As philosopher Francis Bacon said some 400 years ago: "Knowledge is power." To which U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan more recently added, "Knowledge is power. Information is liberating."
That timeless insight seems particularly applicable to society's growing interest in how the food it eats lands on the dinner table. As Marissa Harshman wrote in a recent story in The Columbian, "Local farmers, grocers, farmers market directors and regional food system advocates say consumers are asking more questions than ever." Questions about whether their fruits and vegetables are grown locally and organically; questions about how the cows, pigs, and chickens they eat are cared for while the animals are alive.
Take the Puyleart family of La Center. As Harshman wrote: "They eat grass-fed beef and pork raised in Eastern Oregon and Ridgefield. They purchase eggs from pasture-raised chickens in Ridgefield." The Puylearts are not alone. Many Americans are taking similar care in choosing their food, something that largely was unheard of 20 or 30 years ago, when your choices were determined by what was available at the local Piggly Wiggly. This November, in fact, Washington has a statewide initiative on the ballot — I-522 — that deals with the labeling of genetically engineered foods.
Increasingly, people are closely reading food labels and shopping at stores that specialize in organic products or have sections dedicated to organic food. That has spawned a growth industry, both for food producers and food sellers. In this part of the country, locally owned chains such as Chuck's Produce, New Seasons, Zupan's Markets, and others have carved out a niche selling high-end foods to people willing to pay premium prices.
But, as the New York Times pointed out in a 2012 article, organic has been supersized. The U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed regulations for the organic industry in 1997, and those regulations became law in 2002. Since then, behemoths such as Kellogg Company and PepsiCo are among the conglomerates that have delved into the organic food business and created products under labels such as Wholesome & Hearty. Times reporter Stephanie Strom wrote: "Over the last decade, since federal organic standards have come to the fore, giant agri-food corporations like these and others -- Coca-Cola, Cargill, ConAgra, General Mills, Kraft and M&M Mars among them -- have gobbled up most of the nation's organic food industry. Pure, locally produced ingredients from small family farms? Not so much anymore."
That's not necessarily the case in this part of the country, where locally produced organic products are available. But that's where knowledge and information come in. "People want to know what they're putting in their bodies," Ryan Pullar, produce manager at New Seasons Market in Fisher's Landing, told Harshman. "People ask more questions because of that. They want to be informed."
Whether or not such eating habits are right for your family involves questions only you can answer. Seeking out organic foods can be time-consuming and expensive. The article in The Columbian pointed out that a half-gallon of Portland-based Alpenrose brand 2 percent milk cost $2.79 at New Seasons, and a half-gallon of Organic Valley brand 2 percent organic milk from Northwest farms costs $4.49.
For many people, the health benefits are worth the time and expense. But, with large companies dominating the organic food market, we offer an additional bit of timeless advice: Buyer beware.