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The Problem With The Organic Label

by Benjamin Sauerborn
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So many followers of the organic movement have been hooked on the concept that their food choices are better for their health and their environment in almost every aspect. This has pitted the conventional and organic produce market against each other, with conventional, industrially grown or produced food often receiving the brunt of the negative attention. However, over the decades, research and common sense have ultimately determined that the organic movement is just as much of a fallacy.

The Foundation & Principals Of The Organic Movement

While organic farming has technically been a global practice since the dawn of agriculture, it’s only ever needed its own subcategory of farming since the invention and widespread popularity of monocultures, GMOs, synthetic pesticides, growth hormones, feedlots, crowded chicken houses, and any other questionable practice the industrial food industry carries out. On paper, organic agriculture was first thought of by Sir Albert Howard, F.H. King, Rudolf Steiner, and others who believed that the use of animal manures (often made into compost), cover crops, crop rotation, and biologically based pest controls resulted in a better farming system. The organic movement is a farming system that encourages the use of natural fertilizers made from manure, compost, and bone meal, emphasis on the use of crop rotation and companion planting, and probably most notably, the prohibition of synthetic pesticides. To the producers behind the organic movement, these all come more as recommendations as anything else, as the use of pesticides and unethical cultivation and harvesting are still common. 

This is, for all our intents and purposes and to the USDA the definition of ‘organic’:

 

Organic is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.

 

This means a couple of things.

  • First off that the use of irradiation (the practice of exposing food to ionizing radiation to kill pathogens and bacteria), sewage sludge, synthetic fertilizers, prohibited pesticides, and GMOs were not used. 
  • Second that pesticides, if they were to be used, had to be derived from natural sources.
  • That no land treated with pesticides in the least 3 years could be used. 
  • No machinery was used that came into contact with pesticides for the same amount of time.
  • And finally, livestock did not consume growth hormones, ate only 100% organic food, and provided the animals with outdoor space.
  • The USDA

Any nature or agricultural enthusiast will know that the USDA is the United States Department of Agriculture. The USDA is a cabinet-level agency and its job is to oversee the American farming industry as well as monitoring agricultural matters globally. It was founded in 1862 by no other than Abraham Lincoln. Today the department has over 105.7 thousand employees and an annual budget of $151 billion. Congress founded the NOP in 2001 as a subsidy under the umbrella of the USDA.

The NOP

Any organic enthusiast can tell you the NOP or National Organic Program is a federal regulatory program that oversees the standard of organic food in the United States. It’s a public-private partnership in cahoots with private, for-profit companies that carry out the inspections and certifications for the NOP. 

The NOP has almost no choice but to get creative with how it functions day to day, as it is one of the many heavily understaffed and underfunded government programs running in the US. This forces them to seek out these third party companies to do their bidding for them. The NOP creates rules and sets standards for all organic food grown in the United States, but it has no influence over the productions of imports.

Organic Certification

Although the National Organic Program (NOP) is a department that falls under the umbrella of the USDA, and although everything carrying the label has to fall under their quota for organic. It allows it’s the certification process to be carried out by third-party companies who are in turn paid by organic farmers and food producers. As well as a conflict of interest this accommodates ample room for the forging of official documents, bribes, and in turn a rise in fraudulent organic products. Not to mention the fact that neither the NOP nor the USDA has any say over the certified standard of ‘organic’ for imported produce.

There are three major certifiers in the US today. Quality Assurance International (QAI) based in San Diego, California, California Certified Organic Farmers also based in California, and Oregon Tilth based in Corvallis, Oregon. The QAI and the California Certified Organic Farmers are both for-profit organizations. The fact that certifying companies are looking to make a profit shows the produce they certify is not at the heart of their priorities, because the payment isn’t just a one-time ordeal. Organic farmers have to get re-certified every year which can range another from $200 to $1500. Times that by the 14,000 organic farms in the US that works out to around $12 million dollars. This isn’t, however, all down to corruption and misuse of a label. The NOP is severely understaffed so have to resort to creative methods of handling the workload. It’s estimated that there is one staff member int he NOP for every $1 billion in organic produce sales.

‘Organic’ Pesticides

Pesticides, rather a lack thereof is likely one of the primary reasons a pro-organic person sticks to organic food, even though it neither states that in the USDA’s definition for organic nor is practiced throughout organic farms. The use of prohibited pesticides are not allowed and should be natural unless unavoidable. In fact, here is a list of all the chemicals and synthetic pesticides the USDA allows in organic farming. Given each of the 40+ pesticides that are allowed are individually reviewed, given that they’re ‘natural’ they aren’t deeply studied, which means we generally don’t know if they’re actually safer or not, especially given the amounts organic farmers use. 

Natural pesticides aren’t half as effective as synthetic pesticides. Some recent studies put rotenone-pyrethrin mixture (an organic pesticide) in contest with a synthetic pesticide called imidan. It was found that two applications of the imidan pesticide proved as effective as up to 7 applications of the organic rotenone-pyrethrin mixture. Not only that, but rotenone is found to be moderately toxic to humans in large enough doses. 

In more recent studies, since no one had bothered to look before, around half of all the permitted chemicals on the list were carcinogenic. The organic industry has always been deemed as ‘safer’ therefor these chemicals were ever properly tested. Since typically organic food is tested to have less pesticide residue, we don’t know the extent of how much damage they can do to our bodies. 

The Organic Label

Only 95% of the ingredients in organic food actually has to be organic. There are 35 non-synthetic and non-organic substances permitted for organic certification. 43 synthetic substances or processes allowed, and 45 non-organic ingredients that can still be used while still being labeled organic. From emulsifiers like carrageenan that can cause inflammation, soy lecithin (the leftover sludge waste from processing soybean oil), cellulose (wood pulp), and ethylene (a hydrocarbon widely used in the chemical industry). 

These are just a few of the non-organic ingredients permitted, and they’re almost always used in abundance. Why? Because there isn’t and organic substitute for stabilizers, preservers, and emulsifiers. Not ones that are strong efficient enough at least. Basically this means whenever there is no organic substitute for an ‘essential’ ingredient, a synthetic or non-organic can be used as long as it’s approved by the NOP.

Conclusion

Although the organic movement is good in its core beliefs, it’s essentially useless and a breeding ground for corruption on a corporate level. It’s sad that in this day and age we need a government and programs to regulate and monitor the food we eat simply because we have no idea where it came from. With the number of imports to the US is increasing heavily each year, it becomes increasingly hardy to regulate the food, not to mention that the US government doesn’t have any say over how these imports are grown whether they’re organic or conventional.

There is a simple solution to the food crisis the public is facing and inevitably feeding. Just by eating locally. Eating locally always ensures you know where your food comes from and under what conditions it’s grown. It keeps money circulating in your community and benefits the farmers that work so hard to grow the food, not the corporate giants who are responsible for and reap the rewards of one of the biggest chains of animal cruelty in history. Not to mention the effect their greed has on the planet we live on. If you’re passionate enough about to spend the extra on nothing buy a green label then reads ‘organic’, you may as well make a real difference by buying locally, even if it means cutting down on precious meat consumption. It’s no longer an option to be blissfully unaware of where your food comes from simply because it’s convenient for you.

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