Organic Standards: Not Perfect but Definitely Better
by Anna Meyer, Food Campaigns Associate
The organic sector is one of the fastest growing segments of the food industry with over $30 billion in annual sales. Consumers are increasingly willing to pay a premium price for food that is grown in a more sustainable manner and produced without artificial ingredients. This is good news, since a shift towards organic production is essential for building a sustainable food future. But as organic food continues to grow in popularity, are federal organic standards really fostering a food system that’s better for people and the planet?
The organic movement versus the USDA organic certification?
The organic movement was born out of a desire to shift away from industrialized farming and to be more connected with the land and communities. Industrial agriculture took off in the 1920s but really gained momentum in the 1970s thanks to USDA Secretary Earl Butz’ mantra of “get big, or get out.” The modern US organic movement is often linked with the publishing of Rachel Carson’s landmark book, Silent Spring, which brought to light the many dangers of chemical intensive industrialized agriculture. Ultimately, this resulted in a government certification managed through the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Since the introduction of the certification, in 2002, the USDA has received much criticism calling into question the integrity of the standard.
The major differences between the movement and the standard lie in the attention to issues of social justice and in the exceptions made to allow for large-scale organic farming and additives. The movement aimed to build a standard that not only addresses the environmental impacts of industrial agriculture but the social aspects as well.
What does USDA Organic get right?
A lot! The USDA Organic standard regulates the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and additives, just to name a few.
Under the organic standards you cannot use synthetic fertilizers. This is hugely important as synthetic fertilizers continue our dependence on fossil fuels and are responsible for the pollution of waterways and mass die offs of oceanic life. Organics also regulates the use of pesticides. While there are some pesticides allowed under the organic standard, the most common and hazardous ones, such as glypohsate, 2,4-d and dicamba, are prohibited. The regulation of pesticide use is key to maintaining pollinator health, ensuring biodiversity, and protecting the health of on-farm workers and neighboring communities.
Organic certification prohibits the use of artificial additives and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). If you are purchasing something organic it is guaranteed non-GMO. The main difference between USDA Organic and Non-GMO Project Verified is that organic verifies the process and the Non-GMO project tests for the presence of GMOs.
The standard also encourages more sustainable practices such as cover cropping, crop rotation, and composting. All of these are extremely essential to building back the health of the soil. Healthy soil can provide a number of ecosystem services, such as sequestering carbon out of the atmosphere, which is essential in mitigating climate change. Improved soil quality also leads to stronger plants that are more resistant to shifts in weather and are better able to handle attacks from pests.
With regards to animal production the organic standard regulate how much time animals can spend confined indoor and the use of antibiotics and artificial growth hormones. For example, organic requires that dairy cows spend the vast majority of their time being grass-fed and when they are fed supplementary feed it must be non-GMO. Both antibiotics and artificial growth hormones are prohibited under the organic standard.
This is just a glimpse as to all the things that organic regulates and monitors, the list goes on and on. You can check out an exhaustive breakdown of the standard here.
What are the main drawbacks with USDA Organic?
While USDA organic does get a lot of things right and is ultimately helping to decrease the negative impacts of industrial agriculture, there are areas where it is found lacking. One major downside with the less stringent standards of the USDA’s Organic certification is that it has made room for industrial organic farming. Though the intention of the organic movement was for smaller scale farms, current organic production oftentimes happens in large-scale monocultures or industrial animal operations. There is a world of difference between smaller scale farmers selling at farmer markets and large scale farms producing for grocery store private labels. When you bring agricultural production to that scale there will always be impacts on the environment, simply by shifting the biodiversity of a region as well as the impacts of any concentrated amount of inputs and waste.
In industrial animal operations there is a high tendency to give low daily doses of antibiotics to all the animals in order to promote growth and prevent diseases, unsanitary living conditions and a poor diet make animals industrial operations more prone to disease. Organic aims to tackle this by prohibiting the use of antibiotics altogether. While decreasing the use of subtherapeutic antibiotics is a good thing, the down side is that farmers are unable to treat genuinely sick animals that could benefit from antibiotics; this becomes an animal welfare issue. Should a farmer choose to treat their sick animal, they will then have to be removed from the organic supply chain and sold to conventional production. Some dairy farmers are hesitant to get organic certification because of the inability to treat their sick cows and keep them in the organic supply chain.
The other major downside to organic is that the transition process from conventional is timely and expensive. The required three-year transition period is intended to protect the integrity of the certification. During the transition period farmers are forced to pay the extra expenses for organic, and are not yet receiving the premium price for their product. It is imperative that the government focus more funding through the farm bill to organic programs and transition.
So is Organic better?
It most definitely is! While USDA Organic is by no means perfect it is the best option currently on the market. Any increase in organic is drastically decreasing the negative impacts of agriculture on people and the environment. While we do need to continue to push towards an even more sustainable system of agriculture moving as much of our production to organic is a necessary step to mitigating climate change, protecting biodiversity, and protecting farm communities. Ultimately, what we need is a shift in the entire agricultural production system with the intention of undoing the post WWII era thinking of “get big, or get out.”
Still the very best way to know how your food is produced is to buy from local farmers with whom you have had a chance discuss farming practices, just because a farmer isn’t certified doesn’t mean that they aren’t using organic practices. In fact lots of small-scale farmers are going beyond organic and are focused on agroecological methods of farming such as increased diversification, intensive composting, cover cropping, and a particular attention to carbon sequestration. Regenerative agriculture aims to rebuild soil health and farm ecosystems in attempt to reverse the damage done by industrial agriculture over the last hundred of years. These practices are essential for preserving biodiversity and soil, as well as for preparing for climate change. Healthy soil can serve as one of the largest collectors of carbon, helping to mitigate climate change. Stronger more diverse farms are more able to handle the impacts of climate change and ensure that we have a sustainable food future.