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 were discarded.
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.
Let's 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 a handy 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 provides.
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 dwarfed 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.
This page and its contents are copyright © 1997 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.