Beyond Labels

For better or for worse, I’ve been known to blow the whistle on organic food and farming. Honestly, I abhor many practices commonly used in organic food production such as confinement chicken and pork production, feedlot beef, and vegetable raised using “organic” chemicals (yes, that is a widespread practice on many organic produce farms). If the non-organic food sector focuses on clever labels depicting serene little farmsteads and dexterous wordsmithing, the organic industry has taken it to the next level. And there’s increasing evidence that this is only the beginning.

In their co-authored book Beyond Labels, Joel Salatin and Sina McCullough make an interesting duo who dance from the grocery store to the farm to human health and food myths “one bite at a time” (if you haven’t yet, this book is a must-read). Sina, having a Phd in Nutritional Science, comes from the direction of the grocery store and leans toward buying organic. Joel, being a direct-to-consumer farmer for upwards of fifty years, leans more toward knowing your farmer and points out the faults of the organic food system. Together, they expose many truths otherwise hidden in the labyrinth of food confusion.

In Practical Bite #24, (in the book, chapters are dubbed bites and each bite explores a different subject or issue), they talk about how the USDA Organic label is no longer reliable. The reason for this because although USDA Organic does not allow GMO’s, pesticides and herbicides, irradiation, or hormones and antibiotics (in animal agriculture), it has nothing in place to account for soil health or biodiversity. Sina makes the case for what she calls The Quartet, which is four labels taken together for assurance that what you’re buying is not only organic, but also regeneratively grown, glyphosate residue free, and conforms with the standards of the non-GMO project.

Joel, on the other hand, says that while he is not opposed to the certification/verification, they do not subscribe to them for the simple reason that they see far greater opportunity in other avenues. I agree. He points out that it is more advantageous for him to take the time spent in filling out forms applying for these fancy labels to build compost piles, move cattle or chickens, teaching children how to plant tomatoes or customers how to cook. In other words, while the certs may be ok, they are not the best investment in the betterment of the soil on his farm or the community, and are usually not the weakest link.

Sina then continues the dialogue by pointing that, yes, it would be wonderful if everyone patronized their local farm instead of relying on wordy labels, but you have to meet people where they are. Plus, most of us, rightly or wrongly, purchase some items that are not indigenous to our part of the world. For example, bananas. Or coconut flour. It’s virtually impossible for us to visit the farms in Costa Rica or Central America where these items are grown, hence the need for assurance via a label or certification.

Both being excellent writers and conversationalists, Joel and Sina have this type of dialogue throughout the book, sometimes totally agreed, other times disagreeing. In Joel’s last paragraph of this “Bite”, he says; “Now, dear readers, I hope you understand that all of this is not cut and dried. Those of us on the front lines of these issues wrangle and wrestle and converse late into the night on some of these nuances. [as Esther and I have recently done on the “legal” issues we’re surrounded with] and we don’t always agree. And you, yes you, have to put attention on it until you become satisfied with what works for you. A place where you can rest, trust, and be free from the bondage of uncertainty, toxicity, and the tentacles of orthodox assumptions.” As an aside, this is why I say this is a must-read, for they both have the talent to bring these issues to the forefront, and give us ownership of our own decisions.

Sina then ends the Practical Bite with this; “You and I both agree that the “place” you are speaking of is not the grocery store. Every label and every certification is based on assumptions, subjective measures, and clever wordsmithing. However, nearly everyone shops in the grocery store for food, including you. And, in that setting, labels are the primary tool at our disposal for helping us make informed decisions…”

I have long said that fancy labels are for the distance shopper. They are only beneficial to bridge the disconnect between the eater and the farm. Corporate Food knows this as well, which explains the attention they pay to label glitz and glamour. This is also why we continue to make the claim of “Beyond Organic”, and have a web page dedicated to the clarification of the term. While we’re aligned with many of the requirements of National Organic Program, we are devoted to going beyond those requirements to add nutrition and value to the food, restoration to the soil, and healing to the community. And that, is The View from the Country.

P.S. We plan to add a bookstore to our store and website in the near future, and will definitely have Beyond Labels available when that happens.