Here is a paper I wrote about understanding what it means to be certified organic. It is certainly taking a step towards a greener lifestyle by buying organic but it is important to understand the label’s limitations as well. Read on to learn more!…
In 2012, Business News Daily wrote that organic food is the fastest growing sector, outpacing the rest of the grocery industry. According to the Organic Trade Association’s CEO Christine Bushway, “Consumers are increasingly engaged and discerning when they shop, making decisions based on their values and awareness about health and environmental concerns” (Smith.) To address and regulate this expanding organic market, the USDA created the National Organic Program based on a definition of “organic” requiring expensive certification that many small farmers simply cannot pay. Though consumers may be more conscious about their health and the environment, unfortunately many are still uneducated about what is required for a product to be “certified organic.” By trying to make healthy and environmentally friendly decisions, consumers are leaning towards purchasing organically certified products that are often produced by large farms that can afford the costly inspections. Thus, while the USDA’s intentions initially appear honorable, their definition of organic neglects to promote the products of small farmers and instead is a political tool used to enhance big business.
Under Title 21 of the 1990 Farm Bill, the Organic Foods Production Act was passed to create consistent national standards for the production and dispersal of organically labeled products. In addition, the act established the new USDA National Organic Program to set organic agricultural standards as well as the National Organic Standards Board to advise the Secretary of Agriculture upon the standards enacted by the National Organic Program. This convoluted system has led the USDA to define organic as “a labeling term that denotes products produced under the authority of the Organic Foods Production Act. The principal guidelines for organic production are to use materials and practices that enhance the ecological balance of natural systems and that integrate the parts of the farming system into an ecological whole” (Gold.) The FDA defines “organic” on their webpage by stating that the “Agricultural Marketing Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) oversees the National Organic Program (NOP). The NOP regulations include a definition of ‘organic’ and provide for certification that agricultural ingredients have been produced under conditions that would meet the definition” (How.) Thus, the FDA places the definition and regulation of “organic” in the hands of the USDA, which has created a certification process for organic products that is too costly for many small farmers to afford.
According to the USDA, the NOP “regulates the standards for any farm, wild crop harvesting, or handling operation that wants to sell an agricultural product as organically produced” (Organic.) In combination with the Organic Foods Production Act, the NOP is designed “to assure consumers that the organic foods they purchase are produced, processed, and certified to be consistent with national organic standards” (Organic). To uphold these standards, the USDA requires farms to undergo a time consuming and expensive process in order to label their products as “certified organic.” After introducing the organic certification process, the NOP approximated that product certification would cost an average of $750 per farm (Organic.) In reality, the cost differs for each farm as it is contingent upon its size and the agency employed to provide the certification, as well as other indirect costs such as administrative fees. According to a study of eleven different agencies’ certification costs, “initial costs averaged $579, $1,414, $3,623, and $33,276 for farms with incomes of $30,000, $200,000, $800,000, and $10,000,000, respectively” (Swanson.) These sizable costs hinder many sustainable local farms from obtaining the USDA organic label, and thus, they are unable to equally profit from the rapidly increasing organic market.
Last summer, the New York Times profiled Michael J. Potter in an article entitled, Has ‘Organic’ Been Oversized? Mr. Potter founded a small “hippie café and whole earth grocery” in Michigan that was then absorbed by Eden Foods, one of the primary organic food producers and wholesalers (Strom.) The nature of the business is that “organic food has become wildly lucrative business for Big Food and a premium-price-means-premium-profit section of the grocery store” (Strom.) Big business has come to recognize organically certified product’s increasing profit potential, which has made it nearly impossible for small mom and pop producers to compete. As a result, instead of continuing with their small-scale sustainable practices that benefit the local community and earth, small farms are rapidly being bought out by large food companies. Strom explains in her article, “Over the last decade, since federal organic standards have come to the fore, giant agri-food corporations like these and others — Coca-Cola, Cargill, ConAgra, General Mills, Kraft and M&M Mars among them — have gobbled up most of the nation’s organic food industry.” Strom effectively describes the consequences of these merges perfectly when she writes, “Pure, locally produced ingredients from small family farms? Not so much anymore” (Strom.)
Unfortunately, it is not just the price of certification that makes “organic” a political weapon for big business, but also the nature by which the standards are created. The National Organic Standards Board is responsible for providing recommendations to the United States Secretary of Agriculture about organic food and products. Essential tasks of the board include developing and evaluating the National List of Approved and Prohibited Substances as well as ensuring that regulations are properly enforced upon the organic farming community. The fifteen National Organic Standards Board members currently include Joe Dickson of Whole Foods Market, Dr. Wendy Fulwider of Organic Valley Family Farms and John Foster of Earthbound Farm (National.) Though the National Organic Standards Board aims to incorporate a diverse group of representatives from the organic community including farmers, environmentalists, consumer advocates, a scientist and a retailer, its list of members demonstrate its influence from primarily big organic companies. This means that the large-scale organic producers are given the power to put forth policies that regulate the production and distribution of organic products. As Mr. Potter explains, “the [National Organic Standards] Board is stacked…either they don’t have a clue, or their interest in making money is more important than their interest in maintaining the integrity of organics” (Strom.)
One example of how the National Organic Standards Board favors large organic farms is an amendment created in 2006. Once passed, it established a list of permissible artificial ingredients in USDA certified organic labeled products. While small local farms are able to produce and sell their products without these artificial additives, it is much more difficult for big organic farms to produce on such a large scale without these synthetic inputs (Schmitz.) This puts small farms as at a great disadvantage because even though their farming methods are generally more sustainable and natural as they tend to maintain crop diversity and source locally to achieve a smaller carbon footprint, due to the allowance of certain artificial ingredients in organic foods, the big businesses that can afford certification may obtain the organic label and the customers that come with it despite the actual contents of their products (Rosett.) Though industry lobbyists may argue that big organic farms make it possible for the industry to handle the growing demand for organic products, such policies inhibit many small sustainable farmers from receiving the profits they deserve. Evidence also demonstrates that smaller US farms actually produce 10 times more the value of output per unit of area versus large farms, and therefore large farms are not necessary to keep up with this growing demand (Rosset.)
Maintaining the status quo of big business, the definition of organic hinders the progress of small farmers as it creates a power structure that allows for the continued success of large organic farms at the expense of less commercialized farms. Placing the definition of organic in the hands of the National Organics Board which is dominated by large organic industry leaders enforces this power structure. Requiring the extensive testing procedures as well as imposing financial burdens in order to obtain certification, the organics industry forces all farms to jump through hoops in ways that are simply unfeasible for small farmers. As a result, the definition of organic has developed into a political tool for industry leaders to manipulate the standards of the National Organic Standards Board and ultimately control the entire organic market.
Gold, Mary V. “Organic Production and Organic Food: Information Access Tools.”United States Department of Agriculture. N.p., June 2007. Web. 04 Nov. 2013.
“How Is the Term “organic” Regulated?” Food and Drug Administration. N.p., 6 Oct. 2010. Web. 04 Nov. 2013.
“National Organic Standards Board (NOSB).” USDA, 16 Sept. 2013. Web. 03 Nov. 2013.
“Organic Certification.” United States Department of Agriculture. USDA, 15 Nov. 2011. Web. 02 Nov. 2013.
Rosset, Peter. “Small Farms Are More Efficient & Sustainable.” Organic Consumer Association. N.p., June 2000. Web. 04 Nov. 2013.
Schmitz, Jake. “Organic Certification Process.” University of Kentucky, Aug. 2010. Web. 3 Nov. 2013.
Smith, Ned. “Organic Food Sales Growth Outpaces Rest of Grocery Industry.” BusinessNewsDaily.com. N.p., 23 Apr. 2012. Web. 03 Nov. 2013.
Strom, Stephanie. “Has ‘Organic’ Been Oversized?” New York Times. N.p., 7 July 2012. Web. 3 Nov. 2013.
Swanson, Abbie. “How Much Is Organic Certification Worth?” Harvest Public Media, 6 Dec. 2012. Web. 03 Nov. 2013.