Friday, November 19, 2010

Organic Certification: A Few Consumers Views

In a follow-up to my earlier post on the importance organic certification from the perspective of local Maryland producers, I sat down with a group of friends recently to get their take on the topic. We each come to the table with different histories and motivations, but all share a commitment to buying naturally grown food. I wanted to know how much organic certification influenced their own purchasing decisions, and how that influence might have changed over time.

I started by asking the group whether they were familiar with the requirements for organic certification. Not surprisingly, no one was familiar with the details, but everyone had read about certification at some point and had a general understanding of what it entailed. And while Meg says that she "wouldn't pass the test" on the regulations, she remembers finding it "shocking that there were all these caveats" to certification. This is primarily, as I mentioned in the previous post, a reference to food products, like granola bars or beer, that can be labeled as organic, but contain non-organic ingredients, according to a set of exceptions in the Federal guidelines. In the food product arena, there are also three levels of certification, including "made from certified organic ingredients", "100% organic", and just "organic", meaning 95% organic ingredients. Meg knows that organic certification isn't a perfect solution, but she feels that it's the best alternative, and she and her husband have made a conscious decision to put a lot of their money into buying organic. And she wants to be sure, where she can, that her food is grown organically. "If I buy a local apple, it's been sprayed.", she explains, "If it is certified organic, at least I know it's grown by some set of rules."

Meg and another friend, Sharyn, are driven by concern for their and their family's health, and, secondarily, by environmental concerns. If they can find a local farmer who is applying organic practices, they'll buy from them, regardless of certification. But, when it comes to things like apples, you'll have a hard time finding organic in the mid-Atlantic region. Both Meg and Sharyn would rather ensure that their food is grown without pesticides than worry that it came from California. The only real way to do that it to buy certified organic products in the stores. Meg adds, "we're voting with our dollars" and Sharyn adds that stores like Martin's track the organic purchases, so she makes sure to buy them at the larger supermarkets to ensure they'll stay in stock. It seems likely that others are more apt to buy the organic option if it's there on the shelf in front of them, so your own purchases can actually influence the overall consumption of certified organic goods.

For my part, I'm less concerned about my own personal health than I am of my family and of people in general. I have found, like many others I know, that making the choice to radically reduce my intake of processed foods, particularly containing high fructose corn syrup, has made a huge change in my weight and appearance. I'm 10-15 lbs lighter than before making that change, even though I was regularly running thirty miles a week and commuting over an hour daily by trail bike at the time. For me, that's hard evidence to ignore, but it really isn't about whether the food is organic or local, only about the level of processing. And it's not a scientific peer-reviewed study, just an observation. When it comes to my organic choices, I think I'm more like the typical customer described in the book Organic, Inc., which reviews current research in consumer choices for organic products. I buy some organic, I buy some not organic. I am totally with the idea of organic, totally. But, I'm also a good penny-pinching, savings-seeking American, who has to swallow hard when the organic tomatoes cost twice (or more) what the regular can does. I'll admit that the more I research, the more I learn, the more I'm swallowing and buying organic food and things like natural cleaning products.

My friend Andrea agrees about being more concerned about the health of others. Unlike me, she's not relatively new to concerns over the industrial food system. She tells the group that when her daughters were young, they would sometimes get frustrated having different food from their peers, but now they appreciate what she taught them about food choices. She explains, "one of my motivations for eating locally/organically stems from my concerns for the safety of our food supplies, for example, this summer's salmonella-infected egg recall. E.coli-infected beef and spinach are two other recent examples that come to mind. And those incidents stemmed from our food processing practices.  I also care about preserving heirloom and local varieties of fruits and vegetables. Not only because I don't  want Monsanto to have a food monopoly, but also to ensure diversity in flora and fauna."

Sharyn wondered why people are driven to buy local when it's not organic. I know for me there are a number of reasons. First, I want to support the local economy. I fear that if we outsource too much of our food production, or for that matter, any kind of production, to places where they can abuse the workers and the environment, we're not only doing the wrong thing, but risking a collapse of the local economy. I live in a small historic town, and we can see over the last thirteen years that the town residents choices to buy elsewhere, up the road at the big box stores, has caused a continual decline in our downtown. We live now on a brink, I believe, with becoming a clapboard ghost town similar to so many others I've passed through. Also, I'm not personally satisfied that my certified organic grapes from Argentina were picked by working poor. I'd rather know more about the farm and buy it locally. I find it much more satisfying to be closely connected to my food sources. And I love the challenge of trying to eat seasonally. It makes me rethink things continually. But, it's definitely not black-and-white for me. It's a growth process. 

Cathy has similar attitudes. "I dance back and forth", she says. As far as apples go, she too recently picked a boat load at Larriland Farms. Her sense is that Larriland, which uses the Integrated Pest Management (IPM) system, is making strides to use the least amount of chemicals possible, while still remaining economically viable. But she wonders a lot about IPM. Does the size of the farm matter, meaning would a smaller farm use more or less pesticides? what about diversity? what does IPM really mean? (I have all these same questions, and look forward to talking to a local IPM farm and consultant in the new year, so stay tuned!) Meg points out that all that uncertainty makes IPM products less attractive to her. But Cathy is trying to be pragmatic in her purchasing. She is concerned that "you have to spray to survive as a business.", and concludes, "I see both sides, so I split what I do."

When I ask about one of my own sticking points: cost, the others at first say they all pay the extra gladly. Then someone asks, what about if you're not cooking for your family? like for a potluck. Well, then it depends. Most of us felt that we'd gladly buy the more expensive, local or organic, food for others if we knew they would appreciate it. But we're less likely to shell out the extra bucks to secretly feed them better than they'd feed themselves. It doesn't sound friendly, I guess, but I think it reflects the reality of consumer decisions.  It does cost a lot more to buy certified organic produce, so you think twice about these things when you're budgeting. 

The rest of the group is particularly concerned about purchasing organic for the "dirty dozen", the highest chemical-residue produce. I should probably pay more attention to that myself, but  have found it hard to remember.  Of course, apples are on the list!  Guess I'll really have to ask about the IPM practices for the apple orchards! I did recently discover that Larry's Beans coffee company sells cloth grocery bags with the "dirty dozen" printed on them, and another with the sustainable fishery list printed on them. That's a good way not to forget. 

I find that I often make a poor assumption that others think the same way that I do. There are a lot of different influences in organic purchases and even "liked-minded" folks really are coming at their decisions differently. We each have our own motivations, and our priorities change over time. By learning what is important to the others, I am more inclined to reflect on my own thought processes. That's a good thing.

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