What’s in a Word?

For the consumer who shops for food with an emphasis on questions like “who grew this?” and “how was this grown?” life can sometimes be difficult. Let’s face it, oftentimes it takes a degree in chemistry to recognize all the ingredients in the food we eat, and with our modern-age super-corporations owning any number of umbrella companies, it can feel impossible to know exactly who is responsible for the food you put into your own body. It’s hard to think about; frankly, it’s a scary thought. But, for many, a ‘Certified Organic’ sticker on a product takes a lot of the stress and worry out of food shopping. Sure, there are downsides; they cost more, they can be hard to find, ect. but the assumed assurance that ‘this food is natural, grown using natural things’ can bring much-needed clarity to a confusing and mind-bending experience. I don’t need to worry about this food.

But do you? A recent New York Times article by Stephanie Strom goes after the seeming purity of the ‘Certified Organic’ label, along with the top echelons of organic agriculture’s oversight mechanisms; the USDA and, especially, the National Organic Standards Board (the subject of a piece on ASAP project IOGA’s website, found here). The NOSB, as the advisory board for the USDA on which inorganic ingredients can be included in deemed ‘organic’ food, is supposed to be constructed in a way as to give equal voice to growers, conservationists, business interests and consumers. The Times report, however, seemingly shows that big business has stacked the odds in their favor, and is now allowing ingredients into your ‘organic food’ that stretch the meaning of the word to its fullest. According to Mark Kassel of the Cornucopia Institute, an organic advocacy group, “The average consumer has no idea that all these additives are going into the organic products they’re buying”.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack

What kind of additives are we talking about? Things like DHA, carrageenan and synthetic inositol, all products too chemically complicated for me to adequetely explain, but all ‘manufactured using chemical process’ and/or (in carrageenan’s case) have spotty health records, at best. The reason for this, the Times say, is that big agribusiness has found ways to appoint its interests into spots on the 15-member NOSB board meant for the other interests in the organic community. For example, Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture, appointed Carmela Beck, an employee for food giant Driscoll, working with organic farms in Latin America, to the NOSB in a chair marked for a ‘farmer/grower’, even though “she does not own or operate a farm”. In fact, “the three consumer seats have never been filled by anyone from a traditional consumer advocacy group…Instead, those seats have largely gone to academics with agricultural expertise and to corporate executives”.

The reason’s for big business’ growth into the organic market are many and obvious. The organic sector is vibrant and growing, consisting now of 4% of the U.S. food market, and has a very high ceiling. Furthermore, the term ‘organic‘ is pure gold in many people’s eyes, meaning a built-in consumer base for companies. And, lest we not forget, organic foods, are, by their nature, more expensive and thus lucrative for those with the means to operate in a big way. However, it’s not as well know that organic agriculture is a highly consolidated
industry, with large corporations at the very top. Many of the ‘foodie’ brands consumers purchase are owned by the big boys; Coca-Cola, General Mills, PepsiCo and Kraft. You don’t know this, and that’s intended. Because of the contrast in practices and, let’s be honest, symbolism between big agribusiness and organic agriculture, these large corporations try to distance themselves from their organic umbrella companies. But, at the end of the day, Kashi=Kellogg, Naked Juice=PepsiCo and Odwalla=Coca-Cola.

This is not to say that the mere fact that most well-known organic companies are owned by big corporations is a bad thing (there is an argument to be made for this, but not at this time, in this article). However, for these corporations there instinctively exists a strong motive to stretch the term ‘organic’ and what is allowed into products stamped ‘Certified Organic’ by the USDA, and the interests working towards this end have, at the very least, cast doubt onto the validity of the certification by trying to dilute its original meaning.

Mother Jones responded to the Times by calling it out for delving into the realm of class warfare and the natural distrust of Big Business that it evokes. “The organic label, for all the untoward influence of Big Food players like dairy giant Dean Foods, still means something. If you buy food labeled organic, you can be reasonably sure it was grown without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, without genetically modified seeds, without (in the case of dairy, meat, and eggs) antibiotics and other dodgy pharmaceuticals, and on farms required to have a plan for crop rotation…the organic label remains the single most accessible way for consumers to avoid supporting the worst ecological practices of industrial agriculture”, writes the author of the Jones article, Tom Philpott. Mother Jones is correct. Strom seems to focus much of her article’s attention on the inherent badness of the connection between ‘Big Food’ and organic farming. However, the NOSB, the way it is intended to operate, should be a sufficient enough safeguard against the sometimes-dark interests of big corporations. That it seems not to be, that is has been hijacked by one group to the expense of the others, shows an inherent flaw in the system.

Corporations, driven by the profit motive and competition, in a situation like the one at the NOSB, should be expected to try to gain an advantage to further its interests. It is simply in their nature as organizations. However, if the organic industry is to remain strong, and prosper while living up to its promise, ‘Certified Organic‘, then the structures regulating an industry whose entire reason for existence is the regulation of certain practices and methods must be strong; stronger than they are now, if they, as it seems, were so easily compromised. The whole basis of organic agriculture is based on trust, and only continues to work if consumers believe in what they are buying. Because what separates organic food is that people don’t need to buy it. It’s expensive, a hassle to find, but people do it anyway because buying organic is often part of people’s way of life. In a confusing world, they want to know that what they’re putting in their body is the end of the line, that there’s no asterisks, no small print. And if the organic industry loses that, they lose everything.


All quotations taken from 

‘Has ‘Organic’ Been Oversized?’New York Times

‘How the NY Times Went Too Far in Slamming Big Organic’Mother Jones

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *