Is Organic in an End-Game? (article)
07.11.2009Is Organic in an End-Game? (article)
I came across this article recently which explains some of the challenges facing the organic industry.
Is Organic in and End-Game?
By: Samuel Fromartz
Author, "Organic, Inc: Natural Foods and How They Grew"
Last week, the WaPo ran a story headlined "Purity of Organic Label is Questioned" -- a quasi-investigative story on how the organic "program's lax standards are undermining the federal program and the law itself."
I say quasi-investigative because it wasn't particularly news. The tension discussed in the article, between those who have always sought to expand the industry and those who seek a more purist vision, has been fodder for many articles and was the subject of my book Organic, Inc. -- published three years ago. Often those camps are presented as big corporations on the one hand (chipping away at regulations) and small farmers striving to keep things pure on the other, both at one another's throats.
Consistent with that narrative, the article asserted that big corporations were compromising the organic label by lobbying for questionable "synthetic" ingredients in organic food. Small farmers like Arthur Harvey -- a blueberry farmer -- were trying to limit these additives. But before we get into that simplistic framing of the debate a bit of background would be useful.
What are synthetics and why are they important?
Under the USDA rules, a product can carry the "organic" label if 95% of the ingredients are "organic." Processed organic foods, such as organic yogurt, crackers, cookies, cereal, etc., can carry the word "organic" if they meet this 95% threshold. But they can use approved non-organic ingredients in the remaining 5%. And these may be "synthetics" that must win a specific exception. Among them are baking powder, Vitamin E and C, xanthum gum (a thickening agent), pectin and lecithin. But as the article points out, the list has ballooned to 245.
Although "corporate firepower" has lobbied for these exceptions, nearly every company in the processed organic foods business uses them, from independents like Newman's Own Organics to farmer-owned co-ops like Organic Valley and companies like Stonyfield Farm, which has a cameo in the film Food Inc. In short, though some are controversial, you would be hard-pressed to find any processed organic food business arguing for a blanket dismissal of all synthetics. (For more background on synthetics, see "How the Media Missed the Organic Story").
Who controls those decisions? The National Organic Standards Board -- a citizens advisory panel -- explicitly controls the list of synthetics and makes its decisions at public hearings. But as the article pointed out, the National Organic Program at the USDA has taken a few decisions on its own that have stirred much controversy and tarnished the program's reputation.
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