Certified organic. The term has taken on a life of its own. Let’s begin with the Webster’s Dictionary definition of the word Organic…..the yield of a food stuff produced with the use of feed or fertilizer of plant or animal origin, without the employment of chemically formulated fertilizers, growth stimulants, antibiotics or pesticides. That’s it, nothing more. It certainly implies a great deal based on what we think we know, however, nowhere in that definition do I read the words “more healthful” “better tasting” “nicer to look at” OR, and this is a biggie, “planet protecting”. That’s all the word means is CHEMICAL FREE. That’s it. Does this mean it is better for us across the board? My contention is No. Ya know what else is organic? Horse shit! I don’t see a line around the block waiting for a plate full of it to cure what ails us so please, indulge me as I push on. I do not confuse organic with locally grown or sustainable so don’t fall into that trap. These are all different concepts that can stand alone or together but are mutually exclusive to each other. So, that being said, I do not wish to recieve a disertation from anyone in respose to this entry regarding either of those other two concepts I just mentioned. I agree and support both of them whenever it is fiscally responsible and possible to do so. So relax.
I have a couple of basic problems with the entire organic movement.
PROBLEM NUMBER ONE:
It has become, through strategic and very targeted marketing, a complete bastardization of what it set out to be. Much like “All Natural” has. But that’s another blog all together….. The movement began quite innocently. A group of hairy legged, tree hugging, Birkenstock-wearing hippies decided to stick it to “the Man” and grow their own food without the use of dangerous chemicals and additives. Great concept, tough implementation, but admirable none the less. Then, the corporate America assholes got involved and found the ability to charge four times the cost of non-organic product with the use of fear mongering. A very popular tactic used by many powerful people to control others and influence their thinking with made-up bullshit. When the organic craze began to gain steam I was fully on board. My nieces and nephews were being born and I didn’t have any intention of feeding them chemical laden food in MY RESTAURANT damn it! At that point Restaurant Michael was in the developmental stage nearly 8 eight years ago and I was killing time. I was working for an all organic food company, hell-bent on changing the world of processed food one artificial ingredient at a time. I was their R&D Chef and had a great deal of power regarding the flavor profile of each item we were to put into production. It was a great distraction from what had developed into what had amounted to a fart in a space suit at Le Francais with our piece of shit, dishonest partner. I forget his name….some Leprechaun looking fuck if I remember correctly.
Anyway, I digress. I was also charged with the responsibility of researching new and exciting ingredients with which to work in order to set our product apart from other, more established producers of similar concepts. I needed to find a way to make them better, tastier, and more visually appealing. In order to do so, I had two choices. One was to conceptualize an all new, never before seen food product. Plant or breed it, harvest the fruits of that process, bring it to market and get an organic certifying body to mark it with their stamp of approval. Fat chance of that happening. We already have a supreme being that creates these things (whatever that being may be in your belief) and they happen to, in my opinion, be doing a pretty strong job of it. My second option was quite a bit less ambitious albeit infinitely more achievable, or so I thought. Find products, animal, vegetable or otherwise that have accomplished the lofty goal of becoming organically certified. Sounds much easier to me. Well, I was fucking wrong! As it turns out, I had a better chance of taking the reins from the big guy upstairs and developing a new fruit, vegetable or animal on my own then creating a full recipe list of ingredients that were 100% organic.
But wait! As it turns out you don’t have to have an entire list of ingredients that meet 100% organic certification status. You are allowed, as a producer of certified organic product, a certain percentage of non-organic items in your ingredient list. In order to have the right to legally label your product USDA ORGANIC you must have a list of ingredients that is 95% organically certified. That means ingredients that are 100% organically certified on your sub-list for the label must make up 95% of that labels content. What the Hell? That last statement is right? You see, there are two completely separate certifications the USDA has regarding the term organic. One is Certified Organic” and the other is “100% Certified Organic”
In my opinion, this is fucked! By definition, the process and resulting effects are mis-leading and fundamentally dishonest. In addition to this slight of hand bullshit there is yet a third classification thrown into the mix. If a product contains at least 70% organic ingredients it has, by law, the right to use the words “made with organic ingredients” in its title and/or description. Provided they do not allow the word organic to stand alone on the label nor are they allowed to use the USDA ORGANIC seal. This all sounds just lovely. It seems the government is finally looking out for us. Come on? Really? Is that what you think? Consider this. Why, if all food items marketed as organic are capable of holding one of three (3) certifications, are they allowed to be displayed together in one area of the store? Why are there not three separate areas depending on the certification the specific item holds? Do we not have the right to know if the producers of products we are purchasing for upwards of double the cost, are being true to their word in regards to their sales pitch? Of course we do! But who governs this marketing loophole? Nobody, that’s who. Walk around the grocery store, any grocery store, and tell me if you see a separate section for each of these three types of organic certification. It is simply implied that everything in that section is “Organic”. The organic food producer is not allowed to use overtly non-organic items such as chemicals, pesticides and the like. However, they are allowed to use items from organically certified farms.
This leads me to PROBLEM NUMBER TWO:
An organically certified farm has to, in order to achieve that status, jump through several USDA implemented “hoops”. The primary hoop of interest is that the land from which certified organic product will be derived must be purged for a number of years. (At least three years is the average but it varies) In addition to this purging or purification time, the organic farmer must adhere to the all of the definitions set forth by the governing body. Many of which are found in the definition I laid out in the first paragraph but are not limited to that definition. And of course there are fees. Shocking! A fee is applied to all that wish to make profit in this country so why would the organic farmers be exempt from this uniquely American tradition?
Okay, the farm has done everything it needs to do in order to achieve its coveted certification. It begins, after years of zero yield due to the required purge time, to harvest product. A couple of years pass and over the course of those years a funny thing happened on a pretty regular basis. The fucking wind blew! Well what do you think that accomplished? If you said cross-pollination you would be correct! You win the prize. What is the prize you ask? Non-organic, organic food of course. Let me explain. It is NOT a law that an organic farm must be located in proximity to other organic farms in order to achieve its certification. That means an organically certified farm can and often times is, located near non-organic farms. In fact, it can be surrounded on all sides by non-organic farms! The Hell you say! No really, the fucking wind blows pollen from farm to farm and just like that you now have cross pollinated, non-organic product that is, for all intents and purposes, undetectable by the human eye–a pair of those eyes, by the way, every consumer happens to have. This is so much of an issue that a major seed producing company has stepped in with a fleet of attorneys in order to force their genetically modified seed down the throat of every farm they can find that doesn’t already use it. I won’t mention the name of this company for fear that I may find my big ass next to Jimmy Hoffa in a genetically modified corn field in Indiana. That said, Fuck em’ come and get me, I could use a break!
And finally PROBLEM NUMBER THREE;
This is where the rubber meets the road in my opinion regarding the separation and definition of ORGANIC vs. LOCALLY GROWN vs. SUSTAINABLY FARMED. Locally grown and sustainably farmed are concepts that are by no stretch of the imagination new. They are simply hot button buzz words that illicit a response. The response these buzz words gleen is one filled with well intended and all together misguided energy that forces, in a wave, the public perception to well up and overtake common sense. “Farm to Plate” also pisses me off. This concept is not new. It’s what you are supposed to do. Plant it, harvest it, eat it. How is this a new concept? Anyone with a backyard garden does this annually.
Supporting our local farmers and the responsible, sustainably farmed products they produce is a noble and admirable concept–one that I support and get behind fully. That being said, in the heart of a Chicago winter, would someone please tell me where I may find a locally grown, sustainably farmed head of lettuce or for that matter, any delicate produce defined by seasonality and growing region. We don’t stop eating salads in January do we? Believe me, if you look hard enough you WILL find these things but the resulting cost and ultimate flavor of these out of season, nonindigenous products will be lackluster at best. Not to mention nutritionally speaking, void of the merits for which they are marketed. So, what this boils down to is simple. We are only able to support local and sustainably farmed produce and animal products when the season of a particular area in which we live allows us to do so.
I have always contended that any Chef that has Asparagus on their menu in October is a fool. Well, I am now one of those fools. I have asparagus still coming into the restaurant that is thin, tender and flavorful. Where is it coming from? Not Elgin and not Rockford……Nope. California. Yep, that’s right, California. The origin of the asparagus on my menu to date has shifted from Michigan and other growing areas in close proximity to Chicago to a source of, you guessed it, a sustainably grown farm in Napa Valley. Am I wrong to take advantage of the fact that these asparagus are every bit as good if not better than the ones I was able to get from local farms in the area during the local growing season? And by the way, did I mention the price is 1/3 less for the California stuff I’m getting now vs. the local stuff I got in June? My profit and loss statement doesn’t think so. Did I also mention that these asparagus are, like many items on my menu, ORGANIC and grown chemically free? Just without the benefit of a stamp of approval from the government. It comes off as lazy and unimaginative to allow a product that is not in peak season to appear on a menu in a respected restaurant such as mine right? On the contrary.
I will, I promise, catch up to every season as it comes into full swing. There will soon be locally grown root vegetables, venison and other locally farmed game on my menu. The asparagus will be gone soon enough in lieu of local product that I can put on the menu affordably and with a reasonable amount of confidence in the supply chain for these items. To force the season and what it brings to harvest just for the sake of having it first is, in reality the less then responsible choice. These asparagus of which I spoke arrive in Chicago in such massive amounts that the carbon footprint they leave in order to do so is minimal based on the sheer volume the shipment provides. The supply will dry up, the price will rise due to high demand and less availability and BINGO! The season shifts into a new phase. Compare that to the prick Chef with the over exaggerated sense of self-worth and entitlement that flys his or her fish in from Hawaii three times a week. Tell me who has the larger carbon footprint now? A ten thousand pound shipment of asparagus brought by rail or a six pound order of Yellow Tail Snapper that flies in three times a week on a first class seat from Hawaii. The same argument can be made for the Chef that demands the season change at their command thereby yielding product that, while chronologically correct, may just not be ready to make its debut for the season in this particular year. While the asparagus may be a few weeks out of what is considered to be the season, it still makes sense for the menu if the price and quality continue to merit their presence. It’s a self-correcting system if you pay attention and allow the market to speak to you in more than one way.
The point I’m trying to make is that we can be talked into believing almost anything if we embrace the concept without first learning of its validity. The local grower and sustainable farmer are now faced with two choices. A) Jacking the price so high for early demand and minimal supply and in the process, providing less than stellar product for crazy cost. Or, B.) Waiting to come to market with a product that has been allowed the time to fully mature both in flavor and nutritional value. I choose option B every time and never look back. It doesn’t have to be local, sustainably farmed or least of all, organic to be appropriate and responsible to serve. It just has to make sense. To blindly follow a concept, any concept, without fully understanding the impact of doing so, is the problem we all face. Believe me, I’m guilty of the same behavior. If it’s written and published in the news media or stated by a respected person of power or position it must be true. So, if that’s the case, did Bill Clinton actually inhale or not? That was clearly bullshit right? Hey!!! Bullshit….. bullshit’s organic! Want to split an order with me?