Back in August I got a call from a fellow farmer who lives a few valleys over. We chatted about cows and grass, and when I mentioned that our vegetable garden was having a rough year, she said, “It’s hard, but you have to grow your own. You can’t trust anything from the store.”
Such suspicion of the food system is a common sentiment, for obvious reasons. There would be little need for alternative agriculture if factory hog farms were responsible stewards of land and animals instead of being hog factories. Still, it’s an extreme position to make such a blanket statement; supermarkets are an efficient food distribution system, and there are plenty of good farmers who supply them. Further, if the goal is limiting the direct consumption of pathogens, the current regulatory framework is reasonably effective.
So it’s an overreach to say you should distrust anything from a store if such distrust implies an immediate threat to your health due to adulteration or contamination. But recent developments in marketing and labeling requirements point to a future in which not just terms like organic and grass-fed are malleable, but in which the definition of what it means to farm undergoes a paradigmatic shift.
At the beginning of this month the National Organic Standards Board voted to allow hydroponically raised fruits and vegetables to be labelled organic, despite almost unanimous opposition from farmers. While there are tangible benefits to hydroponic systems, particularly their efficient use of water, the main advocates for the changes were the biggest growers, who it will allow to operate on a scale that is likely to drive smaller, local farmers out of business.
In September the USDA closed an investigation into whether the 15,000 cow Aurora dairy had violated the organic grazing standards. These are relatively modest, calling for just 30% of feed intake to be grazed during the growing season, but reporting by the Washington Post suggests Aurora was nowhere near meeting them. You don’t need to have hands-on experience moving and milking cows to imagine the logistical feat required to manage the grazing of such a huge herd and why it would be much easier to simply raise the cows in accordance with regular confinement dairy practices. Despite offering no new evidence to meaningfully contradict the Post’s reporting, the USDA cleared Aurora. Doing so ensured that organic dairy will continue to follow in the path laid out by conventional producers, meaning larger farms, increasing confinement, and decreasing contact between the cows and the land.
As grass-fed beef grows in popularity, it is rapidly shifting from a niche product raised by local farmers to an international commodity. If you read the label on the grass-fed beef at your local supermarket, excepting Whole Foods, you will see that it is sourced from abroad, with Australia and Uruguay being the most common points of origin. One obvious issue is that imported conventional beef could be relisted as grass-fed the same way shipments of conventional grain magically become organic in the middle of the Atlantic. Reducing grass-fed beef to a commodity also jettisons any aspects of environmental stewardship or animal wellness, which should be weighed when considering the worth of any production method.
All of these changes are incremental, and none by itself renders a label like organic or grass-fed meaningless. But they continue the trend by which industrial agriculture coopts any part of the food system that can possibly be commodified, and at some point in the process the spirit will be entirely lost, even if some letter of the law remains. If hydroponics are organic, shouldn’t the label also extend lab grown meat, assuming all the nutrients that are used to feed the growing protein are derived from organic sources? In a few years it may well be possible to have a meal of steak and salad, accompanied by a dessert of berries and whipped cream, with every ingredient listed as organic and no ingredient being a direct product of the earth. There are alternative terms, like regenerative agriculture, eco-agriculture, pasture-based, or beyond organic. These can all be useful descriptors, but none really encompass how I try to manage my land, and I see no reason that, if they are codified, they won’t quickly be diluted to suit the needs of agribusiness.
As an alternative I propose we call it farming. Farming is the activity of growing food directly from the earth, whether it’s raising livestock, vegetables, corn, or an orchard. There is good farming that improves soil and water and results in healthy animals and farmers. There’s bad farming that degrades soil, pollutes water, and results in unhealthy animals and farmers. There’s another activity called food production. This is the manufacturing of food, whether animal or plant, in an environment completely separated from the earth. It could be a hydroponic berry greenhouse, a factory hog barn, a CAFO dairy, or a meat lab. There can be good or bad food production facilities, I suppose, though they will never be invested in or accountable to the local community the same way a good farm should be.
If this all gives you a headache, here’s some simple advice. Shopping at a supermarket won’t kill you, but if you have the resources and you want a healthier agricultural system, find a farm and visit it if possible, or at least try to get a real sense of how and why the farmer farms as she does. If it looks mostly good - healthy land, animals, and farmers - support it. Repeat as possible with the parts of your grocery list that you reasonably can, and if you're particularly ambitious try writing your list with what's available in mind. This is where most articles would say something about how in the aggregate such consumer behavior can cause shifts in the broader economy, but the wonderful thing about buying from small farms is that for at least one family on at least one piece of land your individual choice has an impact that is immediate and meaningful.