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.


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Call Olive Garden: Demand Food That is Healthy, Sustainable, and Fair.

Olive Garden
Green America and our allies are ramping up our Good Food Now campaign targeting Olive Garden. Help us make Olive Garden’s phones ring off the hook, and tell the restaurant to pay fair wages and serve Good Food Now!

Here’s how you can help:

1. Call Olive Garden
Call Olive Garden’s customer service line between 10:00am ET and 4:00pm PT (7:00am PT – 1:00pm PT), Monday through Friday. Call 800-331-2729. 

2. Comment
Choose one of the scripts below to voice your concerns to Olive Garden about its unfair and unsustainable practices. Or create your own!

3. Share
Share information about this campaign on social media. We’ve created several images and tweets you can share with your Facebook and Twitter followers here (scroll to the bottom of the page). You can also leave a comment for  Olive Garden on its Facebook wall.

Sample Scripts for Calling Olive Garden:

1. If you are concerned about Environmental Sustainability and Health:

Hi, my name is _______, and I’m calling from __city, state__. I am concerned about the health of my family and the environment, therefore I am calling to request that Olive Garden offer more vegetables and more plant-based protein options on your menu. For example, I’d love spaghetti with veggie meatballs or ______. (Insert your favorite plant-based meal here).

This would help save water, reduce your carbon footprint and provide more options for people who want to eat out and still get a tasty, healthy and nutritious meal. Sustainability is important to me, and more restaurants need to pay attention to the impact of their menus on people and the planet.

2. If you are concerned about Workers and your Local Economy:

Hi, my name is_______, and I’m calling from__city, state__. I’m calling because I recently read reports that link your restaurants to poverty wages and horrible conditions for workers, including forced and child labor. It’s important to me that the restaurants I eat at value their workforce and protect the people who produce their food.

I hope Olive Garden will commit to paying fair wages to your servers and to ending exploitation in your supply chain. Additionally, Olive Garden should purchase more ingredients from local farmers. By paying workers fairly and sourcing locally, you can help families, provide fresher food to your customers, and in some cases lower your carbon footprint by reducing the distance you transport ingredients. Thank you.

3. If you are concerned about Animal Welfare and Sustainability:

Hi, my name is_______, and I’m calling from__city, state__. I’m calling because I am really concerned about the treatment of animals and would like to see Olive Garden take a stand against factory farms.

To do this, Olive Garden must source meat from suppliers who do not routinely use antibiotics on animals. At the same time, Olive Garden should choose suppliers who treat animals and farmers well, which is why I’d like to see organic meat and dairy on your menu, that come from smaller, local, independently-verified higher welfare farms, as well as more entree options without meat and dairy.

Why is this campaign targeting Olive Garden?

dardenrestaurantaction-250x250Olive Garden’s parent company, Darden, is the nation’s largest casual restaurant company, with $6.7 billion in sales. That translates to a lot of food, roughly 320 million meals per year—but unfortunately, most of it is not healthy for people, the planet, or animals.

An AP investigation found that Darden is sourcing from suppliers who use slave labor in Thailand, and many of the 150,000 workers who cook and serve in Darden’s restaurants, including Olive Garden, are paid poverty wages, as low as $2.13/hour.

Olive Garden also serves unhealthy, unsustainable meals. Many of its dishes include factory-farmed meat and dairy products that pollute the environment and are produced with routine antibiotics, hormones, and other harmful chemicals.

This past fall, Green America and 50 of our allies sent a letter to Olive Garden raising our concerns about the company’s unsustainable sourcing and unfair treatment of workers, but the company has failed to make progress. Instead, it consistently puts shareholder profits over fair wages for employees and food that is good for people, animals, and the planet. Sign our petition>>

Learn more about the Good Food Now! Campaign>>


Bee Girl Wants You to Love Your Bees

Bee Girl, in field with bee equipment

Sarah’s (aka the Bee Girl) fascination with bees started at a young age, thanks to a beekeeper keeping hives on her aunt’s small farm; little did she know it would turn into a deep affinity for bees and bee health. Her childhood fascination for bees has turned into a nonprofit organization dedicated to altering our perspective and interactions with bees while addressing big picture issues. Her deep passion for bees grew after starting college at the University of Montana and volunteering with the honey bee program. Two mentors greatly influenced her and showed her that her love for bees could turn into so much more, that there is this deep and fascinating complexity to the life and the relationships that exist within it. But it didn’t stop there. Sarah began to see the complexities and impact on honey bee health caused by outside influences. Then came Bee Girl, a non-profit with a mission dedicated to inspire and empower communities to conserve bees and their habitat.

Over the last five years Sarah has seen a transition in the public perception of bees. When Sarah started the Bee Girl organization, conversations were filled with the threat of bees. People’s perceptions were that bees are nasty little insects solely out to sting them. But this has changed and people and communities are starting to embrace the amazing creatures that they really are. People are starting to open their eyes to the importance of bees for our environment and food system, but also the magic inherit to them. It is so important that the perception around honey bees is changing because it is part of a larger systematic shift that needs to happen. As Sarah put it, “there is a need for a paradigm shift in the way we eat food.”

beesWhat most consumers might not know is that there is a great amount of effort that goes into pollinating our food system. Beekeepers truck their bees from crop to crop throughout the country. Sarah describes it as, “this constant migration of nomadic beekeepers, they are providing the pollination service that ultimately ends up being one out of every three bites on our plate.” Often times commercial beekeepers are portrayed as not caring about their bees, as just another part of the flawed industrial system. Sarah rather sees them as the unsung heroes. Just like any other farmer, they care deeply about these little creatures and work extremely hard to make sure that our food is pollinated and their bees are healthy.

But this paradigm shift can’t just stop with the food that we eat but must expand to agricultural practices as a whole. Sarah sees divestment from ethanol as essential to sustaining our pollinators and our food system. Much of our natural prairies have been transitioned to cornfields for the sole purpose of growing corn for ethanol. This represents millions of acres of habitat loss not only for bees and other pollinators but also amphibians, songbirds, and other wildlife. This also has an impact on bee health of which one might not naturally think.

The Midwestern states are home to 5 of the 10 top honey-producing states. Beekeepers bring their bees to this region for a sort of vacation after a long pollinating season, allowing them to refresh in the natural prairies and wild lands filled with wildflowers. The loss of these lands devastatingly impacts honey bees’ ability to remain healthy and to successfully pollinate our food. It is a reminder that bees are not all that different from us, after a season of hard work, they need rest. Protecting pollinator health goes beyond planting flowers and requires that we look at the big picture and systems, and then readdress those systems. It is essential that we protect and conserve the land not just for bees but for so many species. Part of this is putting an end to destructive practices such as clearing land for ethanol, something that is input intensive and takes away resources from food crops. This crop could be replaced with grass-fed beef, oil seed crops, or other high-value commodities that are beneficial to the farmer, bees, human health, and the surrounding eco and economic ecosystems. The more we all learn about the importance of bees and their relationship to our environment, the greater understanding we have of the key ecosystem services that they provide, and the importance of protecting them and their native habitats.


Bee Girl with honeycombInterested in pollinator health but not ready to start your own hive? In Sarah’s own words, here are three ways to help protect bees:

Beekeeping is not easy; you can’t just throw a hive in your backyard. Beekeeping is hard and really complicated, but also amazing and rewarding. Being a beekeeper means taking care of a whole herd of tiny of animals. You can’t just leave them there to fend for themselves. They need love, water, food, and medicine when they are sick. If you are interested in starting a hive make sure to find a community of beekeepers who can mentor you through the process.

How you can help the bees:

  1. Plant flowers: That is something that everyone can do and it is fun and positive and a way to feed bees and connect to your front porch, your backyard, or your school or community. You can plant flowers on any scale; it can be a handful of seeds in a pot outside your window or acres upon acres you plant on a golf course or ranch.
  2. Educate Yourself: I encourage people to think beyond organic. If you see the organic symbol on a package at the store it might be managed in a way that’s good for bees but it might not. There are still pesticides that are used in organic agriculture. Just because it is organic doesn’t mean it is pesticide-free. I think one of the most important things you can do is vote with your fork, but make it an educated vote. Choose your food that has been grown sustainably. Shake the hand that feeds you. Go to the farmers market and ask farmers what they do for bee health. Sometimes just opening that conversation can inspire them to be a little bit more bee-friendly. Also, understanding how to value our food, I don’t know how we got on the track that food needed to be cheap. There is just this weird across-the-board social norm in this country that food has to be cheap. Food shouldn’t be cheap. There are people behind that food, people who are working really hard to make the most delicious and nutritious food possible. There are so many people behind those bites of food that you are eating; expecting to pay 99 cents for a hamburger is ludicrous. We need to start valuing our food better.
  3. Support pasture-raised anything and everything: The more pasture-raised poultry, pork, and beef that we have out there the less corn feed that is needed leading to divestment from corn and habitat destruction. It also leads to more green space out there. Green space is good because you can usually interplant it with flowers that are great for bees, and nutricous for other livestock, as well. Green space is also good because it sequesters carbon which is important because climate change hurts bees.


To find out more about the work that Sarah is doing, visit Find your local beekeeping community here.





DON’T HAVE A COW: The 10-Day Local Food Challenge

My oldest daughter a few years ago at what she calls "the Pumpkin Cart of Honesty," in which a neighbor grows pumpkins and simply sets them out on a cart with a cash box and trusts that people will pay for what they take.
My oldest daughter a few years ago at what she calls “the Pumpkin Cart of Honesty,” in which a neighbor grows pumpkins and simply sets them out on a cart with a cash box and trusts that people will pay for what they take.

We now officially come to the end of our “Don’t Have a Cow” blog series. Since many of the posts have been focusing on vegetarian or vegan eating, I’m going to take a different tack….

As part of my quest to eat healthier with my family, I’ve been spending a lot of time getting to know what my local options are. I telecommute for Green America from the Midwest, and it’s pretty easy to find fresh, local food here at harvest-time among all the family farms.

But could I eat three meals a day from local sources for ten days, with only a handful of non-local foods allowed (like, oh, chocolate?)?

That’s the question behind Vicki Robin’s new 10-day Local Food Challenge. Vicki recently published a wonderful book, Blessing the Hands that Feed Us: What Eating Closer to Home Can Teach Us About Food, Community, and Our Place on Earth, which was all about what she learned by eating food for a full month that came from no further than ten miles from her home.

The challenge she’s issuing now is less stringent: You pick any ten days in October and eat only food that has come from within 100 miles or less of your home.  And you can pick ten “exotics”, or foods from afar—like coffee, chocolate, or olive oil—“to make it doable.”

The results, says Vicki, can be a life-changing exercise in connecting to your food and community. “Why do it at all? For fun, for curiosity, for integrity, for health, for the love of farmers and community, for making friends, for encouraging others to eat local food, for building an alternative to food-as-usual, for taking a stand for the food system we-the-eaters want: fresh, fair, affordable food for all,” she says.

I’d like to try it. Because the local food producers that I’ve connected with are all sources of some of the best and healthiest food I’ve ever eaten, and dedicating ten days to being mindful about finding more can only make my life richer.

There’s Jeff, the apple farmer who smiled indulgently when I asked him for a bag of Honeycrisps and then promptly sliced up some of his close-to-organic heirloom apples for me to try. I dream of those apples all year long and am overjoyed that he just opened up his orchard store again for the season.

Mrs. D. operates a small dairy ten miles away where she sells fresh milk, butter, and every flavor of ice cream we could ever want.

Alice makes homemade bread with all sorts of wonderful flavors and sells it at the local farmers market.

Bill sells organically farmed, truly free-range chicken at the same market for when my family does eat meat, which is less and less often since my animal-loving daughters prefer to eat plant-based meals—as long as their father or I don’t mess them up in the kitchen.

Lindsey and Joe operate an award-winning winery within walking distance from my house, and I’ve fallen in love with several of their sweet reds—and with the musical nights and other fun community events they throw at the winery.

I just bought a jar of the crunchiest dill pickles I’ve ever eaten at an art fair from a woman my mother’s age who cans four different types, and I’m vacationing on Lake Michigan soon, where I’ll pick up some herb-infused olive oil made only in Wisconsin.

Round it all out with mint tea and stevia syrup from my herb garden, which I swap with a friend for fresh zucchini and tomatoes (the deer got all of ours this year).

But I know I’ve only hit the proverbial tip of the iceberg when it comes to seeking out local food treasures. I can’t wait to discover more.

As Vicki says, “If we want a GMO-antibiotic-cruelty-free, nontoxic, fair to farmers and nutritious food supply, the 10-Day Local Food Challenge gives us firsthand experience of what we stand for. We know we are participating in building the world we want, bite by bite, even as we protest and boycott the food system we don’t want.”

To learn more about and join the 10-Day Local Food Challenge, visit And don’t forget to ask your local growers if they farm organic or close to it, so you can avoid pesticide residues and genetically modified organisms for your health.

—Tracy Fernandez Rysavy, editor-in-chief

GMOs: We Need to Know What’s In Our Food

This opinion piece originally ran in local newspapers around the country starting March 19.  You are free to repost to your own blog or Web site, or to submit to your own local newspaper, attributed to Andrew Korfhage, online editor at Green America.

Do you care what’s in the food you eat?

A quick look at the labels on the products lining your supermarket shelves suggests that most of us do. Many products already bear labels proclaiming the number of calories, the grams of sugar, fiber, and fat, and other details for every serving. Labels say whether the products we put in our bodies are sugar-free, kosher, organic, and more. Shouldn’t we also know whether the food we’re eating is genetically modified?

Right now, we can’t know for sure. The FDA requires no labeling for produce grown from genetically modified seeds or for products made with genetically modified ingredients. Yet some of the most common ingredients in processed food — like soy and corn — are almost always grown from genetically modified seeds.

Continue reading “GMOs: We Need to Know What’s In Our Food”

Stop “Agent Orange” Corn

Here at Green America, we’ve been putting the finishing touches on our next issue of the Green American, which features a set of articles about the human health and environmental concerns around genetically modified organism (GMO) in our food supply. Among the numerous concerns we discuss in the article is Dow Chemical’s current application to plant a new type of GMO corn, one  that is resistant to herbicide 2, 4-D, a major component of Dow and Monsanto’s infamous  and highly  toxic Agent Orange.

According to the Center For Food Safety,

Exposure to 2,4-D has been linked to major health problems that include cancer (especially non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma), lowered sperm counts, liver disease and Parkinson’s disease.  A growing body of evidence from laboratory studies show that 2,4-D causes endocrine disruption, reproductive problems, neurotoxicity and immunosuppression.  Further, industry’s own tests show that 2,4-D is contaminated with dioxins, a group of highly toxic chemical compounds that bioaccumulate, so even a minute amount can accumulate as it goes up the food chain, causing dangerous levels of exposure.  Dioxins in Agent Orange have been linked to many diseases, including birth defects in children of exposed parents; according to EPA, 2,4-D is the seventh largest source of dioxins in the U.S.

Currently, about 88% of corn grown in the US if genetically modified, virtually all of it being Monstano’s Round-Up Ready variety. Round-Up Ready corn is resistant to Monsanto’s Round-Up herbicide, meaning that farmers can spray the herbicide on their fields to kill weeds without fear of harming their crop of corn. However, despite early claims that GMO crops would reduce pesticide use, studies indicate that pesticide use has actually increased by millions of pound per acre.

Continue reading “Stop “Agent Orange” Corn”

Stop GMO Apples

Did you know the USDA is currently considering approval of a genetically engineered “non-browning” apple produced by Okanagan Specialty Fruits in Canada?

If you try to avoid US-produced corn, soy, cottonseed, and canola because of GMOs, apples could be next.  The US apple industry is concerned, that if unlabeled genetically engineered apples enter the US market, consumers, both domestic and international, could reject US apples altogether in favor of imports from countries where apples are still produced using traditional breeding methods.

The Organic Consumers Association is making it easy for you to send a message to keep GMOs out of our food supply.

Send a message to the USDA »

P.S.   When you shop for produce, note that on the PLU sticker, a five-digit number beginning with “8” stands for GMO.   This is a VOLUNTARY labeling practice, so inconsistently applied, but in some cases it can help you make an informed shopping decision.