Is Organic in an End-Game?

Writing in 2005, I concludedby saying I didn't think organic food would be more than a niche in the overall food market and that the factions within it might well blow it apart. Sadly, in the midst of a deep recession, both assertions seem to be playing out.
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Last week, the WaPo ran a story headlined "Purity of Organic Label is Questioned" -- a quasi-investigative story on how the organic "program's lax standards are undermining the federal program and the law itself."

I say quasi-investigative because it wasn't particularly news. The tension discussed in the article, between those who have always sought to expand the industry and those who seek a more purist vision, has been fodder for many articles and was the subject of my book Organic, Inc. -- published three years ago. Often those camps are presented as big corporations on the one hand (chipping away at regulations) and small farmers striving to keep things pure on the other, both at one another's throats.

Consistent with that narrative, the article asserted that big corporations were compromising the organic label by lobbying for questionable "synthetic" ingredients in organic food. Small farmers like Arthur Harvey -- a blueberry farmer -- were trying to limit these additives. But before we get into that simplistic framing of the debate a bit of background would be useful.

What are synthetics and why are they important?

Under the USDA rules, a product can carry the "organic" label if 95% of the ingredients are "organic." Processed organic foods, such as organic yogurt, crackers, cookies, cereal, etc., can carry the word "organic" if they meet this 95% threshold. But they can use approved non-organic ingredients in the remaining 5%. And these may be "synthetics" that must win a specific exception. Among them are baking powder, Vitamin E and C, xanthum gum (a thickening agent), pectin and lecithin. But as the article points out, the list has ballooned to 245.

Although "corporate firepower" has lobbied for these exceptions, nearly every company in the processed organic foods business uses them, from independents like Newman's Own Organics to farmer-owned co-ops like Organic Valley and companies like Stonyfield Farm, which has a cameo in the film Food Inc. In short, though some are controversial, you would be hard-pressed to find any processed organic food business arguing for a blanket dismissal of all synthetics. (For more background on synthetics, see "How the Media Missed the Organic Story").

Who controls those decisions? The National Organic Standards Board -- a citizens advisory panel -- explicitly controls the list of synthetics and makes its decisions at public hearings. But as the article pointed out, the National Organic Program at the USDA has taken a few decisions on its own that have stirred much controversy and tarnished the program's reputation.

The article states that the organic law enacted in 1990 prohibited synthetic ingredients in processed foods. This was true, if only because there were very few processed foods at the time. It should also be noted that synthetics were and are used in organic farming (chemical pheromones to disrupt mating cycles of insects, plastic mulch to prevent weeds, copper fungicides with limitations) but these were exempted because they were viewed as more benign than toxic chemical pesticides and herbicides. Plus, organic farmers had used them for years.

Harvey, the Maine blueberry farmer, sued to disallow all synthetics in processed organic foods and he won his case in 2005, causing a world of worry in the organic industry. But, as the article states, the Organic Trade Association lobbied for a rider to be inserted into an appropriations bill that changed the underlying organic law a year later and allowed synthetics to be used after all. This was not, however, just at the behest of big business. Smaller and independent companies that depended on these substances wanted a change as well, though many NGOs and some companies opposed it. The issue caused a lot of conflict in the organic world.

As for corporations, they haven't always lobbied for looser regulations. Earthbound -- the organic produce giant -- had misgivings about changes to the organic law and lobbied against it. Mars Inc.'s organic seed company, Seeds of Change, has fought to require farmers to use organic seed (a stricture too-often ignored by even small farmers) and Dean Foods, the owner of the Horizon Organic label, lobbied for a tougher pasture regulation, even though the company had previously benefited from loose regulations on its giant dairy farms.

Why would a "corporate giant" lobby for a tougher law or regulation? Once they produce an organic product it is in their interest to keep the regs tight so that it makes it harder for newcomers to enter. If they are loosened, it lets new players in who don't have to face the expenses and trials of doing organic right. (That's why a lot of transitioning farmers complain or avoid organics altogether -- it does take a different skill and knowledge set to farm organically and many won't bother or don't want to take the risk.)

In the WaPo article, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont -- the father of the organic law -- says, "If we don't protect the brand, the organic label, the program is finished. It could disappear overnight." He is right. But when a lot of these conflicts were going down -- in the pitched battles over synthetics, in the fights over the rider -- Leahy was publicly silent. My sense is he knew this was a factional battle and was unwilling to take sides; his larger concern was at the USDA itself, whose bureaucratic fumbling on a number of matters now is front page news.

In trying to notch up the volume on this age-old fight, the article veered into histrionics and inaccuracy:

...the USDA program's shortcomings mean that consumers, who at times must pay twice as much for organic products, are not always getting what they expect: foods without pesticides and other chemicals, produced in a way that is gentle to the environment.

The article never supports that particular assertion. How have these compromises allowed pesticides into organic food? How have they eroded the environmental claims of organic farming?

Although pesticide testing is not mandated for the organic label, studies could not find any signs of pesticides when children ate an organic food diet. (In contrast, when they ate conventional foods the pesticide residues showed up.) These studies are more conclusive than testing for residues on the food because researchers actually looked at what children were eating and what came out in their urine. The pesticides weren't there. In my reading that shows consumers are getting what they pay for: foods without chemical pesticide residues.

As for synthetics in processed food, there will always be two camps on this -- and both present risks. If synthetics are taken out, even over a sunset period, as Harvey had sought, organic processed foods would fade off the shelves. Maybe that's not a bad thing, but the organic industry would be a lot smaller. If, on the other hand, too many synthetics are let in, and we start getting more organic junk food with a long list of unpronounceable ingredients, that will spell the end of organics too. (A memorable petition at one NOSB meeting I attended came from an English muffin manufacturer who claimed they needed a synthetic ingredient to extend the muffin's shelf life. My feeling was -- don't make a fucking shelf-stable organic English muffin!)

Many people in the organic world recognize these tensions. They usually aren't the ones quoted in media stories because they don't have prominent web sites with action campaigns. But they are out there. Many had a hand in writing the laws and regulations. They attend every NOSB meeting. And they are still active today. Many sat on the NOSB. Few if any work for corporations.

There have been many stories about the corporate sellout of organic food, and people often say to me, "organic doesn't mean anything any longer." In other words, why buy it? That's the conclusion people come to because they read more about big brands compromising organics than about organophosphate pesticide residues in kids' urine.

Companies like Dean Foods aren't helping their own cause by launching a line of non-organic milk under the Horizon label, just as they did with Silk soy milk. Their rationale probably was, well nearly everyone has a non-organic natural label, even Stonyfield, so why not us? Meanwhile, prices are being cut for organic dairy farmers and they are being told to reduce production.

Writing in 2005, I concluded Organic, Inc. by saying I didn't think organic food would be more than a niche in the overall food market and that the factions within it might well blow it apart. Sadly, in the midst of a deep recession, both assertions seem to be playing out.

This post originally appeared on ChewsWise blog.

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