Organic: Food for Thought and Body
by Mark Keating
Certification can provide some basic guarantees about how organic food is grown and handled, but consumers shouldn’t take anything for granted.
Knowing that comparable products side-by-side on the shelf – two brands of organic eggs, for example – may come from very different farms confuses matters even further. The good news is that when properly understood, the USDA organic seal can be a very useful resource for consumers seeking to make better informed choices about their food.
The crop, livestock and handling (processing) standards are the first foundation of organic certification. The standards establish the dos and don’ts which govern how certified farmers and handlers operate. Among other factors, the production standards specify which seeds, sources of livestock feed and pest management practices organic farmers may and may not use. For example, organic farmers may not use genetically modified seed for any purpose and must provide organically grown feed to livestock exclusively. The handling standards address the amount of certified ingredients which must be included in products using different labeling options, such as “organic” and “made with organic ingredients.” They also prohibit certain practices including ionizing radiation, often referred to as irradiation.
Soil fertility requirements, within the crops standards, are a good example of what the organic seal can and cannot tell us about certified food. Organic farmers are required to manage soil fertility through the use of appropriate fertilizers, tillage practices, cover crops and crop rotations. All of these elements are core components of traditional organic farming, and requiring them creates a clear distinction between organic and non-organic crops. That may seem all that most consumers would want to know, but meeting the standards actually leaves room for enormous variation in how certified farms raise the same crops. And in a disturbing development, some organic farms are no longer required to employ all of the traditional organic practices.
The second essential component of organic certification - the certifying agents – help explain the ambiguity behind the organic seal. While the USDA sets the production and handling standards, it licenses either private organizations or public ones such as a state department of agriculture to serve as certifying agents. The certifying agent manages the day-to-day working relationships with farmers and handlers to verify that their operations comply with the organic standards. The compliance process revolves around an organic system plan (OSP) which provides a comprehensive blueprint of the certified operation.
A third critical piece of the process is called the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Materials.
The general rule of thumb in organic production and handling is that natural materials are allowed unless specifically prohibited, and synthetic materials are prohibited unless specifically allowed. The USDA uses an advisory body called the National Organic Standards Board to determine how specific materials should be classified, whether or not they should be allowed, and what, if any restrictions, should be places on their use. You can imagine that it’s a rather cumbersome process, but it has been successful at significantly minimizing the number of synthetic materials used in growing and processing organic food.
So far, it may seem like a relatively straightforward process. USDA sets the standards, farmers and handlers develop an organic system plan to produce food in compliance with the standards, and the certifying agent provides ongoing oversight including an annual inspection. The National List serves as a clearing house to determine which materials may or may not be used. And that is generally how the process has worked in the fifteen years since the USDA assumed overall responsibility.
While organic certification continues to provide baseline guarantees about how food was raised and handled, two interrelated factors are eroding what that baseline represents. First, there have always been significant details such as the farm’s location and scale of production that are not addressed by the organic standards. You may not object to sourcing organic food from very large farms very far away, but you shouldn’t buy organic thinking that you are avoiding such farms. In fact, the national markets for organic and conventional produce are very similar with large farms in California providing more than 90% of the supply.
The second factor is a bit more insidious, because it actually confuses consumers about what the baseline guarantee of the organic seal represents. While in principle certifying agents are licensed to certify to the single USDA standard, they interpret and enforce its provisions very differently. Historically there has been some flexibility inherent in the standards because no two farms are exactly alike. However, in recent years some certifying agents have taken enormous liberty in interpreting and applying standards in a manner that is undermining the basic meaning of organic certification.
Not surprisingly, the desire to fit larger and larger farms under the organic standards is driving the watering down of the standards. For example, there are extremely large certified dairy and poultry operations that withhold or severely restrict fundamental organic principles and requirements of the standards including allowing livestock access to the outdoors. It has been widely known for more than a decade that some dairies with upwards of 10,000 cows are certified organic. Such farms stand in stark contrast to the several thousand organic family dairy farms in the United States which consistently graze their forty to a few hundred cows. Yet milk from both styles of production goes out under the USDA organic seal.
More recently, a number of prominent certifying agents have relaxed their interpretation of the organic crop standards to sanction certification of what are essentially hydroponic farms. These certifying agents maintain that, because fundamental organic principles and requirements of the standards including crop rotation, cover cropping and resource conversation simply aren’t pertinent, there is nothing preventing hydroponic farms from being certified. Such an interpretation turns our classical understanding of organic farming – Feed the Soil! – on its head. However, organic tomatoes, lettuce and cane fruits grown in massive hydroponic greenhouses – some as large as thirty acres – are now a staple in our grocery stores.
If it seems that answering one question about organic certification raises two more, don’t be discouraged. The fact is that how our food is produced and where it comes from will be one of the defining issues of the 21st century. We must find ways to produce high quality food in sufficient amounts to support an expanding human population while conserving precious natural resources and preserving biodiversity. The very good news is that core organic farming practices – integrating crop and livestock production and rigorously practicing crop rotation and cover cropping – are demonstrably capable of producing those results.
Here are some basic tips for making more informed food choices:
1. Learn what the organic seal means, and learn what it doesn’t. If your primary consideration in purchasing organic food is to minimize exposure to pesticide residues and other synthetic materials, you can buy certified products with confidence. Hopefully, this article has convinced you that there are other important considerations and that the organic seal is more the starting line than the finish line. You’ll have to do the leg work to gather the information you need, but no other decision you make on a daily basis has more of an impact on the planet. One very good place to start is with a series of organic scorecards on national brands of organic staples including milk, eggs and yogurt compiled by the Cornucopia Institute: www.cornucopia.org/
2. Good food doesn’t have to be certified organic. As mentioned above, there are many important factors in farming including scale and location of production that have never been included in organic certification. Consumers are increasingly coming to value food grown closer to home by genuine family farms. Many of these farms are not likely to pursue organic certification, and that shouldn’t be a strike against them. Some crops, and especially tree fruits like apples, peaches and pears, are virtually impossible to grow organically with the four season climate of New Jersey (and the North Atlantic sates). Is it really preferable to buy an organic apple from Washington State (a two season climate with few of our pests) when you can pick your own on a crisp autumn afternoon and support a local business that is keeping land in agriculture?
3. Know your farmer, know your food. While living in an urban environment makes this challenging, find ways to reach out and connect with farmers near you. The most important and generally most rewarding step in learning where food comes from is to meet the people who raise it for us. They may be off the beaten path and overwhelmingly busy, but they have so much to share with us. Start shopping at farmers markets, look into joining a CSA, and visit farm stands and pick-your-own operations. Very few people who start investing this kind of effort into their diet ultimately decide that it wasn’t worth it.