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.

blueberryUnder 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?

farm rowsWhile 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.

 

Follow updates on sustainable agriculture and Green America’s work on food issues on Facebook and by visiting GreenAmerica.org/food.

 

 

Genetically Engineered Trees: A New Frontier or Climate Catastrophe?

By: Kat Battaglia, Fellow, Green America’s Better Paper Project

Most consumers in the United States are now aware of genetically engineered foods, but far fewer realize that, beginning formally in 1988, biotech scientists have been working on the next frontier of genetic engineering: trees. While the biotech industry claims GE trees could be a natural solution to deforestation, it’s far more likely that a shift to GE monoculture forests, heavily dependent on chemical inputs, would further pollute our soil, air and waterways, and exacerbate the problems of climate change.

Not All Forests Are Created Equal

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Natural forest in Putney Vermont

Natural forests are more than a collection of trees. They are rich, biodiverse habitats for millions of species of plants, animals, and microorganisms that are essential to life. Forests protect soil and waterways from pollution, and even protect humans from heart and respiratory diseases. Perhaps most miraculously, the earth’s forests also store 289 gigatons of carbon in biomass, making forests one of the greatest contributors to slowing the rate of climate change.

Enter genetically engineered trees. The biotech industry is in the process of developing GE trees for a number of aims, including lower lignin content to ease processing. Lignin, a structural component of wood, must be removed from wood pulp before it can be used to make paper. GE trees with lower lignin content stand to save the paper industry a great deal of money by cutting out the expensive removal process. GE trees also promise faster growth, ease of converting wood into biofuels, protection from pests and resistance to herbicides. These developments would surely increase the profits of biotech companies, but at what cost to the planet and future generations?

Genetically Engineered Trees Threaten the Health of an Already Fragile Planet

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GE eucalyptus plantation Credit: StopGEtrees.org

The risks of GE trees are grave. From current GE trees evaluations and experiments as well as studies assessing the environmental impact of GE trees, several large issues were identified. Lower lignin content trees decompose faster and release more carbon dioxide than non – GE trees, greatly contributing to climate change.
Additionally, GE trees require repeated and wide dousing of chemicals to eliminate pests and weeds, which furthers an industrial and chemically- driven approach to agriculture. This approach causes pollution to soil, waterways and air as well as heavy emissions of greenhouse gases.

The development of GE trees will likely bring about massive, single-crop plantations, which can hardly replace natural forests. Monoculture plantations have already devastated natural forests around the world, leaving former inhabitants—mainly indigenous communities—without a home, among many other things, as detailed in Center for Food Safety’s 2016 Report on Genetically Engineered Trees.

Native species contamination is also a risk, as pollen and twigs are likely to blow from GE plantations to natural forests where they can mate with native trees, impacting the way that those species function in their environment. Due to the interconnected nature of an ecosystem, when one factor changes it can set off a chain reaction, permanently changing our environment in unpredictable and often harmful ways.

A Way Forward for Trees, People, and the Paper Industry

Despite these risks, the biotech industry is spending millions in research and development of GE trees. Why? Because beyond being essential to life on Earth, trees are an extremely valuable resource, used for paper, lumber, and even fuel. The paper industry, however, would be wise to take a look at what sustainable businesses across the country are doing to meet demand for paper, while still protecting forests. Banana leaves, hemp, agricultural waste, recycled content, and even elephant poop are worthwhile explorations for the paper industry to pursue that can take the place of trees as the major victim of paper production.

It’s not the trees that need to change, but rather the actions of those who interact with them. Natural forests need to be protected, and commercial forests must be managed sustainably. Organizations such as the Forest Stewardship Council exemplify the standards of proper forest management in a competitive and economically beneficial manner. Until the risks of GE trees to our forests, climate, and future can be eliminated, funds for GE tree development and field trials should be reallocated to proper forest management and research on new and different conventional breeding techniques

With the immeasurable importance that forests and their ecosystems play in our natural world, each solution must be evaluated extensively to ensure a holistically beneficial approach for our communities, our forests, and our climate. To learn more about forests, check out Green America’s Better Paper Project at betterpaper.org or follow us on twitter @BetterPaperProj!

 

Mmm Mmm Better: Campbell’s making progress on non-GMO and organics

by Todd Larsen, Co-Executive Director of Green AmericaGMOi_MmmBetterCampbellsPreview_1

Campbell’s is one of America’s most iconic brands.  The company famous for soups also produces thousands of other food items.  Famous brands under the Campbell’s umbrella include Pepperidge Farm, Bolthouse Farms, and Prego.

Like most major food companies, Campbell’s had not kept up with the changing tide of consumer preferences for healthy and sustainable foods.  While the company bought farm fresh and organic companies like Plum Organics and Bolthouse Farms, many of their main products are still made with artificial ingredients, high fructose corn syrup, and GMOs.

Over the past year Green America staff has been meeting with Campbell’s about a transition to non-GMO and organics across their main product lines.  We highlighted the growing concerns around GMOs and pesticides, and the need to include healthy ingredients in all Campbell’s products.  We talked with Campbell’s at a time when they were looking to innovate and the company was very open to hearing from stakeholders.

This week, Campbell’s made several major announcements about improving the sustainability of their foods, including significant steps forward on going non-GMO and organic:

  • Campbell’s will be launching several lines of organic kid’s soups, and removing MSG from all their kid’s soups.  In August 2015, the company will introduce Campbell’s Organic soup for kids in three chicken noodle varieties.  The soups will be non-GMO and certified Organic.
  • Pepperidge Farm will be launching several organic wheat versions of their popular Goldfish Crackers.  Look for organic wheat versions of regular, cheddar, and parmesan in the coming year.  They still need to remove GMOs and go completely organic with the rest of their ingredients.
  • Increasing organics across other food lines, and increasing the number of organic products offered by Plum.

Campbell’s announcements on organics were accompanied by statements that the company will be:

  • Removing artificial colors and flavors from nearly all of its North American products in the next three years.
  • Removing high fructose corn syrup from Pepperidge Farm fresh breads over the next two years.
  • Increasing the transparency of its ingredients, including a new website, What’s in My Food (http://www.whatsinmyfood.com) that tells consumers the ingredients in their foods, starting with several major products.

Like all major food companies in the US, Campbell’s has a long way to go to be truly sustainable.  This week’s announcements are an important step forward.

Green America will continue to engage with Campbell’s with a goal of more products that are non-GMO and organic in the months to come.

Don’t Get Scared by the Candy This Halloween!

Halloween is one of those holidays that most kids can’t wait for and most parents loathe due to the high amount of unhealthy sugary candy. Many of the go-to candy brands are also loaded with GE ingredients. This year, make the switch to non-GMO and healthier Halloween treats. The Non-GMO Project and Green Halloween’s Guide to a Non-GMO Halloween is an excellent resource, which details the most common GE ingredients such as sugar, high fructose corn syrup, corn starch, and soybean oil along with many others. This post from Veritey covers the ingredients of many of the most popular Halloween treats and provides kid-approved alternatives. Additionally, the Natural Candy Store has a whole selection Non-GMO Project Verified snacks and candy.

Along with concerns over GMOs in your children’s candy, it is also important to be conscious of food allergies of your children and other trick-or-treaters. As GMOs have become more prevalent in our food system, so have the pesticides used to grow them. The American Academy of Pediatrics released a report on the link between a rise in pesticide use and childhood allergies. Many popular Halloween treats also have some of the most common allergens such as peanuts, dairy, soy and wheat. The Food Allergy Research & Education organization has started the teal pumpkin project. The project encourages homeowners to leave a teal-painted pumpkin on their porches to alert kids and parents that they have food-free treats. If you still want to give out an edible treat, make sure to separate those containing allergens from those that are allergen-free. Parents should be extra vigilante in checking labels during the holiday season due to the fact that increased production often means different allergen precautions for the mass produced mini versions of candies.

Besides indulging in loads of store-bought candy, make your own yummy treat. Caramel apples are a childhood favorite; there is just something about fruit wrapped up in a gooey substance that is guaranteed to get all over your face. While caramel is tasty, many brands are filled with additives and artificial colors and flavors. Here is a delicious recipe for a healthier version of caramel that can be used to dip apples.

Healthy Caramel Recipe by Stephanie Wong

* Use organic, non-GMO ingredients whenever possible.

Ingredients:
• 1 cup organic full-fat coconut milk
• 1/8 teaspoon salt
• ½ cup organic coconut sugar (we like Nutiva)
• 2 tablespoons water
• 1 teaspoon organic pure vanilla extract
• 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Preparation:

In a small pot over medium heat, mix coconut sugar, water, and lemon juice and bring to a boil.

Immediately add the coconut milk (pour slowly), sea salt, and vanilla. Simmer for about 15 minutes until the liquid becomes thick and dark. Be sure to stir occasionally and scrape the edges of the pot with a rubber spatula to avoid burning.

Remove from heat once it’s thick and cool down to room temperature. Yields 2/3 cups.

For best results, store it in a sealed jar in the refrigerator overnight before using it.

Use it for: caramel apples, popcorn, drizzling over frozen yogurt/ice cream, or add it to other baked goods.

Don’t forget: The consistency of the caramel looks and tastes best when you refrigerate it overnight before using it. And boy does it taste soooo darn good (with less calories, sugar, and excess).

GMO Debate Dominates General Mills Shareholder Meeting

On behalf of Green America, I attended General Mills’ annual shareholder meeting this morning.  Green America holds a handful of shares so that we can have a voice as shareholders.

The topic of genetically engineered organisms (GMOs) dominated the discussion, with Green America allies and me asking several questions about General Mills’ continued defense of GMOs in the face of growing public opposition.  While Ken Powell repeated last year’s rhetoric that GMOs have been proven safe by several international organizations and that General Mills supports national labeling of non-GMO products (as opposed to those with GMOs), many shareholders in the audience were on a different page.  Numerous individual shareholders voiced their concerns about GMOs and called for sustainable and safe ingredients.  As one shareholder put it, General Mills should “keep an open mind, please” about not using GMO ingredients.

GeneralMillsShareholderMeeting2014

In addition to GMOs being a topic during the Q&A portion of the meeting, there was also a shareholder resolution to eliminate GMOs from General Mills’ products brought forth by As You Sow and supported by Harriet Crosby, great granddaughter of one of the co-founders of General Mills.  Though the resolution won’t earn a majority of votes (as is often the case) and all votes are not in yet, the preliminary votes in favor of the resolution amount to shares worth $682 million.

Continuing Green America’s GMO Inside campaign’s request for General Mills to verify original Cheerios as non-GMO with a third-party, we asked Ken Powell directly why they are not doing so.  Powell replied that if they say it’s non-GMO, then it is.  What about removing GMOs from the other varieties of Cheerios?  Powell answered that oats, the only main ingredient in original Cheerios, is not genetically engineered so that’s why they were able to make original Cheerios non-GMO (though at the time, General Mills stated that it was a huge undertaking).  They won’t even bother trying to remove GMOs from the other varieties.

General Mills did speak to their efforts to reduce energy usage, water usage, and greenhouse gas emissions as well as their work with suppliers to develop more sustainable agricultural practices.  We look forward to seeing the results of these efforts.  I encouraged General Mills to include the reduction of pesticides (as well as the removal of GMOs) as a key component of improving sustainability.

The acquisition of Annie’s was also mentioned, with General Mills acknowledging the company meets consumer demand for natural and organic products and will further help General Mills’ other organic/natural lines.  General Mills also admitted that it is their organic lines that are growing most rapidly, which again raises the question of why they don’t increase the use of organics across their brands.

So the conversation for more sustainable, less toxic, truly natural products continues.

– Shireen Karimi, Green America staff

Victory: “Original” Cheerios to Go GMO-Free

Great news for our work together for a sustainable food system!CHEERIOS

Just a few days into the new year, we have our first victory of 2014 to celebrate.

After a year of pressure from you and other Green Americans, General Mills announced on its corporate Web site that its “original” Cheerios are now produced without genetically modified ingredients.  General Mills announced that the company was “able to change how we source and handle ingredients to ensure that the corn starch for original Cheerios comes only from non-GMO corn and our sugar is only non-GMO pure cane sugar.”

This announcement comes after tens of thousands of you called, e-mailed, and posted on Cheerios Facebook page demanding non-GMO options for the US market.

One year ago, in November 2012, Green America’s GMO Inside campaign starting organizing consumers to put pressure on General Mills to make Cheerios without GMOs. Cheerios are a top-selling cereal in the U.S. and often one of the first solid foods fed to children.  As soon as the campaign launched, tens of thousands of consumers started flooding Cheerios’ Facebook page with concerned comments regarding GMOs in Cheerios, and used an app put out by Cheerios to spell out anti-GMO messages in the Cheerios font.  In October 2013, Green America issued a real corporate responsibility report for General Mills, and called on consumers to email and call the General Mills to get GMOs out of Cheerios.  Our GMO Inside campaign also put out a video highlighting the GMOs in Cheerios  that was watched by over 200,000 viewers. Over 25,000 people took part in the email actions and calls to the company. In the last week of 2013, callers to the company were told that Cheerios would have a big announcement about GMOs soon.

“Removing GMOs from original Cheerios is an important victory in getting GMOs out of our food supply and an important first step for General Mills,” says Todd Larsen, Green America’s Corporate Responsibility Director.  “Original Cheerios in its famous yellow box will now be non-GMO and this victory sends a message to all food companies that consumers are increasingly looking for non-GMO products and companies need to meet that demand.”
This is a great victory for the non-GMO movement, as a major manufacturer of a top breakfast cereal proves that it is possible to shift a supply chain to non-GMO ingredients in response to consumer demand.

Throughout 2014, Green America’s GMO Inside campaign will push for more food brands to follow General Mills’ lead, and we’ll push for General Mills to shift the rest of its cereal, and other products, to non-GMO sourcing.  We’ll also push to make sure that all companies who remove GMOs from their food, provide supply chain transparency and verification.

For now, only “original” Cheerios in the iconic yellow box have been announced as GMO-free.  General Mills continues to manufacture 11 other varieties of Cheerios.  Please take a moment today to thank General Mills for its first step toward non-GMO breakfast cereals.  General Mills listened to YOU.  Please let them know you appreciate it.

#GreenFest: Food for Thought from our GMO Panel

Lots of great wisdom shared today at the DC Green Festival on the topic of GMOs.   Our expert panel included Alisa Gravitz, president of Green America; Adam Eidinger, organizer of Occupy Monsanto and the Mintwood Media Collective; Gail Taylor, a DC farmer with the Three Part Harmony Farm; and Zachari Curtis, a DC farmer with the Good Sense Farm & Apiary.   Just a compressed sampling and paraphrasing below of the panel discussion, with a top-five action list from Alisa Gravitz to round out this post:

Alisa – Food is life.  Food is sacred.  We are rapidly losing our ability to know what is in the food that we eat to sustain our bodies and lives.  The good news is that the GMO issue brings people together across boundaries.  For example, in Mexico, and in South and Central America, traditional cultures that highly value corn as a dietary staple are horrified to see corn being genetically modified.  Over the last 15 years, we went from 0 to 90 percent of certain crops being modified.  Over the next 15 years, we must go from 90 to 0 percent, and we can. Continue reading “#GreenFest: Food for Thought from our GMO Panel”