Just because a food's labeled organic, doesn't mean that it's
environmentally friendly. Certainly, organic growing methods can be kinder
to the environment without the pesticides and fertilizers used in
conventional agriculture. But with most foods, there are many interactions
with, and effects on, the environment in addition to those at the farm.
Two items I pulled from the New Haven health food store's waste that I pick
up to compost, exemplify the problem perfectly.
The first was a package of organic oregano which contained about six sprigs
of this tasty herb, wrapped in a plastic tie with a plastic tag attached.
The tag identifies the California farm where the oregano was grown and the
organic standard that was followed. All of this has been slipped into a
zip-lock-type plastic bag. The herb inside was wilted and many packages
The second item was an empty aluminum can whose label boldly features
"ORGANIC: grower certified, facility certified, product certified." It's
called "Tropical Guava," described on the front as "Certified organic
sparkling guava flavored beverage from several juices and concentrates."
The small print reveals that 86 percent of the beverage is sparkling water
and certified organic evaporated cane juice (that's sugar). The can
contains just 14 percent fruit juice from guava and mango purees, and
lemon, blackberry and murtaberry concentrates.
The old oregano is easy to get rid of; just remove all the plastic and toss
the wilted sprigs onto the compost pile. They will become fertile soil in
no time. But what about the plastic bags and tags? They're not labeled
for recycling, so they'll have to be trucked to Hartford to be burned,
completing the transcontinental journey that began in California. Don't
get me started about the Gulf War we fought at great expense so that we can
continue to cheaply fuel this trip and make plastic trash.
Lets talk about the oregano. It's practically a weed and one of the
easiest herbs to grow almost anywhere. Being a perennial, it just comes
back every summer and produces prolifically for years, if given even half a
chance. One or two plants would probably produce all the organic oregano
this store needs, yet the herbs it sells leave behind a trail of pollution
across the country, and then, an extra little puff in Hartford as the
plastic is burned. Truck pollution is still truck pollution even if the
cargo is organic!
And, aluminum cans are aluminum cans. They're an effective tool for
destroying cultures, wasting energy and money, hastening the extinction of
valuable species and producing toxic residues, all in a convenient,
easy-to-hold form. Aluminum ore mining makes huge messes in Jamaica and
Brazil. Aluminum refining consumes enormous amounts of hydroelectric
power, particularly in the Pacific Northwest and in the James Bay region of
Canada. Large dams there are damaging to people, wildlife, ecosystems and
cultures. The painted label on the can becomes toxic waste if it is
recycled, which consumes even more energy. And that's just the container.
For the beverage, five different fruits as well as sugar cane have to be
grown, harvested and carefully processed before shipping to the certified
canning facility in California. Only one of the fruits, blackberries, will
grow around here. The polluting energy consumed in producing this beverage
and its container dwarfs the 140 calories of food energy the drink
I imagine that for these two items, like many others, any environmental
benefits of the organic growing methods for sugar, fruits or herbs, while
important, are overshadowed by the environmental devastation caused by
aluminum mining and processing, plastic manufacturing and disposal, the
enormous use of transportation, process and cooling energy and the
production of non-degradable wastes.
The organic label also says nothing about the conditions of employment for
the workers who tend and pick these herbs and fruits, or about the more
nutritious foods that might be grown to feed people there. We are sold
tropical drinks because poor folks in the tropics will pick fruit for us
for very little money.
It'll take a lot more than organic certification to cure the environmental
and social ills of our food system. Growing and eating local, organic
foods is one solution.
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth.
(C)1997, Bill Duesing, Solar Farm Education, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06491
Bill and Suzanne Duesing operate the Old Solar Farm (raising NOFA/CT
certified organic vegetables) and Solar Farm Education (working on urban
agriculture projects in New Haven, Bridgeport, Hartford and Norwalk, CT).
Their collection of essays Living on the Earth: Eclectic Essays for a
Sustainable and Joyful Future is available from Bill Duesing, Box 135,
Stevenson, CT 06491 for $14 postpaid. These essays first appeared on WSHU,
public radio from Fairfield, CT. New essays are posted weekly at
http://www.wshu.org/duesing and those since November 1995 are available