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Cereal With Blueberries
Make your first meal of the day an organic one—healthy for you, healthy for the planet. Photo by Floortje | IST.
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about the author

 

STEPHANIE ZONIS writes on organic issues for THE NIBBLE.

 

 

April 2008

Product Reviews / NutriNibbles / Breads

Organic Cereal

For Amber Waves Of Grain: The Best Organic Cereal Brands

 

 

CAPSULE REVIEW: There’s a lot to know about organic cereal. First, there’s a lot of good product available today—not the “hippie food” of yore, but delicious choices that would find a place in any discriminating home. Second, it’s not just about keeping you from ingesting pesticides: Organic farming helps save the planet, and some of the poorest people on it. Stephanie Zonis provides an overview of why you should choose organic cereal in the first place; then reviews 23 leading organic cereal brands. Most are kosher certified.

This is Part I of a five-part article.

ORGANIC CEREAL OVERVIEW

ORGANIC CEREAL BRANDS

Part I

A phone call precipitated this article. A couple I know called me to announce that they had, after prolonged discussion, decided that organic foods were the way to go for themselves and their children. To say I was surprised would be an understatement. No one in this household is especially food savvy, and they are not, frankly, the most environmentally-conscious people you’ll ever meet. But I commended them for their decision and asked if there was any way I could help. It turned out that the woman was most concerned about family breakfasts. She wanted her husband and kids to be able to eat organic cereals, but she was uncertain about what was available. And she was quite sure her that kids wouldn’t eat anything that looked “like a bowl of twigs and nuts,” as she put it.  

I was able to assure my friend that her only problem would be deciding among the great array of organic cereals available. I could even promise her that some of them aren’t necessarily composed of excessively crunchy, indigestible ingredients, as in the 1960s. In fact, there are some terrific organic cereals these days, and many of them are easy to find in natural foods stores and upscale markets.

Why Choose Organic Cereal

Organic Farming Is Better For The
Environment

Most people think that organic food buyers purchase it to avoid eating chemical pesticides. But just as many customers, or more, buy organic products to help the environment. Organic agriculture uses organic fertilizers (such as legume cover crops, compost, crop rotation practices, and manures—no chemical pesticides) in order to enrich the soil; conventional agriculture uses petroleum-based fertilizers that simply feed the plants, so that soil health is not a concern. Organic agriculture emphasizes biodiversity, and has helped to save many a small or mid-sized family business, while conventional agriculture is much more likely to involve a large corporation and monoculture (the repeated planting of one crop in one area, which depletes certain soil nutrients and encourages pests, etc. to build up resistance to the same pesticides continuously applied).

FieldMore than giving you food that is free of chemical pesticides, organic agriculture helps to preserve the planet via soil health, less groundwater contamination and topsoil maintenance. Photo by Alexander Hafemann | IST.

While conventional agriculture depends upon chemical pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides to control pests, fungi, and weeds, organic agriculture uses insects that counter pests, a focus on plant health, and crop rotation/tractor cultivation to prevent crop losses through these agents. Organic agriculture causes less groundwater contamination/pollution, too. 

Organic Farming Helps Poor Farmers

I am not in favor of genetically-modified (also called genetically-engineered) crops, many of which involve the grains that feed a large percentage of the world’s population. There are a number of reasons for this, but one involves seed saving. For countless generations, farmers, especially poor farmers in lesser-developed countries, saved some of the seeds from one harvest to plant for their next crop. Then, the biotech companies got their GM (genetically-modified) seeds declared as intellectual property, meaning that it is illegal for farmers to save seeds from any GM harvest. Seeds for GM crops must be bought anew for each planting, often perpetuating the debt cycle for poor farmers. Organic agriculture does not permit the use of GM crops, which is an excellent reason to buy organic grains (and the products made from them) all by itself.

Organic Farming Preserves Topsoil...And Marine Life

There’s another reason to choose organic grains—and an important one. In 2007, according to the USDA’s National Agriculture Statistics Service, farmers in the U.S. planted 92.9 million acres of corn, along with roughly 60.4 million acres of wheat (including durum, winter and other varieties) and about 3.76 million acres of oats. Other prominent cereal grains, such as barley, millet, rice, and rye, accounted for somewhat over 8.7 million acres. That’s a lot of acreage, especially given that it’s just in one country! If you follow organic agriculture at all, you understand that most of this cultivation is not organic. This presents a problem, and an increasing problem, with topsoil. Topsoil is the upper handful of inches of the Earth’s crust. It is a mixture of partial decomposition of plant and animal matter, sometimes called humus, and minerals. Topsoil is crucial to agriculture, because it provides a nutritious medium in which plants can grow. In turn, plants help anchor topsoil to the Earth. The plants, of course, serve as food for creatures of all kinds, and some of these creatures serve as food for omnivores or carnivores.
Wheat Field
Amber waves of grain in a Nebraska wheat field. Photo by Stephen Ausmus | USDA Agricultural Research Service.

For all of its seeming hardiness, topsoil is very sensitive material. Good topsoil takes a long time to produce, as decomposition (of both plant and animal material as well as of minerals) is a lengthy process. Monoculture practices can strip topsoil of nutrients, so that the crops planted in the soil are not supported. And when crops fail, there is little or no anchor to hold topsoil in its place, so wind or rain can easily pick it up and transport it elsewhere. Poor topsoil can also result in desertification, a process whereby desert is created. According to Wisegeek.com, this is happening in some parts of Africa, Asia, and the midwestern U.S. Farmers continue to practice monoculture in topsoil already stripped of nutrients by continual planting of the same crop, so that more fertilizers, and more complex fertilizers, are necessary for plants to survive. But this is also a vicious circle, both for farmers in debt (they need to keep buying fertilizer) and for the topsoil. When areas of exhausted topsoil are finally abandoned because they simply can’t support plant life any longer, they take many years to return to a fertile state. In the meantime, the topsoil is easily washed or swept away, which can create desert conditions. In addition, runoff from overuse of conventional fertilizers, due to flooding or heavy rains, will flow downstream, eventually reaching the ocean, where its excess of nutrients causes “dead zones”—serious disruption of marine creature populations. Incidentally, clearcutting forested land also results in topsoil depletion.

Unlike conventional agriculture, organic agriculture is about soil health and holding on to the topsoil that took so long to become fertile in the first place. Composting, crop rotation, allowing fields to lie fallow and planting nitrogen-fixing cover crops that can decompose into the soil (legumes are often cited as an excellent choice for this) are some of the ways that organic farmers use to enrich topsoil and promote its health. Given that healthy topsoil is so critical to our ability to eat, shouldn’t we support those farmers and manufacturers who support topsoil?

Now that you know the environmental issues for choosing organic cereal, let’s take a look at nutrition issues.

Continue To Part II: Kids & Organic Cereal

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