Organics a la mode – Bio is Big

Irish Eyes magazine, May 1999

by Alison Benney

An apple a day will earn a doctor’s pay. That’s the scarey conclusion drawn from a website that totes up daily pesticide consumption for users who tap in. It claims that one apple contains five different pesticides, which can cause cancer and birth defects and damage the nervous, reproductive and immune systems. And the apple is only seventh on its list of most contaminated foods: the first three are strawberries, green peppers and spinach.

No wonder organic food is à la mode. Mad cow disease, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), pollution-tainted fish and antibiotics overkill in livestock all seem to reflect consumer society out of control. In the last 40-50 years, the intensive industrialisation of food production has set out to make the act of ingestion faster, cheaper, easier and more plentiful, bringing us such chemical- and conservative-laden foodstuffs as Twinkies, frozen TV dinners and Franco-American Spaghetti.

With the blossoming of the organic movement, its proponents are getting more vocal. According to Parisgramme’s book "Vivre bio à Paris", fields have become factories and animals are raw material. Chemical fertilisers, pesticides and fungicides chase each other in an ecologically vicious cycle. Corporate farms have eradicated any notion of bucolic breeding grounds, with the mass-production of livestock bred on hormone supplements, antibiotics and calmants.

Nutrient-starved humans are replicating the chemical cycle, daily swallowing handfuls of pills to regain the balance: So the market is booming for vitamins, herbs, supplements, pills: echinacea, prozac, viagra, zanax, caffeine, fake sugar and fake fat.

Organic food fans and farmers, ecologists and animal rights activists are urging people to step off that conveyor belt and quit consuming UFOs, Unidentified Food Objects. The organic farmer’s code for what one journalist labelled “sustainable cuisine” implies no pesticides or herbicides on crops; no preservatives added, no irradiation and no use of GMOs. Livestock are typically raised in an open-air environment, without antibiotics or hormones.

And so it grows. According to “60 millions de Consommateurs”, sales of organic products in France have been increasing 26% a year since 1994, identical to the growth in the US. In the UK the market has tripled. In Paris alone, there are four annual health food trade shows, and "Vivre bio" lists over 100 stores that supply organic foods, more than 20 restaurants, a dozen bakers and butcher, plus three weekly organic produce markets.

This is especially impressive given how hard it is to attain the government’s organic seal of approval. A three-year working period is imposed on a farmer between the introduction of organic methods and the actual stamp of “AB” or “agriculture biologique” on the final product. The certification, which was passed as EC law in 1991, verifies that more than 95% of a product’s agricultural composition is organic.

The rising interest in organics is encouraging, but it’s not all coming up roses. As Regis Sauvanot, organiser of the Vivez Nature trade show, commented, there is a big increase in “faux bio”, meaning not quite accurate labelling methods, and “industrialised bio”, like Carrefour’s AB-stamped line of organic foods.

With big industry taking up the name but not the spirit comes the fear of so-called Frankenstein food. According to New Science magazine, Monsanto’s genetically altered soybeans have recently become Brazil’s first legally approved, genetically engineered crop. (The same company invented a gene called Terminator, which keeps a plant from producing viable seed.) With the widespread use of soy in commonly used products like ketchup, soft drinks, yogurt and cookies, and especially prevalent in health food stores, the fear is that organic products might unknowingly be GMO-tainted.

Eyebrows also get raised over the organic veracity of, for instance, coffee beans from the tropics of Brazil or the three-year purity of livestock feed. There’s the fickleness of nature: Do the honeybees stick to their organic fields in the Haute Garonne, or do they head over for some nectar from PM Lionel Jospin’s genetically modified testing grounds next door?

For novices, walking into a health food store can be a bewildering experience – how to choose among the varieties of grains, beans, sugars; and what qualifies a wine as organic? Some are put off by the amount of time unprocessed food takes to prepare, by the re-education involved and the exotic by-products, like ear candles, bee pollen and copper sheets. Jean-Luc Poujaran, who used to produce 100% organic breads (including an organic croissant) at his bakery in the 7th arrondissement told Parisgramme Presse, “I think it’s important to use non-polluting products, but I don’t want to be labeled as an organic baker. Organic customers aren’t always epicureans.”

Massage therapist Evy Jester begs to differ, swearing by the exceptional tastiness of organic produce, from the full flavor of fresh-squeezed orange juice, the sharp nectar of cherry tomatoes and buttery richness of peaches, bought at the neighborhood Naturalia. For the moment, “bio” is still more expensive, reflecting in part the more tedious process of organic farming and the luxury product it’s become. For those who choose to afford it, the benefits are better health, a clean conscience and ecological warm-fuzzies.