Our food needs a name

usdaorganic.jpgOrganic. Natural. Free range. No GMO. Hormone free. Pesticide free.

When we started this blog in May, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what all those terms meant. I could zoom through my supermarket, picking this organic apple over that one because it was from Washington instead of Vermont (and therefore closer), and going for pesticide-free strawberries over organic based on a dollar's difference but cheerfully ordering spendy Western Grasslands beef and Niman bacon at the butcher counter.

freefarmed.jpgThen I started to do a little research. I learned that "free range" as defined by the USDA is more of an option than a right: poultry producers can open a tiny door in a giant shed for five minutes a day then slap that label on all 30,000 broiler chickens — regardless of whether they ever go outside. That all chicken and pork must be hormone-free by law. That labeling of foods containing GMOs is voluntary, and almost no one does it. (Those links, by the way, go to a glossary of frequently blogged terms, acronyms, and labels that we've just published.)

What I want to know is this: Why do we even need a "pesticide free" label? Shouldn't the growers using pesticides have to label their products as covered in these potential carcinogens? The absence of them should be the default position. Why do farmers who are doing things right — rotating crops so as not to wear out the soil, growing a mix of things for better pest resistance, grazing their animals in pasture, using those animals' manure as fertilizer instead of petroleum-based derivatives — why are the good guys the ones that have to pay through the nose for a label?

I'm being rhetorical, of course. But I'm also tired of having to refer to the meat I prefer to eat as "happy" meat, for lack of a better term. I think Tyson should have to label its chicken "Debeaked" and "Raised in crowded, unsanitary conditions…yum!" Beef from Harris Ranch should say "Pumped up with Hormones!" and "Heavily Dosed with Antibiotics!"

Yeah, I know ... when (factory) pigs fly.

morningstar.jpgSo in the meantime, we need a name for the kind of food we're talking about. "Organic" doesn't cut it anymore, not in a world where soon you'll be able to find certified organic Cocoa Puffs, where feedlot beef can be certified organic, and where most of the once-small organic labels are owned by big agribusiness. (See this crazy chart of who owns what.) We Ethicureans came up with our catchy-but-clunky acronym S/O/L/E food to refer to sustainable, organic, local, and ethical edibles — basically, anything you would have been able to eat 200 years ago. (Not that we're against all processed food and would never eat a Peppermint Patty or McDonald's fries. But we do think America might be better off with fewer such calories being pushed by million-dollar ad campaigns.) However, if you have to spell and explain a name, it probably doesn't work.

There's "slow food," of course, which has its own movement. Nina Planck likes "real food." Anna Lappe and Bryant Terry call it "grub" in their new book. And the term "beyond organic" is gaining in popularity, used to signify how producers so exceed the USDA's requirements they needn't bother with certification. We kind of like "post organic," to refer to the next phase — but as with "postmodernism," you only get the meaning if you actually understood the original movement in the first place.

"Just food"? "True eats"? "Naked food"? Give us your ideas.

5 Responsesto “Our food needs a name”

  1. Tana says:

    I use "real food," myself. And when referring to meat, "clean meat." Conventionally raised feedlot meat should be called what it is: filthy meat. Conventionally grown produce? "Poisonous vegetables, poisonous fruit."

    I use these phrases all the time. I had a moment of extreme pride when our two-and-a-half-year-old grandson, Logan, pointed to a display rack in Trader Joe's and said, "That's not organic!"

    Cool Tools has a post worth reading, about the 12 fruits and vegetables with the highest, and lowest, contamination rating (contaminated with pesticides). You can download a PDF with a wallet-sized guide of the worst...though I wrote the number on the card I gave to Logan's father.

    From the USDA Pesticide Data Program:

    Peaches 100
    Strawberries 89
    Apples 88
    Spinach 85
    Nectarines 85
    Celery 83
    Pears 80
    Cherries 76
    Potatoes 67
    Sweet Bell Peppers 66
    Raspberries 66
    Grapes (imported) 64
    Sweet Corn 1
    Avocado 4
    Pineapples 6
    Cauliflower 10
    Mango 12
    Sweet Peas 13
    Asparagus 16
    Onions 17
    Broccoli 18
    Bananas 19
    Kiwi 23
    Papaya 23

    (I wish I could preview this comment. I have no idea if the formatting is going to come through, or if the lines with the numbers are going to run together.)

  2. DairyQueen says:

    Thanks, Tana. The thing that really disturbs me about pesticide levels is not just what gets left on the fruit or vegetable for me, it's the levels farm workers are exposed to, and the residues that wash off into the water table and rivers and lakes. In case anyone thinks those residues get diluted enough to be harmless, take a look at these Midwestern frogs from a UC Berkeley study.

    P.S. I love your site.

  3. patrick says:

    On a purely pragmatic level, when we are out at a restaurant and I want to know if the meat is not factory-farmed, I generally ask if it is "sustainably raised" or "naturally raised."

    This all reminds me of "wireless" radios and "microbrews". language folding in on itself when the thing we're trying to get back to is just food without poison or unnecessary death.

    I do like the term "friendly-farmed."

    I agree with you that it's the tainted stuff that ought to have the labels. A few years ago when I really started fuming over this stuff, it drove me nuts that non-organic produce was called "conventional." As if soaking topsoil with fertilizer and pesticides is just the normal, conventional thing to do (well, of course, it is).

    Maybe we could just call them "traditional" foods. Or "edible." Or "non-poisonous."

    This is a rambly comment. I don't have any answers either, but it's all worth thinking about!

    You guys rock. Keep it up.



  4. Tana says:

    Dairy Queen, I once had a farmer tell me that the pesticides used on potatoes are so toxic that you can't go into the field for two days afterward.

    It's literally sickening, and immoral, to use that kind of stuff, exposing workers to its residue.

    (And thanks for loving my blog. I do, too!)

    : D

  5. Miss Steak says:

    Personally, I like post organic, but I also think that the phrase feels scary (post apocalyptic) and elitist (post modern). I do quite like "traditionally farmed" or "traditionally raised" for veg and meat respectively. That kind of captures it.