The New Gold Standard

Over the past year so much has been written about whether ‘industrial organic’ food is a good thing. Does it help or hurt small organic farmers, dairymen and ranchers – the agricultural innovators of the last half century – if the likes of Wal-Mart, Target and Safeway are rolling out private-label organic brands and making “organic” a mainstream option?

For all the commitments made by large-scale retailers about local purchasing, we know that the vast majority of produce and grains are being grown overseas in places where the legal labor is even cheaper than lowly-paid agricultural workers in the US. This trend has the potential to crush small domestic producers who are stewards of our nearby open spaces, air and water quality and, most differentially, of the people who do the physically hard work of food production.

This trend also has an upside. It has the potential to help us define a new “gold standard.” When organic fruits and vegetables matured from their wilted skinny forebears that I remember from my childhood to being prized flavor agents, and organic cereals no longer tasted like the cardboard boxes they came in, a whole new generation of conservation-oriented and ethically-conscious folk championed the cause of organics. After all, there was no better alternative then – to steward the environment and support farming communities.

People who still hold ‘organic’ in such high esteem are lacking information. “USDA Organic,” in short, simply means no chemical inputs and no bioengineering. It doesn’t mean sustainable. Not only have USDA standards been weakened but labels that used to mean more – such as Oregon Tilth or California Certified Organic Farmer – now certify only to the national standard. Organic farm operations that inefficiently use water, over till fields and air freight their bounty thousands of miles are certainly “organic” – but they are not, in short, the gold standard to which we should aspire.

“Local food,” by itself, is not inherently sustainable either. There’s no guarantee about farming practices or waste management. Locally-grown food, where it is still available, offers an opportunity for purchasers to know more about how their food is grown, by what means, whether the inputs are primarily chemical or human or otherwise.

Rather than signal the death knell of small, owner-operated farms, the emergence of industrial organic production should help us define a new standard: one that values flavor, food traditions, open space, land and labor stewardship. The absence of chemical inputs over vast acreage is indeed a good trend, but it isn’t nearly as good as the new gold standard we are still in the process of defining.

— Helene York, Director, Bon Appetit Management Company Foundation