Go Organic!?
category: Newspaper Articles

Go Organic!?

by Emily Richardson Fanjoy

Guest Columnist

Last month I talked about why it’s important to be invested in international development all the time, not just in moments of crisis. That article might hint that all we can do is support large scale government decisions on international policies, but today I want to talk about personal decisions we make on a daily basis that affect international economies and individuals throughout the world.

While waiting for my Peace Corps paperwork to clear so I could start my service, I worked at a locally owned natural food store and organic bakery. It was a fantastic opportunity for me to learn a lot about food, nutrition, and certified labels. The coffee wall I had to stock was such a jumble of words that my coworkers and I would have contests to find the longest coffee labels, with examples like “Organic Fair Trade Shade Grown High Altitude Kilimanjaro Swiss Water Process Decaffeinated French Roast Whole Bean”. Organic? Fair Trade? What do these certifications mean, anyway?

According to the USDA in their consumer brochure for the National Organic Program, “Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations… Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation.” This is the basic idea, though certification requirements vary depending on the certifying agency. “Fair trade” is a label to help consumers buy products from farms and cooperatives that have proven they provide fair wages and healthy working conditions. The label prohibits child labor, and a percentage of the profits are applied to social projects in healthcare, education, micro-finance, and women’s initiatives. Fair trade certifiers also work with farms on land and water conservation and environmental education. While organic and fair trade labels apply largely to comestibles, the market is expanding to include non-food items and artisanal products. However, most notable to consumers is that these labels carry higher price tags and this sometimes breeds contempt. While working at the store register, I heard many arguments both for and against these labels, and I really wasn’t sure who was right or wrong.

To my mind, organic seemed like a good idea for the environment. Organic foods are healthier for the consumer as well, keeping chemicals off of food and out of water sources. However, my downstairs neighbor’s car sported a bumper sticker that never failed to annoy me: GO ORGANIC! I couldn’t afford to buy exclusively organic, and I was selling the stuff. For the average American, to GO ORGANIC! requires a major shift in their personal budget—a shift most people are understandably unwilling to make. And if one is to go organic, where does it stop? Do we buy organic pet food, decorate with organic flowers? Do I only purchase organic yarns to support my knitting habit? Furthermore, how important is Fair Trade when it carries such a high price? As one customer remarked from across the counter, “I hear the producers don’t get that much more money for their product anyway.” I like to be conscientious, but I don’t like to be duped.

In Guatemala I’ve seen the argument from a new angle. The municipality we live in covers an area encompassing cold, high altitude regions good for growing wheat and potatoes for local consumption; as well as warmer, low-lying valleys perfect for producing coffee and cardamom as export crops. About a month into our service, we visited one of the poorest places I’ve ever seen, a small coffee producing community situated five hours west of us. The only public transports are 4×4 pickup trucks where passengers and cargo are piled into the back for the harrowing dirt trail that winds across the mountain ridges. The views are breathtaking, but it’s a hard trip… though it’s not as hard as the lives of people in this community. I arrived with my health worker eyes on, and what I saw was formidable. Their houses are rudimentary boxes of wood planks with dirt floors and open cooking fires. The region is constantly suffering from water shortages, and the natural springs aren’t sufficient to provide for the population. Families collect barrels and plastic tubs, setting them around the perimeter of their tin roofs in an attempt to catch as much water as possible. More sophisticated homes have gutter systems that flow into open concrete tanks. During the rainy season, the families do ok; but for the four or five months a year with next to no rainfall, everyone suffers.

I was in this community to assess their health needs and begin a health education program. I visited homes and shared meals with some of the families, and during my four days there, I realized that no one in the community had changed their clothes. The people don’t own a lot of clothing, but worse still they don’t have enough water available to bathe or do the laundry every day. When they have to choose between using water to cook their beans and corn, or to wash clothes, they use it to cook.

I also discovered that all of their coffee is certified organic. The mayor of our municipality has never made it out to visit this community in his jurisdiction, and local health care professionals have only been arriving there for the past two years to give vaccines and provide family planning. But three or four times a year, a man from the organic certification agency comes out to test the soil and make sure the growers aren’t secretly using chemical fertilizers. What does organic mean to this community? They no longer have to use chemical fertilizers that would stay on their skin and clothes for days, until their next opportunity to bathe and do laundry. Chemical fertilizers are incredibly potent and dangerous, as they aren’t meant to be absorbed by human bodies. Your organic decision makes a direct impact on their health.

Being part of an organic cooperative insulates them somewhat from the larger commodities market fluctuations. When I returned to my home village, I talked to our neighbor Nas Palas about coffee production. “You know,” he said, “if it hadn’t been for the market crash in coffee in the late 90’s, we wouldn’t be living here. The whole family would be on our land in Barillas (the neighboring municipality).” He explained that he’d worked for years to get his coffee trees planted, cared for, and producing coffee to sell for export, and though it was incredibly hard work and separated him from his family for much of the year, he made good money. But in the late 90’s, the price of coffee fell from 800 quetzales for a 100 pound bag of beans to 100 quetzales. Nas wasn’t selling organic or fair trade coffee, and the crash devastated him financially. He was totally at the mercy of the market; he abandoned his coffee trees and came home for good.

Many organic and fair trade certifications are used as a means of helping some of the poorest of the poor. They protect their health by keeping those in already adverse living conditions away from harsh chemicals. They help farmers and their families manage their land and water resources to prevent pollution and erosion that will only hurt them in the future. They empower women artisans and provide them with an income to provide for their families, to send their children to school. The fair trade programs offer education, access to microfinance, women’s initiatives, health education—many of the same things your Peace Corps Volunteers are doing in countries all over the world. We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that organic and fair trade labels with their big price tags are not meant to make these small farmers and artisans wealthy, but rather to give them a stable income and help them make the most of that income by giving them the tools to use it wisely.

This doesn’t mean I now think we should all GO ORGANIC! or purchase only fair trade artisan products for birthday and Christmas gifts. There’s still the issue of how pricey it can be to purchase these certified foods and goods. I think we should try to understand these labels, and since they aren’t all exactly equal, we shouldn’t hesitate to investigate different certification standards. But I also believe these labels, as ridiculously trendy as they’ve become, can actually help us to make powerful purchasing decisions that are also small and frequent investments in development. Now that I live amongst producers and beneficiaries of these programs, I’m much more convinced of their utility and the fact that there are benefits we don’t always see. These benefits don’t come with a price tag, such as protecting the health and livelihood of entire communities through purchasing organic coffees, teas, chocolates, or bananas. The decision to spend or not spend more money on food and goods according to their labels is a personal decision that I think is best done on an individual basis. Just in case you still wonder, “Is it really worth it?” My answer is yes, it is.

Posted by: emily