Today’s Times brings us the tale of Dr. Alan Greene, a pediatrician in California who strove to have himself certified organic.

Organic foods in the United States are certified under rules developed by the National Organic Program of the USDA, though the actual certification is done by private groups that may be for-profit. If a product bears the seal, it means at least 95% of the ingredients are organic, a designation that presumably includes (filtered) water. For an ingredient to be organic, it needs to be raised without antibiotics or hormones or grown without pesticides or artificial fertilizer (as appropriate) and producers—a loaded word, that—must follow soil and water conservation procedures and treat animals with a minimum of humaneness. I was surprised to learn that; I hadn’t realized organic meat was antibiotic-free. Michael Pollan notes in The Omnivore’s Dilemma that antibiotics are needed to produce maketable meat from cattle raised on a maize-based diet because cattle do not thrive on a maize-based diet.

The system isn’t perfect. For often perfectly benign reasons, regulations such as those for organic foods tend to be written and enforced to favor industry. The cost of certification—not organic practices, maintaining the paper trail and paying the inspectors—can be more easily borne by large businesses.

The biggest problem is that the regulations govern technique, not outcome. So the oregano you grow in your window box or the tomatoes you grow in your garden are not organic, no matter what you did or didn’t do in growing them. More seriously, a farm such as Polyface in Virginia can’t be certified because it’s a lot of frankly unnecessary work to maintain the necessary records. Organic livestock has to eat only organic foods for three years, just as Dr. Greene did, and they won’t just take the farmer’s word for it. This doesnt mean the farm doesn’t operate under principles that I, at least, trust will produce food that’s no less healthful or sustainable than the duly inspected products of the nutrition industry.

One benefit of the system, however: when you eat organic, you know what you’re getting, which is more than you can say for processed foods.

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