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Certified organic

(article, Nancy Schatz Alton)

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Before Minnesotan Teresa Marchek began buying organic food two years ago, she tended to equate “organic” with “earthy” and “crunchy.” Pregnant with her second child and working as an internal consultant for Capella University, Marchek didn’t feel she had the time to ponder the benefits of organic food. 

The age of instant information, though, had already primed Marchek to become an organic consumer. Perhaps it was a co-worker extolling the virtues of the vegetables she got from her community-supported-agriculture (CSA) farm. Or perhaps it was a quick read of a newspaper article that listed the Environmental Working Group’s “dirty dozen,” a list of 12 fruits and vegetables with the worst pesticide residue.

[%image label float=left width=150 caption="How organic is the USDA's organic seal?"]

Whatever the catalyst, Marchek realized that the idea of buying organic was more complex than the little green seal of organic approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) implied. She found herself, tentatively, buying organic food. Today she keeps a mental list of items that only enter her shopping cart if they are grown organically: eggs, grapes, berries, and frozen waffles. Usually she prefers to buy organic milk, yogurt, hot dogs, peanut butter, poultry, and snacks for her children, but with all other food items, she fluctuates between buying organic and non-organic items, mostly choosing non-organic brands. 

“There are things that I buy not (just) because they are organic. I really believe in supporting the (sustainable) community,” Marchek says. “We just needed to put our money where our mouth is. You hear how hideous an industrial chicken farm is. If I believe it’s not appropriate, I better spend the extra $1.50 for the eggs.” 

Plenty of other Americans are starting to think like Marchek. According to the National Marketing Institute (NMI) 2005 Health and Wellness Trends study, 56 percent of consumers buy organic products at least occasionally. The Hartman Group’s 2006 organic consumer survey lists an even higher statistic, stating 73 percent of consumers occasionally bought organic in 2005. 

There’s no denying that what began as a small agricultural movement some four decades ago has blossomed into a viable national industry. According to the NMI, the U.S. organic industry did $15 billion in sales in 2005; by 2009, that figure could reach $20 billion. 

Although they represent just 2.5 percent of all the foods and beverages sold in the U.S., organics are quickly becoming part of the mainstream. Wal-Mart’s 2006 organic initiative promised not only more organic foods on its shelves but also a maximum price markup of just 10 percent over its conventional foods. (The company has had difficulty making good on this promise, but hasn’t reneged yet.) And there is certified organic farmland in every state, although not as much as you might think. 

With growth, of course, comes change. The USDA’s organic standards, certifying all organic food sold in the U.S., have been in effect since 2002. In the five years since then, the USDA standards have both evolved and been challenged. Producers and marketers of organics have changed. And so have consumer attitudes.

h3. The evolution of the standards

An apple sporting a USDA certified-organic label was grown without the use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers. The apple’s seeds were not genetically modified (GM), nor were the seeds or the apple itself treated with irradiation. The fertilizer used on the apple orchard contained no sewage sludge. The apple grower had to keep meticulous farming records. And a USDA-accredited certification agency can visit the orchard at any moment to inspect paperwork and farmland. 

Behind that small seal is a long history. Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act in 1990, giving the USDA the task of developing national standards for organically produced agricultural products. From this sprang the National Organic Program (NOP), which is officially a marketing program housed within the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service. Over a 12-year period, the NOP developed national organic standards and a certification program based on recommendations from a 15-member National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). 

Behind the whole process of creating organic certification was a veritable army of concerned citizens. Those citizens were outraged when the NOP released its first suggested rules for organic agriculture, which allowed the use of GM seeds, irradiation, and sewage sludge on organic crops. The resulting hue and cry was so loud that the NOP backed down, and started over.

[%image NOP float=left width=300 caption="The National Organic Program oversees the country's organic-certification standards."]

These activist citizen groups include the Center for Food Safety, the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture, and the Organic Trade Association (OTA). “The Organic Trade Association formed 21 years ago as a group of individuals who were interested in building the organic system long before there was a rule,” says Caren Wilcox, OTA’s executive director. Today, says Wilcox, the OTA has more than 1,500 members, ranging from farmers to retailers to ordinary consumers. 

All of these organizations served as watchdogs while the organic standards took shape, and they continue to stand guard while the standards grow and evolve in a changing organics culture. They alert their members and the public to any concerns that crop up, and make sure their collective voices are heard before the NOSB, the USDA, and Congress.

Perhaps the most significant change since the national organic movement began is the emergence of “big” organics. Cascadian Farm, for example, was started by Gene Kahn in 1972 in Washington state. He recalls driving his produce in from his farm in the upper Skagit Valley to a natural-foods consumer co-op in the Seattle area. By the late 1980s, Cascadian Farm had contracted with other Pacific Northwest farmers to keep pace with demand. In 1990, Welch’s National Grape Cooperative purchased Cascadian Farm. In 1998, it became part of Small Planet Foods; in 2000, General Mills bought it. Now Kahn, the former small-scale farmer, is vice president of sustainable development for General Mills.

Over the past several years, numerous small- and medium-sized organic producers have been folded into larger corporations. More than half of the 20 top multinational food manufacturers have acquired organic brands. Even the current NOSB reflects this corporate turn in organics. Appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture, the board’s 15 members include representatives from categories including farmer/grower; handler/processor; retailer; consumer/public interest; environmentalist; scientist; and certifying agent. Previously, the board was more representative of small farmers and interests outside of the corporate sector.


h1. The dirty dozen

The Environmental Working Group offers a free booklet about organics on its website. The public-interest watchdog also lists common supermarket fruits and veggies in descending order of pesticide contamination. Here's the EWG's "dirty dozen," from worst to less worst:

Sweet bell peppers
Grapes (imported)


Former NOSB board member Jim Riddle notes that all three consumer seats are now filled with people representing corporations. “It’s a balance that’s out of whack,” says Riddle. “Traditionally, the scientist seat has gone to a scientist from a university. Now it is a corporate scientist from General Mills. She is a nice person and has a Ph.D., but it is not impartial science.”

h3. The struggle over “organic”

In her book What to Eat, Marion Nestle writes, “As for attempts to weaken the rules, think ‘relentless.’ Political appointees at the USDA are always looking for loopholes that might favor conventional growers.” The USDA runs the NOP while continuing to follow its main mandate from Congress, which is to promote conventional agriculture, writes Nestle. The dichotomy between these two programs is clear. 

Former board member Riddle says the NOP has never been properly funded. “If organic food sales make up 1 to 2 percent of the economy, it should receive 1 to 2 percent of the USDA budget, but it is receiving less than a tenth of one percent of the USDA budget,” he says. In fact, the NOP has only eight employees.

On top of the NOP’s budget constraints and the USDA’s vested interest in conventional agriculture, there’s pressure from the large agribusinesses now involved in organics. Take the ongoing pasture-and-dairy issue, for example. Current organic standards state that dairy cows must have access to pasture, but the requirements for pasture are not clearly defined. 

Riddle says that very large dairy operations — confinement dairies with thousands of cattle — have been certified organic without providing adequate pasture for their animals. (Allowing animals to roam freely outdoors is thought to create healthier herds and a more sustainable form of agriculture.) Although complaints have been filed with the USDA, no action has been taken against these dairies. (Currently, the USDA is investigating two of the dairies owned by Horizon’s corporate owner, Dean Foods.)

“There has been pressure to improve and clarify pasture requirements. The NOSB made recommendations in 2001, and there still hasn’t been a new rule approved by the USDA,” says Riddle. 

Former NOSB board member Goldie Caughlan says these dairies believe that the most important consideration is not pasture, but the fact that their animals produce hormone- and pesticide-free milk. “The USDA has still not acted because of this huge unequal influence that large agribusiness has,” says Caughlan, a nutrition educator in Seattle. “I don’t think that’s an exaggeration.” 

Caughlan works for the Seattle-based Puget Consumers Co-op (PCC), the largest consumer-owned natural-food cooperative in the country. In September 2006, PCC pulled Horizon Organic dairy products from its shelves due to the lack of pasture provided to Horizon herds.

The pasture-and-dairy issue is only one example of numerous threats to the sanctity of the USDA’s organic seal. In 2003, for example, a Congressman from Georgia snuck a rider into a bill that said if organic livestock feed cost more than twice the price of regular feed, organic livestock farmers could use conventional feed. The rider passed Congress and the President; it took a resolution rider to overturn it later.

Other attacks have been legal, such as the Harvey lawsuit in 2005, and ideological, such as the publications of the Hudson Institute. In the Harvey case, the USDA and the NOP were sued by a Maine farmer, challenging aspects of the standards. As Nestle writes in What to Eat, “In 2005, a federal court in Maine ruled in favor of protecting the standards. It refused to allow use of nonorganic ingredients when organic ingredients were not available, unless those ingredients had been approved by the National Organic Board.” Now the NOSB spends a large part of its time reviewing items for a national list of approved non-organic agricultural items that can be used in organic food production. 

[%image feature-image float=left width=400 caption="Would you prefer to buy conventional or organic artichokes?" credit="Photo: Culinate"]

Meanwhile, the Hudson Institute — a free-market, pro-globalization think tank funded by some of the world’s largest biotechnology and agrochemical companies — frequently criticizes organic food on its website. Its criticisms often rely on studies lacking scientific backing. For example, an article recently stated that people who eat natural and organic foods are eight times more likely to suffer from an E. coli attack. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) felt compelled to publish a counter-statement against this article, since the institute stated the CDC had done research supporting this theory.

Other changes in the NOP, however, reflect a positive evolution of the rules. When the standards went into effect, processed products only needed to contain at least 50 percent organic ingredients to earn the label “made with organic products.” Today, a product needs to have at least 70 percent organic ingredients to put the same phrase on its packaging. 

Another example is the closing of a feed loophole for dairy herds. By mid-2007, organic dairy producers must begin feeding their herds 100 percent organic feed, as opposed to 80 percent organic feed. 


h1. How to go organic

The O’Mama Report is an online resource and community board for women (OK, men can hang out there, too) who want to make the best possible decisions about organic agriculture and organic products. Content for the site comes from the Organic Trade Association.

The Organic Consumers Association provides both info on organics and a buying guide searchable by ZIP code.

And a British Columbia-based website called Cyber-Help for Organic Farmers publishes a  graph that shows who owns what in the organic-food industry.


Currently, the NOSB is dealing with a number of issues. Along with discussion on creating a new pasture rule, an aquaculture rule is under advisement, and a cloning/progeny recommendation was passed and submitted to the NOP for review at the last NOSB meeting, which took place in March.

“The recommendation made it very clear that cloning and progeny were not acceptable for organic production,” says Bea James, a current NOSB member and the national category leadership manager for the National Cooperative Grocers Association.

h3. The future of organic food

As the organic standards evolve, it’s clear that people interested in the movement will have to be diligent about protecting the original intent of the rules. Because organics are so profitable, the Big Organics companies will only broaden their inroads into the field. That, in turn, will tighten the existing tension between large corporations and small producers. Savvy consumers have already picked up on this, and discuss whether it’s more important to buy local food or organic food if they can’t get both. 

This coming summer, Marchek’s family will receive a weekly bin of fruits and vegetables from a local CSA. “For me, it’s more important that the food is local and fresh. It’s more of a bonus that it is organic,” she says. “Sustainable agriculture has to learn to talk differently, noting that they offer some really profound benefits. If they get lumped in with flown-in organics (and large agribusiness), they tend to lose out.”

The farmers who lease land from the PCC Farmland Trust — which works to secure and preserve threatened farmland in Washington state — say that organic certification is a good baseline, but that they’re going beyond that now. 

“On his produce signs (at the farmers’ market), farmer Andrew Stout puts ‘Carnation, Wash.,’ first and ‘organic’ secondary, putting the spotlight on local as opposed to organic,” says Alicia Guy, the Trust’s co-executive director. “The farmers want to communicate to the consumer that they do more, that they are part of a local agricultural community.”

Guy points out that some of the vegetables sold under the Cascadian Farm label are coming from China now. “That defeats the purpose of the whole spirit of organic,” she says. “Not to say that everyone wanted organic to stay as the underdog, but you get big corporations involved and the personal aspect is taken out of it: the interaction between the farm and the consumer.”

Those steeped in the organic vernacular are quick to point out that the battle people create between local and organic is a false dichotomy. Riddle says he wants his food both local and organic. “I want humane, safe, ecologically viable local producers who are protecting groundwater and not creating erosion and pollution,” he says.

So as big retailers and agribusiness make it possible for consumers who never tasted organic foods before to finally purchase a bunch of organic grapes, other consumers search out local food sources, buying from small natural food co-ops, farmers’ markets, and CSAs. 

Cheapness and access, however, come at a price. Riddle says that foreign organic imports are grown and sold at much lower cost, undermining American farmers. In addition, foreign “organic” produce might not be grown to our standards, and consumers need to be wary of possible slave and child-labor issues. Caughlan is wary of genetically modified food, noting that GM crops change the whole ecological structure for miles around and may taint nearby organic crops. 

Current NOSB board member Bea James feels the organic industry needs to both educate consumers about organic products and figure out how to develop more organic farmland. Like Caughlan, she believes technology will continue to push the envelope with organic principles. 

“The future holds many questions regarding how to maintain organic integrity in the face of our evolving environment and science,” she says. “However, no matter how advanced science becomes, there is no reason to compromise the integrity of organic agriculture. There is always a way to keep this industry true to its principles as long as you have involved consumers and commerce that demand it.”

p(bio). Nancy Schatz Alton is a freelance writer and editor based in Seattle.

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