That is the question that's pondered in the documentary film, In Organic We Trust. Through interviews with farmers, academics, and the public, In Organic We Trust tracks the organic movement's split from a philosophy to a corporate industry. Director Kip Pastor started the documentary (his first feature-length film) as a graduate student at the American Film Institute Conservatory. Pastor recently took the time to talk to me about his experience as a food activist and first-time filmmaker from his Los Angeles office.
"I've always been a big food person, I started cooking at an early age and spent a lot of time in the wilderness," Pastor said. "Food is something that touches everyone, every day. It ties social and political issues together."
Pastor wanted to explore the definition behind the term organic, following the timeline of the word from its beginnings to the high-grossing industry behind it today.
"A big part of public health has to do with what we eat and our environment," Pastor said. "I always knew that but not to the extent that this is a politicized agenda."
During the three years Pastor and his crew worked on the film, the conversation surrounding food and organics picked up speed.
"I wanted to get it out quickly but the conversation does evolve and change," Pastor said. "But the essential message of the film has a lasting and strong message."
Just last year, California's Proposition 37 — a mandatory labeling of genetically engineered food initiative — came up for a vote, and a team from Stanford released its study on the nutritional value of organic versus conventional produce.
"It always surprises you when you see that it is really hard to create change," Pastor said. "You hope that's not the case, but it is."
Even if produce is organic, Pastor said he learned about the importance of understanding seasons.
"If you are getting strawberries in winter, they are coming from somewhere else in the world," Pastor said. "I went to a lot of farmers' markets and learned what I should be eating and when."
Pastor observed the increase of farmers' markets nationally in the various towns he visited while working on the film. According to the USDA, farmers' markets have increased 38 percent nationally since 2010.
"It has grown dramatically, people are noticing and attending markets more," Pastor said. "I feel like I was late to the party."
Pastor observed markets where those with EBT cards could get double-dollars towards market-fresh produce.
"Food access and affordability issues are one part of the conversation that are not being had enough," Pastor said.
To prepare for the project, Pastor was heavily inspired by Michael Pollan.
"He's the backbone of the movement," Pastor said. "Omnivore's Dilemma had a strong impact on me."
Of the many interviews featured in the film, Pastor was most elated to get talk to Marion Nestle, NYU professor of nutrition, food studies and public health and author of Food Politics.
"She said no to the interview at first but I needed her voice in the film," Pastor said. "She was wonderful."
The dangers of pesticides are nothing new but Pastor said his film explores some of the uncommon knowledge about persistent organic pollutants, which don't break down in the environment.
"We don't know the long-term effects on ourselves," Pastor said. "We should adopt a precautionary principle that these could be stored in the tissues of men, women and children."
In Organic We Trust maintains a balanced view regarding organic products and food safety. But believers in the organic gospel might get their feathers ruffled by an interview with Alex Avery, director of research at conservative think-tank the Hudson Institute.
"People want to believe organic is safer and healthier because food has gotten so complex," Avery said in the film."But there's still not a shred of evidence that organic foods are nutritionally superior in any significant way."
That perspective got heat from the organic community.
"When i was making it, I had people from both sides come after me," Pastor said. "I had non-profits say 'You're telling people organic is not more nutritious.' I personally believe it can be, but the rules of the USDA doesn't claim that."
More than anything, Pastor said he wanted to start a critical dialogue about food ways.
"I didn't want to make a documentary that scared the crap out of you," Pastor said. "So often at documentaries you walk out frustrated and not empowered. I wanted to begin a conversation and get people connected on a larger scale."