OrganicNation.tv is an exploration of the American sustainable food landscape, focusing on the people, places and products that are shaping a new green economy and lifestyle. From farmers to urban gardeners, and from teachers to restaurant owners, the power duo composed of Dorothée Royal-Hedinger and Mark Andrew Boyer travel the country to document how sustainable food systems are being created. Dorothee speaks here with Women Of Green staff writer Sarah Skenazy about the nuances of labeling, the flourishing of a sustainable food landscape and the importance of diversity.
You travel the country documenting the changing landscape of organic food systems, what are some of the central questions you use to guide your investigations?
Our goal with OrganicNation.tv is to make the topic of sustainable food more accessible to average consumers and highlight the work of farming pioneers, innovative business owners and forward-thinking communities. Some of our central questions are: What does “organic” mean? What do scientists say about the risks of chemical pesticides and fertilizers on human health? What are the costs of switching to organic production, and is it affordable for farmers and consumers? Is organic better than local, or vice-versa? Can organic food production feed the nation, and is it truly sustainable?
With current talk of sustainable farming practices ranging from permaculture to biodynamics, what system emerges as the most viable model for widespread use?
After visiting numerous farms and food operations, I believe that diversity is key. I don’t think it’s realistic to expect everyone to grow food or for all farmers to commit to one method. I think as a nation, we should have a balance between large certified organic farms (for consumer staples), smaller farms (for local specialties), community farms and backyard gardens. Nature has taught us that diversity is the best way to withstand fluctuations in our environment so I think the more ways we can source our food, the better.
In recent years the ‘organic’ label has been adopted by big-agriculture. Is it worth the extra dollar to buy a generic brand of organic yogurt if we can’t afford to pay the eight extra dollars to buy it at the farmers market?
I think it’s absolutely worth it to purchase organic products in the store, even if they’re not sourced directly from the farm. Consumers have more power than they tend to realize. The reason that organic methods are being adopted by big producers is because of consumer demand, and that’s a good thing. Remember that buying organic is not only better for the environment (healthier soil, less chemical run-off in our rivers and oceans) but it also means you’re putting fewer pesticides, antibiotics and growth hormones in your body. With that said, we still need to be careful to support brands that follow the proper standards and continue to push producers to increase their sustainability overall.
When can we expect labeling to catch up with the state of sustainability?
There is a lot of discussion about creating more accurate labeling and updating production standards. For example, the Non-GMO Project offers third party verification and labeling for non-GMO food but many brands still make claims about being GMO-free without proper certification. We also still have a long way to go with labels like “natural”, “free-range” and “sustainable”.
One area that I really worry about is the amount of chemicals allowed in products like shampoo, face wash, lotion and perfume. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics is doing amazing work in advocating for better labeling and regulation of beauty products so I’m hopeful that more stringent testing and labeling laws will be passed soon.
In what roles have you seen women flourish in the sustainable food landscape?
Women own nearly half the farmland in the U.S. today and many women are pioneers in the growing sustainable food movement. I interviewed Leigh Adcock, the Executive Director of the Women, Food & Agriculture Network at Farm Aid in 2009. She explained to me the importance of women’s roles in building sustainable food systems as mothers, gardeners, landowners, activists and farmers. It’s also true that many women make the purchasing decisions in their households, so they wield a lot of power in the marketplace. As more women choose sustainable products for their families, companies will continue to adapt their practices to cater to the growing demand.
Have you come across any information that contradicted a belief that you previously held in regards to organic production or distribution?
We do a series on the blog called “Dirty Dozen”, which highlights facts about how certain foods are produced. My co-producer, Mark Boyer, looked into labeling of organic juice products and I was amazed to read what he learned. Your average organic juice in a carton seems like one of the most “natural” and healthy products out there but it’s actually highly processed with artificial flavoring and fragrance! These kinds of facts wake me up to how little I still know about the things I consume every day. During the course of this journey, I’ve learned how incredibly complex and also how vulnerable our food system is. The more we can take back control of what we eat and how it’s grown, the safer we will be in the long run.
What do you think of when you hear the word ‘green’? What’s your working definition and do you consider yourself to be described by the word?
When I hear the word ‘green’, I think of a lifestyle that takes the next seven generations into account. It reminds me that everything we use and consume in our lifetime is borrowed from the Earth. In our culture, it can be hard to remember where food comes from and easy to take things like sunshine, healthy soil and clean water for granted. Fundamentally, I think ‘green’ means being grateful for the many gifts that nourish us each day. Gratitude helps us recognize that we are stewards, not owners, and that understanding is a wonderful antidote to greed.
Dorothée Royal-Hedinger is the creator and host of OrganicNation.tv, an online video series exploring America’s sustainable food landscape. The series received an honorary mention in the 2009 Earth Journalism Awards and her videos have been featured in the Huffington Post, GOOD magazine and Treehugger.com, among others. Passionate about the power of media to challenge the status quo, Dorothée co-founded NobleTree Media with a commitment to producing content for nonprofits, social causes, and sustainable brands. As an eco-fashion and organic living advocate, Dorothée speaks regularly on the intersection of sustainability and technology. She graduated from the University of Chicago in 2007. You can follow her on Twitter @DorotheeRoyal