We've noticed farmers increasingly using the word "sustainable" as a label to say that their farm products are organic without actually using the word "organic." On the one hand, we sympathize with farmers that want to take a less legalistic approach to the meaning of organic but still want to communicate their commitment to organic principles. In an industrialized society industrial compromises of one sort or another are inevitable, and we see real dangers in oversimplifying those questions. We certainly don't like the way defining "organic" by a set of rules has encouraged a race to the bottom of that very limited standard. And we don't like the way third party certification has apparently displaced the need for real knowledge on the part of the consumer: knowing where and by whom and how food was -- and was not -- grown.
On the other hand, we see farmers and consumers using words like "sustainable" or "naturally grown" or "certified organic" to describe food and farming methods with very little organic integrity. This especially concerns us when such sentiments lead to complacency with compromises, as if a little window dressing were the final answer to the very real, persistent problems of industrialized agriculture. If we know anything about organic agriculture, it's that we as a society each and all have a long, long, long way to go.
Misuse of organic and pseudo-organic labels seems especially pronounced when it comes to animal products. Hogs or chickens raised on every bit as much genetically modified, pesticide-intensive grain as on conventional farms are labeled "sustainable" or "naturally grown" simply because antibiotics are withheld and they're given some kind of token access to the outdoors. The most important and basic part of what makes an animal product organic would have to be what that animal eats, and yet this is where "sustainable" most often fails to deliver any substance. Conventional farms are fittingly derided as just CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations) and yet it's hard to see so-called "sustainable" farms as very different when the animals are just as dependent on the very same industrial feed machine.
To put things in perspective, of the over 30 small farms we know of in North Carolina that sell what's commonly called "sustainable" pork, we only know of two that don't feed genetically modified grains to their animals, and they only accomplish that by replacing grain with milk (in one case with milk from cows fed genetically modified grains.) Likewise, besides our own flock, we don't know of a single remaining chicken flock in the whole state that's fed locally grown, non-genetically modified feed -- what we would consider only the most basic first step toward a separate system of raising animals. (Crops are most commonly genetically modified in order to facilitate expanded options for spraying synthetic herbicides on the crop.) We recently called Whole Foods, the biggest "natural foods" grocery chain, to ask what meat they had from animals fed organic or even just non-GMO feeds: all the pork and poultry and other non-ruminant meats they had, with just one minor exception (some certified organic frozen chickens), were from animals raised on conventional, pesticide-intensive, genetically modified grains. There's clearly a tremendous gap between the marketing talk and the reality.
We hope that as a first step consumers (and farmers) can confront the realities. The last thing we want is for our customers to indignantly run off and hide behind another empty buzzword. Apart from an informed relationship of trust with the farmer, the only label that we count for anything is USDA certified organic, and we place limited value on that. It's extremely difficult to find value-added farm products (like meat and eggs) with even a small amount of real organic integrity. A big part of the problem is that consumers and farmers have contented themselves with organic window dressing. Certainly window dressing is a lot cheaper than real substance, especially when it comes to foods like pork and poultry. As long as “organic” consumers continue to expect the artificial cost savings of pesticide-intensive GMO grain, window dressing is all they'll get. But simply paying more is no answer either, unless the consumer actually knows what he's paying for. Consumers and farmers will have to work together over time (blurring the definitions of "consumers" and "farmers") to develop farming and distribution systems to replace the industrialized model. We think avoiding genetically modified foods and feeds is a challenging but very important goal -- only a first step to the requirements of the USDA organic system, which itself leaves much more to be desired. There's hope for much better food and much better farming, but that hope isn't hiding conveniently behind any of the buzzwords; that hope surely depends on real knowledge, involvement, and labor.