Veggie of the Week - Organic Produce
sponsored by Coleman Farms
"Organic" used to be strongly correlated with matted hair and dirty fingernails. This is no longer true: in the last decade "Organic" has become mainstream, even upmarket, often now seen riding in the same shopping carts as expensive wines and imported biscuits.
So what's behind the sudden broad acceptance of organic produce? Availability and marketing certainly play a role. 'Different' is a prerequesite for 'Trendy', and stores like Lazy Acres, Whole Foods Markets or PC Greens use the 'different' or 'exclusive' property of organic produce as part of a package - specialty chocolates, imported cheeses, expensive wines - designed to create an impression of quality and desirability.
This image drives a lot of demand for organic products, or products Certified Organic, without there being much requirement for the customer to consider how the organic and the 'conventional' product might differ. This market largely motivated the establishment, in late 2003, of a USDA National Organic standard.
Fashion, however, is not often explicitly recognized as a factor motivating behavior. The typical response to 'why do you buy/did you switch to organic' will mention a desire to avoid pesticides and 'chemicals': "it's better for me". If you look at the literature, though, there's lots of debate about this, tending to conclude that no definite risks are associated with consumption of produce containing the allowed trace levels of artificial chemicals, or else that no definite health benefits have been associated with the consumption of organic produce. Still, it's worth wondering, considering the number of products and practices which have received this sort of approval, only to be subsequently withdrawn from the market as unsafe.
And then there's taste. Many consumers are attracted to organic produce by having heard health claims associated with it or by more straightforward marketing. Having tried it, they'll often return, or return to select items, not so much because it might be healthier, or trendier, but because it tastes better, and often looks better, than standard commercial produce. There are a number of top class restaurants in Santa Barbara and Los Angeles that use a lot of organic produce. They probably get a bit of a boost by putting 'organic' on the menu, but what really appeals to the chefs and to the discerning diner is the quality of this produce, which tastes better and presents better than the commercial standard.
This might be a good place to clarify the two uses of 'Certified' you'll find at the Farmers' Market. First, there's 'Certified Farmers' Market'. The Santa Barbara County Farmers' Markets are Certified, which means that the products sold at them should be grown by the vendor or his immediate employer. Then there's '(USDA) Certified Organic', which has to do with a set of standards the Federal Government has established concerning growing methods. These two certifications are quite distinct, so produce sold at the Farmers' Market can range from contemporary standard 'factory' grown through Certified Organic to 'chemical free' and biodynamic. If you find biodynamic, it will be organic, but may not be Certified; 'chemical free' will not be Certified, but may be organic - you have to ask. More about some of this later.