sustainable vs. organic

Wouldn’t it be nice if all our food products could be trusted to have been BOTH sustainably and organically produced? Many times, they are. But the two terms are not interchangable, as this helpful article from The Sustainable Table shows. (Hat tip to Lawrence London of the soon-to-be launched Permaculture Piedmont NC blog for reminding me about one of my favorite web sites!)

“Are organic and sustainable the same?

“Organic agriculture is becoming more popular because consumers are demanding healthful and environmentally friendly food. In theory, organic agriculture strives to preserve the land for generations to come, but increased demand has interested large agribusiness corporations who intend to profit from the trend.

“The issue can be very confusing — for example, even though organic is certified by the USDA, large corporations have found ways to raise dairy cows in confinement, use massively large acreages to plant crops (monoculture), and ship food thousands of miles to sell. These practices are not considered sustainable.

“This means that organic and sustainable agriculture are similar in some respects but different in others. The following table is a comparison of the two farming techniques.

Organic [vs.] Sustainable

O) Must be independently certified every year and approved by the USDA
S) No certification necessary

O) Can confine animals. Only need to give animals “access” to outdoors; don’t actually have to let them go out.
S) Animals must be permitted to carry out their natural behaviors, e.g., rooting, pecking or grazing. A sustainable farmer might keep his animals indoors in bad weather, but the health and well-being of the animal comes first.

O) No antibiotics allowed
S) No legal restrictions, though sustainable farmers either will not give any antibiotics at all or only when the animals are sick and need to be treated. Antibiotics are never routinely put in feed or water to promote growth or to ward off potential disease.

O) No hormones allowed.
S) No hormones used.

O) Large corporations can raise food organically.
S) Sustainable food production is carried out by families who live and work on the land.

O) There is no limitation on how many acres can be used to grow crops.
S) Sustainable farmers use various placements of crops and plants as a form of pest control and to build soil fertility. Crops are not raised on massive amounts of acreage.

O) Food can travel thousands of miles before reaching your dinner plates. Organic food does not consider the use of fossil fuels or extended amounts of time that can result between harvesting/ processing and eating.
S) Food is raised and sold as close to the farm as possible. Buying locally and eating as seasonally as possible are sustainable practices

“Please note that many organic farmers are also sustainable. The confusion has come about because the USDA organic rules alone are not necessarily sustainable. And many small farmers chose to give up their organic certification when the USDA put their rules into effect in 2002 because the paperwork was overwhelming. But these farmers are still raising animals and crops using organic or what some are now calling "Beyond Organic" methods.

“In addition, large food companies have started to buy organic companies, which hurts competition and can eventually drive down the price farmers are paid while increasing the profits of the corporation. These large corporations are more likely to have monoculture, where one type of food is raised on large tracts of land, as well as confined animals. They also will ship food very long distances.

“Even though this can be potentially confusing, don’t be discouraged! As a consumer, it’s important to know where your food comes from. Purchasing products from local, independent family farmers – whether organic or sustainable – is your best option.

“Knowing where your food comes from is essential to eating sustainably.”

There is a wonderful radio show called Beyond Organic, and you can listen to their current show and their archives on their web site.

Here’s an excerpt from An Organic Cash Cow by Kim Severson, published in the New York Times today, that makes this point perfectly!

photo of cows at an organic factory farm, courtesy OCA, see link later in article to sign petition“The ethos of organic milk – one that its cartons reinforce – conjures lush pastures dotted with grazing animals, their milk production driven by nothing more than nature’s hand and a helpful family farmer.

“But choosing organic milk doesn’t guarantee much beyond this: It comes from a cow whose milk production was not prompted by an artificial growth hormone, whose feed was not grown with pesticides and which had “access to pasture,” a term so vague it could mean that a cow might spend most of its milk-producing life confined to a feed lot eating grain and not grass.

“Exactly how much time cows should spend grazing before their milk can carry the government’s organic label is under scrutiny. Several hundred farmers and organic advocates want organic dairy rules tightened so that cows have more than what they call token access to pasture.

“The issue may be ultimately decided in court, said Mark Kastel of the Cornucopia Institute in Wisconsin. His organization is fighting the rise of confinement organic dairies, which, by his estimate, account for about 30 percent of the organic milk sold.

“So, what’s a well-intentioned milk drinker to do? Decide what matters to you most.

“First, weigh the importance of the organic label. Milk from the Ronnybrook Farm Dairy in the Hudson Valley, which is sold in bottles at Manhattan’s Greenmarkets, is not certified organic. The dairy uses no artificial growth hormones, but it treats sick animals with antibiotics. In the summer the animals eat mostly pasture; in the winter they eat hay with grain mixed in.

“It is a sustainable operation whose owners decided that the term “organic” was becoming co-opted by large corporations, and that the extra cost of the federal organic label was not worth it. For some, milk that has not traveled far and that comes from cows in small pasture-based operations is more important than an official stamp.”

Here in Greensboro, I buy my milk and butter from Homeland Creamery. They have a booth at the Greensboro Farmer’s Curb Market, but they also sell their dairy products at Earth Fare, Deep Roots Market, and other markets. They are not organic – they are local and sustainable dairy farmers.

You can find out more about organic/unsustainable dairies such as Horizon and Aurora at Organic Consumers Association and sign a petition. An organic/sustainable dairy cooperative who did not choose to weaken their values for profit is Organic Valley. When Wal-mart demanded a price that Organic Valley could not produce without compromising their standards, Wal-mart turned to Horizon Dairy. (From the November 1, NYT article What Is Organic? Powerful Players Want a Say by Melanie Warner, reprinted at OCA.)

“George Simeon, chief executive of Organic Valley, a cooperative of mostly small organic dairy farmers, wrestled with the high cost of organic production a little over a year ago when Wal-Mart asked for a 20 percent price cut. For three years, Organic Valley had been Wal-Mart’s primary supplier of organic milk.

“‘Wal-Mart allows you to really build market share,’ Mr. Simeon said. ‘But we’re about our values and being able to sustain our farmers. If a customer wants to stretch us to the point where we’re not able to deliver our mission, then we have to find different markets.’

“Mr. Simeon told Wal-Mart to get a new supplier.

“Dean Foods’ Horizon Organic was better equipped to satisfy Wal-Mart’s demands. Horizon gets about 20 percent of its production from a 4,000-cow organic dairy in Paul, Idaho, which is small in comparison with many conventional dairy farms but huge by organic standards.”

If you can’t buy milk from a local dairy and you can afford organic, please support Organic Valley for standing up for their principles over profit. Boycott Wal-Mart, Dean Foods, Horizon Dairy, and Aurora Organic (and, as always, MONSANTO!). Embrace your power as a consumer.

(For a related post, see honesty and organics.)

5 thoughts on “sustainable vs. organic”

  1. I don’t think we have sustainable farming in Malaysia as organic farming just caught on.Laurie, Farmgirl and I are joint hosting WCB this weekend – a special get well edition for Clare and Kiri. Hope Guido will join in and please bring something to cheer them up with.


  2. I was just going to email you that NYT article, but I see you’re ahead of me again. 😉 I’ve been emailing some of your posts to my sister (www.rosemountainfarm.com), who was frustrated that she couldn’t afford the organic certification – and now she’s realizing that’s not such an uncommon, or bad thing. I need to investigate the milk at our local Whole Foods market – I know they sell Horizon, but they also have a brand called 365. Know anything about it?


  3. Thank you for your post. I’ve quoted you in my blog. More than six months later and this topic is now hot. This whole Horizon bashing disturbs me. I am all for small local farms, but I feel the OCA discredits themselves by posting such blantant comments as “I don’t see how processing thousand of cows a day would seem organic…” (not exact words but very similar). There is a different between organic and sustainability. Fight for the right cause. Not abuse the good cause.


  4. I must clarify here, as I’ve made clear in other posts on the subject, that I wholeheartedly support OCA and their boycott against Horizon and other industrial organic dairies. It has accomplished change that all of our petitioning to the government has not. Sometimes bad pr and hitting corporations in their bank accounts are the only things they understand.


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