Big Organic

Consumer demand is turning small organic food companies into big ones. And that's good.

The words "organic farm" may conjure up an idyllic, pastoral agricultural paradise, but that's not always accurate. Many organic farms are owned and run by giant corporations and considered by some as “ethically challenged” for adopting industrial production methods. But even large corporate organic companies are still generally better than their conventional counterparts.

Buying certified organic means that a product has been certified by a USDA accredited agency to meet the stringent production and handling guidelines of the National Organic Standards. The USDA’s National Organic Program developed National Organic Standards for handling organically produced agricultural products and established an organic certification program.

In organic farming, crops are grown without the use of any genetic engineering, irradiation, synthetic toxic pesticides, sewage sludge or petroleum based fertilizers. Livestock (cows, pigs, and chickens, for example) used for the production of organic meat, milk, eggs and all other animal-derived organic products are not given antibiotics or growth hormones, are fed organic feed and provided access to pastures. (This guideline needs revision: It's subject to interpretation and does not clearly state frequency or length).

Living in California, I'm lucky to have access to Farmers Markets where small family-owned organic farmers still exist. California is the nation's agricultural superpower. Its 88,000 farms produce more dairy than Wisconsin, better wine than France, and about half the fruits, nuts and vegetables produced in the U.S.

Every week, I'm able to buy locally-grown organic produce. It’s wonderful and gratifying to buy directly from local farmers. I marvel at their enthusiasm, hard work and dedication. They often work from sun up to sun down, seven days a week. They manage to smile as they set up their little unpretentious stands, getting up as early as 2 am to prepare, load their trucks, drive to the farmers market, unload, re-pack, then drive home. Thanks to their commitment, lucky consumers like me get to enjoy the fruits -- literally! -- of their labor and support the organic movement directly.

Public support, California's climate and many other factors make it possible for these small farming communities to make a living while remaining true to their purpose and Amira Elganideals. And although many of the current large organic corporations started out with the same ideology as small family-owned farms, change and growth are part of any successful business.

Contrary to a recent article published by Business Week Magazine called The Organic Myth,” organic farming and production, even as it adopts mass production practices, is still better than conventional farming and does not mean “pastoral ideals are getting trampled,” as the article claims. Consumer demand is driving the growth of these big organic corporations. This trend should make it possible for the organic food movement to further develop its methods and practices as well as compel conventional farmers to switch increasingly to organic farming.

Large organic corporations are crucial to the expansion of the organic industry. The escalation of small farms into large ones has its downsides, but it is an important and necessary trend for an industry with rising consumer demand. In 2005, the organic market grew by 16 percent, reaching sales of almost 14 billion dollars. While it continues to increase its market share at a fast pace, it still represents only 2.5 percent of total sales in the overall grocery industry.

What is a myth is the belief that consumers buy organic because they believe that all organic products come from small family farms. Most organic buyers no doubt understand that some organic foods come from small farms and some from big companies. It's nice to support small farms. But the overwhelming majority of organic shoppers are happy to buy organic foods from big companies, as long as the food is healthy and those companies adhere to ethical, environmentally friendly practices.

According to the Hartman Group's report, "Organic Food & Beverage Trends 2004," the reasons cited by consumers for why they buy organic food were these:

1) help the environment (58 percent)

2) support small and local farmers (57 percent)

3) improve health (54 percent)

4) quality is higher (42 percent)

5) taste is better (32 percent)

It's also a myth that those of us who support the organic movement want our economy to revert to an agriculturally-based one where half the population is tilling the soil. Some of the technologies and practices developed in the past 50 years are great. Many of them are dangerous and unethical. The organic movement is all about keeping the good practices and eliminating the bad.

It is fairly common for conventional consumers to explore and experiment buying organic products. They usually take baby steps, starting with the notion that organic is “pesticide free” and therefore, better for their families. They start buying a product here and there, eventually making a commitment to regularly buy a few specific categories of organic items. They listen to experts who recommend that if consumers cannot afford to buy all organic food, at least try to buy the organic version of items generally known to have a higher content of pesticide residues and toxic chemicals (milk, strawberries, eggs and chicken, for example). It takes years before some consumers fully transition to buying mostly organic.

The Challenges of the Organic Industry

Organic food production is not perfect -- far from it. But it is no where near as harmful to our bodies and the environment as conventional food production is, regardless of the size of the company involved. A large organic farm is better than a small conventional one.

As organic consumption becomes more mainstream, things might get worse before they get better in terms of where the food comes from, where it is produced and how much you have to pay for it. It’s a double edge sword. While the increase in demand of organic produce and products means that conventional producers might consider converting to or adding organic production, fierce demand for organics is outpacing the growth of organic farming and production.

Organic consumer demand is out of sync with organic farming production. Organic milk, for instance, is under-produced by up to 100 percent, according the Business Week article. That means that as much as twice the quantity of currently produced organic milk is needed to satisfy increasing consumer demand. The same reasons for which Stonyfield Farm, as mentioned by Business Week’s article, has been forced to “source globally.”

But there are other reasons forcing the organic industry to go abroad that the article doesn’t consider: the displacement of resources for the purpose of growing and raising crops and animals that take away from more efficient forms of food. For instance, our excessive consumption of meat has a far greater impact on the environment and the availability of other resources.

Raising beef cattle for commercial consumption of meat is appallingly wasteful and inefficient. Cows raised for meat occupy acreages of land that could otherwise be used for some form of organic farming. The grain grown for animal feed displaces grain that could be grown organically for either organic livestock or even human consumption. According to the book, "Diet for a New America," by John Robbins, It takes 16 pounds of grain to produce one pound of meat. 16 pounds of grains could provide a meal to at least 100 people, whereas one pound of meat feeds two or three. Also, more than half of the water consumed in the U.S. is used for irrigation of land used for growing livestock food. It takes 2,500 gallons of water to produce one pound of meat -- 100 times more water than it takes to produce a pound of wheat.

Raising livestock for meat production depletes the environment and displaces organic production. For example, the dairy industry has a combine total of nine million dairy cows in the U.S. but only 150,000 of them are organic, according to Business Week Magazine. It is not a surprising inequality of conventional dairy cows versus organic dairy cows, but it is an accurate representation of the disconnection between new consumer trends and lack of availability of raw materials.

Another reason for organic producers in the U.S. outsourcing globally for raw materials or ingredients, is the dominance of conventional agriculture. The irony is that the organic dairy industry enjoys a higher profit margin than its conventional counterpart. The incentive is there for dairy and other farms to go organic.

What consumers may not realize, however, is how long it takes to establish organic credentials. For example, the process of converting a farm from conventional to organic takes a minimum of three years. Meanwhile, demand for organic foods is increasing at double-digit percentages every year. The lag between demand and supply creates shortages, which leads to higher prices (and higher profits for those farms that have already gone organic).

The downside of the shortage of organic milk, for instance, is that certain stores that sell organic at discounted prices stop carrying some organic products. One chain grocery store in the United States, called "Trader Joe’s," used to carry several kinds of organic cheeses at reasonable prices, but they stopped selling most of them months ago. Ask them why and they’ll tell you that they don’t have the organic milk to produce the cheese with. (It's no coincidence that Wal-Mart started selling organic milk recently.) Organic milk consumption is growing 25 percent per year. Suppliers just can't keep up with demand.

Another observation made by the Business Week Magazine’s article is that organic companies are “scrambling” to have ingredients produced abroad in other countries like China and Brazil, where standards may be hard to enforce. But it should have also pointed out that conventional food producers have been doing worse for years and with little or no restrictions in the production itself and with little or no concern for the farm workers or the environment. We don’t have to go abroad to see the substandard conditions of growing conventional food or the harmful toxics farm-workers are constantly exposed to. And while organic producers are part of “big business,” they’re not as big or as harmful as the conventional industry.

It is consumer behavior and demand that ultimately can influence agribusiness to convert to organic farming. At the same time, only consumer shopping power can force organic companies big and small to actually adhere to the organic ideals -- not just cash in on the organic boom.

If we can get big businesses to practice ethical and earth-friendly organic farming, the world will be a much better place. It can only happen, though, if consumers demand it. As responsible consumers, we need to shop with the same ethical values that we expect from our suppliers. Ideally, we should be well informed about what we buy, how it was grown and where it came from. Organically produced food must show in the labels where items were manufactured and what the ingredients are. Seek to support local small farms by eating what’s in season or locally grown, grocery stores often place signs on produce telling exactly where it was grown. When shopping, make choices that support not only your moral values but also the companies that operate with the strong ethical standards.

In the process of practicing ethical consumption, we nourish an industry in its infancy to grow within the ethical and moral boundaries necessary to protect human health, preserve our ecosystems and promote sustainable food production.

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Protein Combinations

Q: I picked up a newsletter from a Giant Eagle grocery store a long time ago and have misplaced it. It was about mixing partial protein carbohydrates that complement each other in order to get a complete protein from them. It stated that some foods had a number of amino acids but not enough to make a complete protein; that you could complement one with another food that had the missing amino acids and you would have a complete protein. Foods that were on that page were wheat, corn, rice and legumes.

I am almost sure that it said you could mix rice and beans to get a complete protein but do not remember the other combinations that it listed. There were three combinations that were described. I was hoping you could help me find some information on the internet that would fill in the missing puzzle pieces for me.

Thank you for your assistance with this search.


A: Dear Elizabeth, thank you for the great question. Plant foods are great sources of complete protein when eaten in combination. The complementing items don’t have to be eaten during the same meal, only the same day.

It's a myth that meat is the best source of protein. Plant-based foods can provide plenty of protein without the cholesterol and saturated fat, which increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and certain forms of cancer.

Meat should not be the primary source of protein in anyone's diet. Meat eaters need limit their intake of meat and add more plant-based meals to their eating plan in order to decrease health risks, boost immunity system and better manage body weight.

Eating a combination of one item from two or more different food groups listed below provide complete protein. For example, peanut butter on whole-wheat bread provides complete protein. So do beans-and-rice, beans-and-corn and a salad with nuts or beans on it.

About 10 to 20 percent of your total daily calorie consumption should come from protein, about 20 to 30 percent from fat and about 50 to 60 percent from complex carbohydrates.

Seeds & Nuts





Black beans



Pine nuts

Pinto beans




Kidney beans







Sesame seeds

Black-eyed peas

Brown rice


Sunflower seeds




Pumpkin seeds

Soy beans


Salad greens 


Soy products



Nut butters




Other nuts and seeds


Other grains

Other veggies

What this chart demonstrates also is that you don't need the chart. Protein combining isn't difficult. If you simply eat a varied vegetarian diet, it would be hard to NOT combine protein.


Ella Wheeler Wilcox

"Tis easy enough to be pleasant when life flows along like a song, but the man worthwhile is the one who will smile when everything goes dead wrong."


Nuts About Nuts

Walnuts are popular year-round, but even more so around the holidays because fall 'tis the season: The harvesting of walnuts begins as early as September. Every year, one billion and a quarter pounds are produced worldwide.

Walnuts are rich in protein and fiber and can be eaten plain as a snack, in salads, as toppings on main dishes or soups, in sauces and dips and, of course, desserts. These powerhouses are rich in omega 3 fatty acids and other nutrients.

A recent study by Spanish scientists found that walnuts have more protective properties against heart disease than olive oil.

The study was partly funded by the California Walnut Commission, which two years ago submitted a request to the FDA for permission to claim that walnuts help protect against heart disease. The FDA has approved a “qualified health claim,” which states that “supportive but not conclusive research shows that eating 1.5 ounces of walnuts per day as part of a low-saturated-fat and low cholesterol diet, and not resulting in increased caloric intake, may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.”

The American College of Cardiology also had the research reviewed by a professor of medicine at the University of Maryland, Dr. Robert A. Vogel. His findings state that “this demonstrates that the protective fat from walnuts actually undoes some of the detrimental effects of high-saturated-fat diet, whereas a neutral fat, such as olive oil, does not have as much protective ability.”

Dr. Vogel also says that the healthy-heart benefits of the famous "Mediterranean diet" may have more to do with nuts than olive oil. He says more research is needed to clearly determine if the protective nutrients found in walnuts are affected by roasting or cooking them.

Nuts, in general, are highly affected by temperature, light and heat. They go rancid easily if not stored properly. Although research isn't conclusive yet, it's likely that cooking nuts reduces their nutritional content. Walnuts in particular taste good just raw and plain, and can improve the flavor of your favorite whole-grain cold or hot cereal.


Poultry Antibiotics Put Humans At Risk

A new study funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is the first to find a direct correlation between the handling and consumption of poultry treated with antibiotics and the presence of antibiotic resistance genes in humans.

Previous studies found resistant bacteria in poultry but none that could show a direct association. This latest research specifically investigated the use of virginiamycin, a growth-promotion antibiotic. This causes a threat to humans who in the process of handling and eating the tainted poultry become carriers of the resistance genes, making them potentially unresponsive to very serious infections, which are ever more the cause of infections in hospitals. Quinupristi-dalforpistin, an antibiotic closely related to virgianimycin, is used to treat patients suffering from antibiotic-resistant infections who may not respond to it if they carry the virgianimycin resistance genes.

In other words, the antibiotics given to the chicken people eat can make the antibiotics prescribed by doctors fail to work.

It’s common knowledge that animals raised for commercial meat are treated with drugs and hormones to promote growth. But that animals are given antibiotics to make them get bigger without any regard to the health risks to consumers is outrageous.

Decaf Isn't

If you think drinking decaf means you're not drinking caffeine, think again. Decaffeinated coffee is not caffeine-free, according to a study by University of Florida scientists. The research found that almost all brands of decaf coffee contain some amount of caffeine.

To keep up with vegetarian, organic and health-related research news on a daily basis, check out my Vegetarian Organic Life Blog.



Heavenly Soup with Beans, Whole Grain Pasta and Veggies (vegan)
Serves 6

Click on the picture for a closer look!

This delicious and comforting soup is not only good for the soul but it will boost your immunity and help you fight cold symptoms. Kids will love it too, especially if served topped with parmesan cheese (vegan alternative or real) and whole grain bread croutons. It’s loaded with antioxidants and vitamins. It’s also high in protein, fiber and complex carbohydrates. Good for you at any time of the year!

Preparation time: 5 minutes Cooking time: 40 minutes

1 tablespoon safflower or canola oil
6 fresh garlic cloves, pressed or finely minced
1 medium onion, finely chopped
10 fresh plum tomatoes, peeled and seeded (or one 28-oz whole peeled canned tomatoes)
4 cups vegetable broth
3 tablespoons fresh chopped basil (or 2 tablespoons dried basil)
2 teaspoons oregano
2 teaspoons thyme
1 teaspoon rosemary
2 stalks celery, diced
½ cup fresh corn kernels (substitute with frozen)
¾ cup frozen soybeans or edamames (substitute with peas)
3 cups cooked kidney beans, rinsed and drained (or cannellini beans or other canned beans)
1 cup uncooked whole grain rigatoni pasta (spelt or whole wheat)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Reduced fat Veggy Parmesan cheese alternative or real parmesan cheese (optional topping)
Whole grain crostini or croutons (optional topping)

1. In a large pot, heat safflower or canola oil over low heat. Add garlic and half of the chopped onions sautéing for 5 minutes. Meanwhile, in a food processor or blender, puree tomatoes with remaining onions, basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary and 1 cup of vegetable broth.

2. Add processed mixture, remaining vegetable broth and celery to sautéed onion and garlic and simmer for 15 minutes over medium heat, lightly covered with lid. Add corn, edamames, kidney beans, pasta and olive oil simmering for 20 more minutes over medium heat uncovered.

3. Add salt and pepper to taste, turn off heat and serve. Sprinkle servings with alternative parmesan cheese and top with croutons or crostini.

Cook’s tip: To peel and seed tomatoes immerse them in boiling water for about a minute then transfer tomatoes onto a colander placing under cool running water for 30 seconds. Peel skin away, cut in half and remove seeds and core.



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This newsletter is not intended to provide and replace medical advice. The author and editor expressly disclaim all responsibility for any adverse effects resulting from any information, diet or exercise suggestions. It is imperative that the advice of a physician is sought before any diet or exercise programs are adopted.

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