Grass-fed Beef, Free-Range Chicken, and USDA Organic: Language and the Sustainable Revolution

Farmers and consumers need to go beyond grass-fed, free-range, humane, and USDA Organic labels to do right by this planet.

  • Beyond the “free-range” label, humane pig stewards must provide pigs ample space to root and wallow, and, for sows, a place to farrow and nurse.
    Photo by Fotolia/Merc67
  • Joel Salatin shares the exuberant message of Earth stewardship and sustainable farming with thousands of Mother Earth News Fair attendees every year.
    Photo by Laura Perkins
  • Organic farms multi-crop; cover-crop; and opt for traditional fertilizers and weed suppressants.
    Photo by Fotolia/Marcuspon

Members of the MOTHER EARTH NEWS tribe have a long, illustrious, and storied reputation as stewards of the Earth. I grew up with the magazine during the Vietnam War, the hippie movement, and the Watergate scandal. Through it all, our tribe remained politically bipartisan and religiously diverse. One thing we have always fervently agreed on is stewardship of this planet. We feel a sense of deep responsibility toward breathable air, healthy soil, and potable, plentiful water. We feel personally assaulted when public and private interests desecrate, pillage, and attack these precious resources upon which we all depend.

Over the years, our tribe has developed a vocabulary to promote and explain our views on the environment, self-reliance, and sustainability. We’ve fought for 100 percent grass-fed beef, free-range chickens, pasture-raised pork, USDA Organic veggies, and so much more. But today, powerful interests threaten to change the meaning of our language. Well, folks, our communication depends on preserving these vibrant words. Just like our land, our language needs to be fostered.

Define and Defend the Language of Sustainable Food

Pay attention to any food recall, and you’ll see a dozen brand names coming out of the same processing plant. As the food industry continues to centralize, this product and brand-name homogeneity only escalates. Finding and using a vocabulary of specificity will become more and more important for our tribe. We need to know our terms, own our terms, define our terms, and defend our terms.

A defining commitment of our movement is that we use organic fertilizers, such as compost, instead of synthetic fertilizers, and we mulch, cover crop, and weed to avoid using herbicides. We can be thankful that clever people have given us an ecological vocabulary. Think about the gift of Elaine Ingham’s “soil food web” to describe the complex relationship among organisms in healthy soil. Such a pregnant phrase stops simplistic chemical-pushers in their tracks and demands respect.

But look what has happened to the word “organic” since J. I. Rodale first popularized the designation in 1942. The term is now owned by industry and the government, and all sorts of questionable nuances are done in organic’s name. In poultry, for example, organic certification by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) requires access to pasture or other outdoor environments, but with a huge caveat: If either inclement weather or the bird’s health is an issue, then outdoor access is no longer mandatory. The Cornucopia Institute’s aerial pictures of industrial-scale organic poultry farms show the blatant disregard of standards by the large certified players. The USDA couldn’t care less about this noncompliance. How many Americans buy scofflaw eggs at Walmart and think they’re really changing the foodscape?

Meanwhile, our true-blue integrity farmers produce pastured eggs light-years better than factory-farmed USDA Certified Organic eggs but can’t afford to get licensed. This is why I like to use the term “beyond organic” to describe nutritious eggs from pastured chickens. When we support the work of organizations such as the Cornucopia Institute, learn from them, and then foster the next generation of stewardship vocabulary, we preserve the meaning of the original language for the next generation.

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