The organic standard is the seal most commonly used to determine food purity.
It was created in 2000, and since then organically labeled products have mushroomed to a 50+ Billion industry and is the fastest growing segment of the food industry.
In that time we’ve witnessed the use of the standard morph from a small shelf or two of overpriced oddities in our grocery store to entire chains of stores devoted specifically to carrying organically labeled products. In that same amount of time the stakes for being organic have gotten much higher and more and more people throw their hat into the ring, include large multi-nationals.
People might be surprised to find out that many iconic organic brands like Kashi and Stonyridge Farms are subsidiaries of larger non-organic firms like Kellogg and Danone, respectively.
The increased scope of the organic standard raises interesting questions for how it ought to be interpreted. Should it carry equal weight for large and small companies? For processed and unprocessed foods?
How does it stack up against other proxies for food quality like buying local or buying fresh?
In many ways the organic standard is thoughtfully put together and does a very good job of the task its given which is undoubtedly difficult. In other ways it might not be the most accurate way to judge food quality depending on the types of products you’re buying.
Sizing Up the Standard
In my experience people have the impression that something labeled organic means that it’s free of impurities. This isn’t quite true.
The organic standard is a set of rules for commercial agriculture to follow that dictates the process that’s used to make a food product. It includes how soil is to be treated, treatment of livestock, use of pesticides, pest management, and use of seeds among other things.
The creation of the organic standard was a natural response to increasing complexity in the food production process that made it harder to draw lines between what was high quality and what wasn’t. The vast majority of consumers don’t have the time to inspect how their food was made and increasing concerns over health and food purity means there’s a large incentive for food manufacturers to make claims that give the impression foods are more carefully sourced than they actually are.
So something like the organic standard had to be created, and its probably inevitable that the set of rules would come under intense scrutiny no matter what tradeoffs it decided to make.
But how does organic translate literally to end of production food quality?
The key point to understand about the organic standard is that it regulates a specific process as opposed to a specific outcome. The organic seal all by itself doesn’t guarantee food quality, even though its intent is to govern cultivation practices that should help to that end.
It’s always important to understand that organic is not the same thing as local, buying local doesn’t mean you’re buying organic, and at the end of the day a careful consideration of where your food comes from is the best way to alleviate fears you might have about the use of pesticides and food purity.
An organic seal isn’t a testament to the size of company that’s making the product, whether or not its ingredients are locally or seasonally grown, or even how much pesticide was used to make the product.
Nevertheless, the organic standard is what we’ve decided upon to use as our rough guide for ascertaining what sort of agricultural practices are used to make what we eat.
Since that’s the case it’s important to understand what we are and are not getting when we buy something with the organic seal.
Treatment of The Soil
I think one of the best aspects of the Organic Standard is that it places limitations on how intensely a plot of soil can be engineered to produce yield, and generally restricts crop management practices that increase output at the expense of soil degradation.
For something to be labeled organic manure has to be used as fertilizer, crops must be rotated on the same plot of land to prevent overuse, and “organic” soil can’t have been used for non-organic farming standards within the past three years.
By and large these requirements are useful and promote sustainable farming, since there’s a decent amount of evidence that nutrient density in soil has gone down drastically the last several hundred years.
Use of Pesticides
It’s a popular belief that an organic food is made without pesticides. That’s not true. Pesticides are allowed.
Instead the organic standard has a list of allowed and prohibited substances that can be used as insecticides and manage pests. The difference between organic and non-organic pesticides is a bit like natural and artificial flavors. For a pesticide to be considered organic it can’t come from a synthetic source, and must be derived from something in nature.
Three of the most popular organic pesticides are rotenone, pyrethrum, and neem, which come from jacima, neem, and chrysanthemum plants.
What does this mean? In practice it probably means large scale factory-farmed organic products probably don’t restrict the use of pesticides in any way compared to those that use conventional farming techniques, and might even use more.
For example, it’s very common to use a pyrethrum-rotenone mix to treat plants like tomatoes and lettuce, which is about three and a half times less potent than a conventionally equivalent pesticide like inidan.
This begs the question of whether we’re safer eating an organically farmed crop that uses 3x more organic pesticide than a conventionally grown crop. Many consumers would probably find it disheartening to discover some of their organic store bought products use crop dusters to indiscriminately apply large amounts of pesticides, but this is in fact what typically happens at industrial organic farms.
Is this to say that all organic farming is a sham and should be distrusted entirely? No, of course not. But it is important just to get the record straight about what we are and aren’t getting when we go to the grocery store.
There’s a local farm I frequent when I have the time because its produce always tastes fresh and still cheaper than my local grocery store. When I asked whether or not they were officially organic they said they weren’t because once a year they apply a pesticide that’s synthetically derived.
That might sound like a silly thing to do since they’re so close to qualifying for the standard, but they insisted it was the best thing to do because that annual application of the pesticide allowed them to use much less throughout the rest of the year which they felt was best for soil quality.
Treatment of Animals
The organic standard imposes higher standards for treatment of livestock than conventional agricultural practices. This includes prohibiting the use of antibiotics and growth hormones, sufficient nutrition for the animals, and requirements for space and living conditions that will at least approximate a typical barnyard, and almost certainly provide better living conditions than the typical commercial farm.
Currently the health benefits of these standards are dubious with regards to the added health value but almost certainly represents a big win for people who care about the well being of animals.
Benefits to the Environment
The benefits of agricultural farming are a double edged sword. On one hand you have better soil management, less intensive use of farm resources, and an avoidance of the most powerful pesticides.
That’s all good, but their benefits are held back by the same practices we find appealing.
Organic farm land is about 80% as effective as traditional agriculture, and perhaps as low as 50% in some cases.
This means that the organic farmland that we analyze is in better shape than conventional farmland that we can compare it to, but it also means an increasing reliance on organic foods could lead to more environmental damage of non-farmland because farm land is by far the biggest strain humans put on the environment.
About 35% of land that’s not covered by ice is devoted to farming. That’s more than 50x the amount of land devoted to cities and urban landscapes. This means that increases in organic farmland are probably going to come at the expense of land that’s not currently used for farming, which will result in a net loss of wildlife.
So to accurately compare organic vs. non-organic agriculture you also need to factor in the resources devoted to expanding factory-farmed organic farmland vs. traditional farmland which is typically going to have a higher yield and less need to expand to produce the same amount of food.
There’s no reason to poo-poo the organic standard. For what it is it performs its job reasonably well. It’s a federally mandated set of rules that large scale farmers can choose to adhere in order to get a stamp. That provides value for all parties involved and lets consumers get a rough idea of how their food was made. To not have it would mean less transparency in the food we eat and if it were more powerful it’d likely be more easily manipulated by large companies and become more expensive to enforce, making healthy food even less affordable for those that need it most.
But at the end of the day it’s kind of a fuzzy way to measure the stuff we really care about in our food.