The film What’s Organic About Organic? explores how the organic label has evolved, how organic farmers view their work and the tension between maintaining high environmental standards and rapid market expansion. I recently spoke with Shelley Rogers, the director of the film, about the real meaning of organic, the barriers to going mainstream and good dirt.
Civil Eats: Why did you think it was important to explore the subject of organic now? Is the public generally confused about what the label means?
Shelley Rogers: There is a lot of confusion about all food and organic food in particular. I’ve grown up in an era of ever-conflicting advice about nutrition and health along with massive doses of food marketing and green-washing. It seems every few months there’s a different study out attempting to debunk the positive attributes of organic food. A lot of high-powered interests have a lot at stake in maintaining their status quo chemical agriculture profit line.
CE: What do you think is keeping organic from becoming more mainstream?
SR: I think pricing is a challenge for most people to access organic food. Of course, we don’t pay the true cost of most food at the check-out counter. We’ve become accustomed to allocating a small portion of our personal budgets to food, and in doing so, we’ve externalized the costs to our environment and health.
CSA models and farmer’s markets are a great way to cut the price point for citizens, but [these] are not always convenient for people, and in urban environments farmer’s markets can still be a bit pricey.
I think one big culprits is infrastructure and transportation costs. Regional food systems have been systematically dismantled, which makes it difficult for farmers to get their products processed before reaching market (like slaughter houses, etc.) and costly to get the products to market. Plus, whole-sale retail outlets want fewer contracts to negotiate and they want farms that can supply whole regions for the whole season for the price they dictate. This combination makes it very difficult for small and mid-scale growers to reach the marketplace. Since most organic farms are small/mid-scale, this makes it difficult for eaters to access the food they grow at a reasonable price.
CE: From your experience talking to farmers, what would you say are the core principles of organic farming?
SR: The single recurring theme from every organic farmer I’ve ever met is their reverence for and attention to the health of the soil. Everything else stems from that. When you find farmers who respect the tiniest of things—microbes and rhizobial life—you also generally find they respect the larger issues like social justice and healthy food access.
CE: Your film presents both the large organic and small organic story. Is one truer to the original meaning of organic than the other?