Monday, February 15, 2010

Stonyfield Farms and the case for organic

One of the best perks of being a blogger--oh, ever--was the invitation I received to have lunch at local celebrity chef Rick Bayless' Frontera Grill with Stonyfield Farms CE-Yo Gary Hirshberg last week. We enjoyed an amazing high-end Mexican meal and there was a lot of food for thought, too, as we discussed organic vs. hormone-free milk, consumer demand for organics, the movie Food, Inc., and the slow-but-steady embrace of organic by "evil" big corporations like Walmart, Coca-Cola and Kellogg's. Hirshberg doesn't feel there's much to be gained by keeping organic small, crunchy and far outside the mainstream. He'd much rather see demand for organics increase so that a) the price can come down and even more people will convert and b) the animals, land and water will benefit.

His most urgent call is for campaign finance reform, as government subsidies for corn, soybeans and the like keep industrial food prices unnaturally low (especially for factory-farmed meat and eggs), but I was also impressed by his compelling case for organic dairy products (what Stonyfield Farms sells). I wrote about it for the Chicago Moms Blog.

While I am conscious about the food choices my family makes--choosing whole, recognizable foods and avoiding processed and most prepared foods--I've been somewhat slower to go organic.

I've got a good job, but I'm the sole breadwinner in our family and we need to stick to a budget. We've cut back on our meat consumption so that we can afford to buy organic, humanely-raised meat, but I have a hard time justifying paying $6.00 for a gallon of organic milk when I can buy hormone-free for as little as $1.99. I've been especially troubled by the notion of paying a premium for organic milk when those so-called organic cows are being kept indoors in what amounts to factory farm feed lots. (Horizon Organic, I'm looking at you.)

Now that's changing. The USDA just imposed new standards for organic milk, requiring that those cows have access to pasture grasses. As you can probably tell from the bucolic images on the front of many milk cartons, cows are supposed to graze on grasses. Chowing down on corn in a feedlot makes cows gassy and prone to infections. And a gassy cow burps methane into the atmosphere, which adds to our greenhouse gas problem.

So I'm considering biting the bullet and switching to organic milk. As a member of the middle class, I can probably ultimately afford it. But thanks to a conversation I had with Stonyfield Farms CEO Gary Hirshberg and a few other Chicago bloggers, I'm realizing that by choosing organic, I'm not just ensuringmy kids are ingesting fewer antibiotics and pesticide residues, I'm ultimately making organic more affordable for all families. According to Gary, if the share of organic grows from 3 or 4% of the marketplace to 10%, he will be able to achieve the efficiencies of scale necessary to dramatically reduce the premium on his organic dairy products. As the price comes down, more buyers will make the switch, making organic more affordable still.
That's good for the organic farmers. Good for organic companies like Stonyfield Farms. And good for all of us.