Although these days “organic” seems like a new phenomenon creeping into mainstream grocery store consciousness, it was actually the only form of agricultural production for thousands of years. It wasn't until the mid-2oth century, after World War II, that farming took on a new face of large-scale mechanization and thus the eventual implementation of synthetic chemicals.
Production on large factory farms requires the use of pesticides that can poison you, your land, and your waterways. The USDA estimates that 20 pounds of pesticides are used per person every year in the U.S. At least 53 of these are classified as carcinogenic. Ideally organic cultivation meets stringent standards (see sidebar) that keep chemicals out of food, protect water sources, build soil, and preserve biodiversity. They are grown in healthier soils that have more nutrients and produce better taste. Organic fruits and vegetables test at minimal or zero pesticide residue levels.
As organic awareness has caught on, the trend has been thriving. Organic has become more profitable and business at large natural foods markets is booming. As a result, big food corporations have started to get in on the action. Many grassroots natural food companies have been swallowed by large agribusiness corporations: Kellogg now owns Kashi, M&M-Mars grabbed Seeds of Change, and Phillip Morris actually made that Boca Burger you ate for lunch. Will corporate influence dilute organic standards?
“When something becomes popular, companies will try to use it to their advantage and find the lowest cost ways to meet those standards,” says Peter Marks of the Asheville-based Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP).
When it comes to certified organic food, labels can be misleading. USDA organic certification actually comes in a few forms. Products made entirely with certified organic ingredients and methods can be labeled “100% organic,” but products made with 95 percent organic ingredients are also allowed to display the USDA organic seal. In addition products containing a minimum of 70 percent organic ingredients, can be labeled “made with organic ingredients.” In many cases corporations import cheaper organic produce from other countries, which reduces freshness and energy efficiency.
The closer the better-remember that next time you head out for tomatoes. When you buy food that is locally grown, you’re getting food that is fresher and therefore more nutritious, and you’re helping your local economy. Unfortunately, though, our current government doesn’t make it easy for the little guy. When independent American farmers can’t make a living, they are often forced to sell land. Then what do we get? Another Old Navy corporate business park, or a cookie cutter subdivision with a name like “Whispering Pines.”
Luckily in the Blue Ridge we have groups like the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP) working to bring the benefits of supporting local food into mainstream consciousness. The organization encourages restaurants and grocery stores to carry local products, produces an annual local food guide, and it helps local farmers with marketing strategies. “We’re here to re-create a local food system,” says Marks. “If farmers don’t have a way to sell things that allows them to stay on their land and make a living, then we’re not going to have any farms left on Appalachian land.”
Economically, local farmers are also at a disadvantage. In our Wal-Mart nation culture, consumers are generally looking for the best price. Like much of American labor, the work disappears to where it is cheapest. Supporting local food is slightly more expensive, but in the long run it benefits health, Appalachian landscape, and culture and heritage as a whole.
“We’re paying artificially low prices for our food that don’t reflect the cost of growing it,” Marks says. That's because the federal government gives huge subsidies to corporate agribusiness. “But to me it comes down to taste. It’s not just a values issue. It’s a freshness issue. We need to get into their taste buds first and their consciences second.”
CHARLOTTESVILLE: Smack dab in the middle of downtown Charlottesville, City Market offers fresh produce, herbs, plants, crafts, fresh coffee, and baked goods from local vendors every Saturday from 7am until noon from April through October.
KNOXVILLE: Market Square Farmer’s Market takes place on Wednesday and Saturdays in downtown Knoxville, featuring regional and organic produce, dairy and meets, and live plants. The second Saturday of each month also features local crafts.
JOHNSON CITY: Grab locally grown Tennessee farm produce and homemade products such as soaps and garden crafts at this farmer's market set up in the parking lot at South Roan Street and State of Franklin every Wednesday and Saturday from 7am-2pm.
RICHMOND: At the 17th Street Farmers’ Market farmers bring free range eggs, beef, and pork, and fresh herbs, greens, and bedding plants in season from April through October.
D.C.: Fresh Farm Markets are producer-only markets, letting farmers sell only what they grow, raise, or make on their farms. In the District of Columbia they operate markets in Dupont Circle, Foggy Bottom, Penn Quarter, and H Street NE, and in Maryland they have markets in St. Michaels and Silver Spring.
GREENVILLE: Thirty vendors offer their goods in downtown between Main Street and Spring Street every Saturday from may through September.
ASHEVILLE: Find tailgate markets with fresh local produce, plants and herbs at Greenlife Grocery on Fridays and the French Broad Food Coop on Saturdays. Nearby town Black Mountain also has a tailgate market on Saturdays from 9am-12pm behind the SunTrust Bank on Vance Avenue.
Organic in the USA
Effective 21 October 2002, all agricultural farms and products claiming to be organic must be guaranteed by a USDA-approved independent agency to be meeting the following guidelines:
* Abstain from the application of prohibited materials (including synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and sewage sludge) for three years prior to certification and then continually throughout their organic license.
* Prohibit the use of genetically modified organisms and irradiation.
* Employ positive soil building, conservation, manure management and crop rotation practices.
* Provide outdoor access and pasture for livestock.
* Refrain from antibiotic and hormone use in animals.
* Sustain animals on 100% organic feed.
* Avoid contamination during the processing of organic products.
* Keep records of all operations.
-Facts compiled by the Organic Consumers Association. For consistently updated information on organic issues visit their website at www.organicconsumers.org.
Natural Foods Markets
The Big Boys
EARTH FARE: Earth Fare’s roots go back to 1975 when Roger Derrough founded Dinner for the Earth, the first natural food store in Asheville. In 1997 they started to branch into other Southern states and now have 13 locations.
Asheville, Boone, Charlotte, Greensboro, Chapel Hill, Raleigh, Charleston, Columbia, Mount Pleasant, Greenville, Knoxville, Athens
WHOLE FOODS: Started as a small natural foods market in Austin, Texas, in 1980, Whole Foods is now the world’s leading retailer of natural and organic foods, with 184 stores in North America and the United Kingdom. The company makes going organic easier with their own line of less expensive 365 products. They also support food banks in the local communities of store areas.
LOCATIONS: Cary, Chapel Hill, Durham, Raleigh, Winston-Salem, Charleston, Greenville, Charlottesville, Alexandria, Arlington, Falls Church, Reston, Springfield, Vienna, Washington, D.C.
ROANOKE NATURAL FOODS: Roanoke, Va. –﻿www.roanokenaturalfoods.com
FRENCH BROAD FOOD CO-OP: Asheville, N.C.
INTEGRAL YOGA: Charlottesville, Va. –﻿www.iyfoods.com
ELLWOOD THOMPSON'S NATURAL MARKET: Richmond, Va.
REBECCA’S NATURAL FOODS: Charlottesville, Va.
GARNER’S NATURAL MARKET AND CAFE:
GREENLIFE: Asheville, N.C. and Chattanooga, Tenn. –www.greenlife.com
THE HEALTH CONCERN: Towson, Md. –www.healthconcern.com
THREE RIVERS MARKET: Knoxville, Tenn. –www.threeriversmarket.coop
GOOD ENERGY FOODS: Elkins, W.Va.
SEVANANDA: Atlanta, Ga. www.sevananda.coop