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crazy idea: replace "organic" with a scale  RSS feed

 
paul wheaton
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I sent an email the CEO of whole foods a couple of years ago.  I never heard back. 

I see a problem.  When I go to the store to buy food, it is difficult to tell what is loaded with pesticides and what isn't.  Unless it is organic

And yet there are some farms that want to move to organic, but for the first three years, their stuff cannot be called organic.  Yet, this might be "organic enough".

Further, other people might want to buy stuff that is beyond organic. 

Further still, there are some outfits that are willing to say that their stuff is organic or "natural" when it really isn't.

When I walk into a whole foods, I know there are lots of foods that are not on their shelves because it does not meet the WF minimum standard. 

I propose a label that has a number on it. 

WFQF 5:  meets the minimum standards of whole foods.
WFQF 6:
WFQF 7:
WFQF 8:  transitioning to organic
WFQF 9:
WFQF 10:  equivalent to USDA certified organic
WFQF 11:  minimum till - comes from a richer soil
WFQF 12:
WFQF 13:
WFQF 14:
WFQF 15:  polyculture/permaculture

I think that this opens some doors for some farmers.  Rather than making the big leap to organic, they might choose to go to WFQF 5 and get a better price per pound.  And once they enjoy that, it might be worthwhile to go to WFQF 6 .... etc. 

Thus making it easier for conventional farmers to ramp into this space. 

WFQF = Whole Foods Qualify Factor.

I picked whole foods because:

A)  they are already doing some stuff like this, and

B)  I think I can trust them to do something like this right.

 
Joel Hollingsworth
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I'm not sure that would fit with their business model.

A lot of what I see their customers demanding is to shop without worrying about farm practices. The more effort and concern and fear and information they can shield their consumers from, the higher a premium customers of that sort will be willing to pay. And the more cost-saving measures their suppliers can shelter under a re-assuring and universal certification, the higher their profit margins will be.

By which I mean to say: it's a sane idea, the sort our food system is built to reject.
 
paul wheaton
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I think it could be a business model where they make more money. 

After all, when people become aware - perhaps they will spend money a little further up the scale.  And for those that are currently buying food at 10, they might be interested to know that there are values beyond 10 and want to buy that.

 
Joel Hollingsworth
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I think there's money to be made that way.

I think it will be made by a company more nimble than Whole Foods, which cultivates a market made up of people willing to think a whole lot about each purchase.
 
Leah Sattler
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I love the idea. I would like it incorporated into the whole of the organic/natural market foods as well as standard items that are not being marketed specifically as such. not just whole foods. the closest whole foods to me is about 2.5 hours away.

needless to say I would like to be able to walk into any grocery store and see a number on a package or sign and have some idea where it falls in the scale without picking up every dang item to read the ingredients and rack my brain for info. for instance something made with sugar is more "natural" then something made with HFCS. full fat normal yogurt is more natural then fat free stripped downs stuff with "things" added to it to give it mouth feel. although none of these may be labeled as organic there is still a difference. at least in my mind.

maybe a generalized "processed" scale could be incorporated too. I have a problem with added corn gluten or yeast extract whether they are organic or not! this might help weed out or differentiate some of the pseudo organic stuff/natural/unprocessed stuff since pesticides are not the only consideration in my book.  the crap added or taken away before its presentation to the market should have an impact on its rating.

highest rating = organically grown from responsible sustainable land stewards and practices and no ingredients added or added in amounts that would not naturally occur in the normal preparation of the food even if those additives are originally made from organic ingredients. 
 
gary gregory
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Good points everyone, interesting topic.    I was trying to think of the proper icon for the label on these products that would fit all the different criteria.    Maybe a planet earth chia pet with the growth varying from brown to yellow to green.   
But seriously I think labeling would be a difficulty.  Whole foods would either have to add their own label to each item or the manufacturers would have to get sanctioned and then add to their label.
Its a good idea, I'm finding it harder to shop for food not easier since  organics  have appeared on chain store shelves.    We don't have a local coop or whole foods.
 
Fred Morgan
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I used to buy coffee from a place that sold organic, but they had also transition coffee. This was coffee grown organically, but hadn't yet passed the required 3 year period of organic. This way the farmers could earn more during the transition time and encourage them to switch over.

I only bought transition to help the farmers - I figured it was good enough.
 
Scott Reil
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How about using the Brix content of the food as a scale?

Easily veryified; even a homeowner could afford a refractometer to test content for verification, let alone a retail or farm operation.

Nutrient density becomes the new value of the food. Chemical culture gets less popular because they can't match the brix of organic foods. REALLY good organics gets an even higher brix, where insect and fungal disease dissappears, giving that farmer yet MORE reason to continue his good habits...

A thought...

S
 
tel jetson
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Scott Reil wrote:
How about using the Brix content of the food as a scale?


I like this a lot.  would be limited to fresh plant material and could get very complicated, but I like it a lot.
 
                    
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tel wrote:
I like this a lot.  would be limited to fresh plant material and could get very complicated, but I like it a lot.


This is the type of reductionism that got conventional agriculture into  trouble. We cannot reduce quality food to a single number (sugar content or brix) ... when there is a single measure, people will find a way to boost that number at the expense of something else.  What about growing conditions that result in fruit with less fructose but more magnesium and anthocyanins? I would rather eat that fruit. 

We need a wide variety of different labels. For example, organic production of eggs requires the chickens be given access to an open space, but the chickens often don't use it. Some organic producers even  condition the birds to avoid going out because it requires more work. But when the organic inspector comes, they see that the bird has 'access' to the outdoors.

Likewise, organic standards require that layers be fed organic food (which is good), but they still might be fed corn or something with lots of omega-6 fats, which I think can be detrimental to human health. Do I want the organic standards to be changed to require a more natural and balanced feed? Maybe. Or maybe someone creates a new label, or merely tells us on the label what the birds are fed.

The movement to standardize the word 'organic' was good to a point - it has made it possible for the organic methods to become more mainstream.  But it also involves a compromise. Organic is not the upper limit, and in some cases, is not the lowest acceptable limit.  What about the distance food travels?  What about worker conditions?  What about a soil erosion factor?  These are all important, but no label will ever consider them all, or come up  with a perfect solution. 

 
Scott Reil
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All good points Jon, but some assumptions that need review...

Increased brix in any fruit or vegetable grown organically assumes an overall increase in nutrient density. We are not adding sugar to the soil with the plant taking it up; we are adding natural biologies and humus to the soil and the truly healthy soil/plant interface can produce brix levels as well as other nutrient developments through natural processes, not from any manipulations humans may make.

Thus brix in this case IS a sound marker for ALL the nutrients this or that plant may contain. You cannot get the increase in brix through ANY man made manipulation (that I know of) that you can in a sound organic system; our chemically grown chow is horribly low in many nutrients, but none so devoid as brix... it may not be a complete story, but it is a great abridged text. Think of it as the Readers Digest Condensed version...

So here is a key indicator that allows for quick determination of good or poor agricultural practice. Look over the frozen food at Whole Foods. USDA Organic. Certified. Made in China? Seems the certification company hasn't been testing or checking themselves over there. And FDA has turned around hundreds of Chinese shipments this year for pesticide use and other infractions illegal to sell in the US, so we know there are cheaters. Now you have a quick easy self screening device... low brix means bad food. Period. You get to choose the level you want to live at.

Fruit and veggies aren't a man made product; these are products of an active ecosystem that strives for balance. With chemical retardants out of the way, Nature produces clean wholesome food everytime. Without a mass spectrometer in your back pocket, how will you know who is who? I say brix is an easily done test that fits...

HG
 
Pat Maas
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Hi Scott,
    I'm with you on this one. Produce raised in an optimal organic manner should have a much higher brix value. That comes down to healthy alive soil, growing in a healthy micro-environment  as well as including the many other life forms that contribute to healthy plant physiology.
      Do have to wonder though if ORAC value can be affected positively/increased with improved plant vitality ?
 
Max Kennedy
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If I'm understanding correctly you're saying more sugar means better nutrition.  As a biology teacher this doesn't compute.  Reducing artificial fertilizers usually results in higher non-carbohydrate fractions such as proteins not higher sugar contents.  Appreciate enlightenment.
 
Scott Reil
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Yea, mek, it IS kind of counterintuitive, but I am not saying the increased carbs are the increased health values, just an INDICATOR of increased health values...  We are not talking bowls of table sugar here, but naturally occuring sugars of several different kinds (fructose mostly).

The conversion from animal proteins to plant soluble nitrogen through predatory feedback loops is a function of the soil biology. The conversion of nitrogen to sugars is the plant's job. The plant then feeds some of the sugars back to the soil biology through root exudates. Very elegant. 

Pat. anecdotally, ORAC levels are increased in good organic foods. Antioxidants are certainly one of the other nutrients that increased brix would indicate.

I have always wondered about all the rush to acai and the other tropical antioxidants when we have three of the best on the planet in blueberry, serviceberry, and chokeberry. Familiarity breeding contempt?

S
 
Max Kennedy
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So is it the soil exudates you test for Brix, the plant sap, the actual vegetable??  Also there was a post about not adding sugar to soil but http://www.plantsfood.com/hibrixBA.htm indicates saccharides (a fancy name for sugar) comprise 35% of a soil amendment, organic in this case but not necessarily so, to improve Brix.  Thus using this as an indirect method of monitoring "organic" or "food quality" would seem to be readily finagled by the unscrupulous.
 
Scott Reil
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No sir, not a finagle at all...

Black strap molasses is a regularly recognized organic component for stimulating bacterial growth in soil, which increases the mast food source for the protist and nematodes, which increases the prey population for bigger nematodes and microarthropods, which increases food sourcing for earthworms and insects, which increases the food source for birds and mammals; each with another nitrogen amplification loop that helps naturally feed the plants...

Chemical fertilization is the only way to shove nutrient directly into the plant, and it is incredibly inefficient with 70% of nutrition going off target and into water supplies. The sugar is not feeding the plant, it is feeding the biology that is feeding the plant... You can beat any sugar finagling by WASHING the plant before sampling, and you would obviously test whatever part of the plant that you would eat...

You teach biology, mek? May I recommend Jeff Lowenfels book, Teaming With Microbes? Easy to read and understand (and teach). This ain't just a theory, it's honest to goodness, researched and white papered science...

S
 
Max Kennedy
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Scott Reil wrote:
Chemical fertilization is the only way to shove nutrient directly into the plant, and it is incredibly inefficient with 70% of nutrition going off target and into water supplies.


I am aware of Mr. Lowenfels book and indeed it is one of the references I use.  The point however was that the added sugar would result in higher Brix whether applied organically or with a chemical fertilizer.  This would then render unreliable using Brix as a measure of "organic".  I was aware that the sugars were not taken up by the plant themselves.  Thus the Brix value can be "finagled", also direct injection into the plants is possible.  If you don't think so please look at http://www.digitaljournal.com/article/267204 and there are thousands of similar articles.  What can be done in one industry can be done in another.  Given the plants aren't "treated" Brix value is useful but as the end consumer in the organic section of a supermarket (I know, buy local from someone you trust but the vast majority of people don't) how do you know?

Max 
 
Scott Reil
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Max, the chemical fertilizers do a number on the fungal and to a lesser degree, bacterial side of soil biology. I think you would find that the additions of the sugars would stimulate the bacterial side, but the reduction of higher level predators makes this bacterial explosion more of a nitrogen lock than a release. And no higher brix as a result... that has been my experience with blended chemical/organic systems; nice in theory but not really working in the interests of soil or plants in the long run...

While your article is a caution, and I can see there might be a move to inject watermelons with sugar water to increase profit, as you noted a certain trust of food producers goes a long way. Shaking hands with the guy who grew the food is not always possible, but it is a goal to shoot for. In the meantime, I do not see easy work arounds for farmers to beat retailers by injecting individual fruits; how much labor will it take to inject the field of carrots? To boot up each grape? 

Scott
 
Pat Maas
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Thank you Scott,

Pat. anecdotally, ORAC levels are increased in good organic foods. Antioxidants are certainly one of the other nutrients that increased brix would indicate.

I have always wondered about all the rush to acai and the other tropical antioxidants when we have three of the best on the planet in blueberry, serviceberry, and chokeberry. Familiarity breeding contempt?


Thought that was the case. The rest is just people taking advantage of the latest, greatest for dollars.  Your mention of blueberry, serviceberry, and chokeberry makes me wonder what the desert variations are that cover the same antioxidants.
 
Scott Reil
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That's a toughie Pat. Desert plants tend to be stingy with everything;  water, nutrients... when the going gets tough, the tough keep to themselves. Even the biological matrix I was talking about gets pretty sparse as plants give up less exudate with a "mind" towards conservation of energy and moisture...

S
 
                    
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Scott Reil wrote:

Increased brix in any fruit or vegetable grown organically assumes an overall increase in nutrient density. We are not adding sugar to the soil with the plant taking it up; we are adding natural biologies and humus to the soil and the truly healthy soil/plant interface can produce brix levels as well as other nutrient developments through natural processes, not from any manipulations humans may make.



Scott,

although it goes counter to my ingrained notions, I will take your enthusiasm for the brix readings as cue to re-examine my ideas.  It is my assumption that brix is primarily an indication of sugar content, although properly speaking, brix measures total dissolved solids. I will look to see if there is a general  correlation between brix and other nutrients. Any online sources related to this are welcome.

Here is a study that found for tomatoes, the brix content was higher in soils that had lots of calcium, potassium, magnesium, organic matter, and pH,  and brix was lower in soils with lots of sodium.  The study also found that less irrigation and lower yield was associated with higher brix. I wonder if for some plants, simply letting the produce wilt a bit would lower water and make the dissolved solids more concentrated?

http://www.cababstractsplus.org/abstracts/Abstract.aspx?AcNo=20043004579


 
Scott Reil
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THAT's an interesting thought... I don't know...

But I will look into it...

S
 
Pat Maas
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Hi Scott,
    That's why I'm playing with buffalo and wolf berries. Have also found a rather thorny plant here, likely a native wolf berry and its blue/purple berries are tart. Have not been able to identify yet, will have to drag one of the botanists from the Quivira Coalition out to see them-if that's possible.

Cattle love them and the few that are here and another few hundred on the ranch across from me are all I've seen of them. They like dry rocky, gravelly country and that is something in abundance here.
 
Scott Reil
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Answering your own questions, eh? 

That's how I ended up here...

S
 
Pat Maas
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Scott,
    I'm an avid student of learning. Have had to do so much on my own that learning from others is a great treat! )
 
gary gregory
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OK , I'm really stretching my neck out now cause this is way over my head, but doesn't GM corn that is super sweet throw off the brix scale completely?

Here is a study that found for tomatoes, the brix content was higher in soils that had lots of calcium, potassium, magnesium, organic matter, and pH,  and brix was lower in soils with lots of sodium.  The study also found that less irrigation and lower yield was associated with higher brix. I wonder if for some plants, simply letting the produce wilt a bit would lower water and make the dissolved solids more concentrated?


I add extra calcium and feel that it improves the flavor of everything.


 
Pat Maas
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Hi Gary,
    From what I have read don't think so. The original GM corn didn't taste all that great and they had to add genes in that improved sweetness/flavor. With that said, sweetness does not define nutritive value.  Fructose is just one of the things brix tests for. Sweetness can be an indicator, but it is not all inclusive.

 
                    
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I've done a bit more reading, and mulled this over, and am not convinced that brix alone tells us much.  It is total dissolved solids, which could be valuable nutrients, or it could be the empty calories of sugar or soluble starch.

I came across a few articles showing that in conventional agriculture, the brix reading of produce is raised by optimizing the application of nitrogen and phosphorous fertilizers. Does this mean a conventionally grown veggie that achieves 22 brix beats an organically grown veggie with only 20 brix?  We must accept that conclusion if we sign off on the idea that brix = quality and quality = brix.  I think giving brix too much credit would distort the organic and permaculture movements. 
 
Scott Reil
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Show me a conventionally grown anything at a higher brix than an organically grown counterpart and I will give up organics forever...

HG
 
Pat Maas
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Scott,
    I'm with you on that! I'll take my organically raised produce over the stuff in the grocery store any day of the week or time of year. Think my livestock would 2nd that notion too.
 
Scott Reil
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Actually try that with livestock and no surprise, they will choose organic everytime...

Jon, the chemical culture whacks the entire ecosystemic effect of organics (bacteria and fungi in the rhizosphere, mycorrhizal fungi symbionts directly feeding our plant gas, foods and water, mycorrhizal helper bacteria assisting those fungi in their tasks, phosphorus solubilizing bacteria making soil borne phosphorus available, protozoan predators who are amplifying the nitrogen from the bacteria and making it plant available, etc. etc. etc.)

Chemicals is a needle to the vein with one huge shot of water soluble salts that washes past the roots with the next watering, leaving an ecological desert behind, completely reliant on the next shot of water soluble salts (which does more damage, so things go further down hill  )

Your theory is sound in reasoning, but short on science. You can't completely degrade the natural system like that and get superior results. Not going to happen.

S
 
Inge Leonora-den Ouden
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i.m.o. not the products should be tested, but the 'farmers' and producers (the people) and the 'farms', the locations where they grow (cultivate) the 'organic' products. It isn't only about what's in the vegetables, fruits and groceries, it's about how they handle the soil and the whole environment.
When I'm somewhere where organic products are sold, I always hope to find labels telling me who was the grower, where are they located ... and what's their website ... 
 
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