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Big organic

(article, Culinate staff)

Back in May, the nonprofit Cornucopia Institute released a white paper complaining about the cozy relationship between Big Ag and the National Organic Standards Board, the Congress-mandated board that's supposed to certify whether ingredients can be labeled "organic" or not.

By July, the New York Times had published a lengthy business feature by Stephanie Strom on the problem, commonly labeled "Big Organic." At issue: whether the board, generally packed with representatives of Big Ag, is approving questionable ingredients, as well as the use of toxic chemicals, under the organic label. 

As Kimi Harris blogged on the Mother Nature Network, by now many consumers have simply moved beyond the organic label and try to buy local instead. "Buying local, well-produced food was the point of the original organic movement," she wrote. "We always have that, regardless of where official organic labeling goes."

Meanwhile, on Mother Jones, Tom Philpott declared that the Times had been too hasty in slamming Big Org. Why? Because the organic label isn't meaningless, at least not yet:

bq. Strom's story raises many important points that need to be thought through and debated. But it misses a key one: The organic label, for all the untoward influence of Big Food players like dairy giant Dean Foods, still means something. If you buy food labeled organic, you can be reasonably sure it was grown without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, without genetically modified seeds, without (in the case of dairy, meat, and eggs) antibiotics and other dodgy pharmaceuticals, and on farms required to have a plan for crop rotation and (quoting straight from federal organic code) to "manage plant and animal materials to maintain or improve soil organic matter content." . . . Even the most processed certified-organic item on the supermarket shelf contains raw plant and/or animal material that was raised in ways fundamentally different than non-organic fare.

Sure, buying local goods from your friendly neighborhood farmer is worthy, Philpott noted, but not everyone has the time in their lives to do that. Which makes certified-organic supermarket goods all the more useful. As Philpott concluded:

bq. I think Cornucopia is right to get the public fired up about the integrity of organic, and to pressure the USDA to stop stuffing the NOSB with Big Food flacks in disguise. But to jump from there to the conclusion that organic is a fraud, a mere marketing front for big food, is to go too far.