those products. In many cases, Organic certified farms are still practicing many of the aspects of industrial farms that are causing issues in the first place – things that revolve around meat processing, slaughtering, USDA inspection, etc. Small farms, local farms, though they may not be Organic, escape many of these problems be nature of the fact that they are operating on a smaller scale, and the proof is in the pudding – when put to a laboratory test those animals will almost always show fewer bacteria ppm.

    I wouldn’t fault the documentaries or Pollan books though. While I do take issue with some of the scare tactics used, I think in general what they are trying to accomplish is beneficial. In fact, in Pollan’s book “In Defense of Food,” he does tackle some of the issues and problems around Organic certification and why it’s not the ultimate savior that some people believe it is.

    The challenge really is to get people to understand that feeding yourself is not just a simple basic function like waking up or going to the bathroom. Feeding yourself is something that should be done with great care and passion, but unfortunately because of the glut of food and “food products” available everywhere and at such low prices, those that actually take the time to be considerate about their food are few and far between. But our numbers are growing.

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