The Truth About Organic

Farmers Don and Andrea Cascun wake up every morning at six to feed their chickens. On the weekends, their three young kids wake up, too, to help bring the chickens out to graze on open pasture after a night's sleep in hoop houses that protect animals from predators. The chickens' grass-fed diet is supplemented with custom made local feed to ensure no growth hormones or antibiotics get anywhere near their chicks. When the weather permits, chickens, goats and ducks roam freely on the Cascun's 125 acres all day long. During the winter baby goats can often be found on the family's living room floor getting bottle-fed in front of the fire to keep warm. Most of the animals are processed by Don and Andrea on the farm in their very own New York State-inspected 5A processing facility. And yet, because Cascun Farm can't afford the USDA organic certification, the family, who sells fresh meat to restaurants and retail stores like Eataly in NYC, has had a disadvantage in the market-place.

Food labeling isn't black and white. Two of the most preferred and overused words in food promotion are "organic" and "natural." Generally defined, "natural" and "organic" mean close to nature and imply a suspicion of factory farming and chemical engineering. Paul D. Swanson of Gastronomica explains that the development of "organic" and "natural" as food descriptors is a relatively recent phenomenon in reaction to the overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides common in modern conventional farming. Over the years, as Swanson points out, in order to mitigate consumer anxieties about the source of food, producers adopted rustic images of family farms and rolling pastures to recreate romanticized connotations about farming in their marketing efforts.

Unfortunately, labels like these have often created illusory representations of many products; while certified organic prohibits the use of synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering, often organic doesn't necessarily mean close to nature at all. The industrialization of organic farms has resulted in a greener system of factory farming, but many operators have replaced synthetic fertilizer with compost, manure and imported minerals; synthetic pesticides with overused organic pesticides; and "cage free" pasture raising with organic feed lots, an oxymoron in and of itself. Unlike "organic," "natural" has remained largely undefined, resulting in consumer confusion and even lawsuits about misrepresentation.

In this labeling landscape, small farms often end up getting the short end of the stick compared to their "certified organic" large-scale counterparts. Large grocery stores and food chains often prefer to do business with organic factory farms because they provide cheaply produced USDA certified food that consumers feel warm and fuzzy buying (to many consumers, the organic label appears to offer at minimum a greater level of healthfulness and safety than non-organic alternatives).

But as we've seen, "organic" and "natural" labels are no guarantee of ideal quality. Under the North East Organic Farming Certification regulations, an organic chicken could be raised in cages and given only a few minutes to roam on pasture as long as it's fed certified "organic" feed (and the farm meets other organic specifications). "My goal is to offer a healthy alternative to grocery store chicken that is raised properly and affordable for every family," Andrea Cascun says. "Even if my farm could afford the organic label, I don't believe it would make my product any superior."

So, if we've been following the organic and natural guidelines, how do we know if we've been treating our bodies right? (Not to mention our animals and our environment.) Wading through and understanding labels can be cumbersome. Thankfully, several experts, writers and small businesses have attempted to provide resources to help consumers make educated choices. For the avid reader, there's What To Eat by Marion Nestle, which offers a detailed guided tour of the supermarket, explaining differences between food labels, packaging and health facts. For the tech-savvy, apps like Fooducate help inform those browsing for healthy brands through a simple rating scale. Also, the Clean 15 and the Dirty Dozen guides are terrific tools to better understanding which fruits and vegetables should be purchased organically and which are clean enough to spare some change on. To be safe, always try to go directly to the source, as many small farms -- both organic and non-organic -- are doing it right. Just look at the Cascuns.