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Why I'll still buy organic, even if purists think it's corrupted

Like any industry, organic has its shortcomings. But compared with conventional agriculture and food manufacturing, there are still many values that make organic a worthwhile purchase.

I confess: I buy organic. I also read labels and think very carefully about my purchases. I know a lot about food policy, but not everything. To be fair, I know more than the average citizen. I’m a working mom, who is often running into the store on my way home from work, or worse yet, dragging my children with me to the grocery store, some time after dinner, within an hour of bedtime.

The rhyme and reason of my grocery shopping isn’t always pretty. But one thing is clear: I’m steadfast in my desire to provide the best food possible for my children.

With that said, my kids have eaten sugar, ice cream (organic ice cream), and who knows what else at friends’ houses. But, I love the fact that my quiet daughter asks about GMOs, and even asks restaurants if there are GMOs in the food being served. I love that my son has asked family friends if they eat organic. I love that my children understand that healthy food means a healthy body (and may even propel them to be the Olympic swimmers they dream to be).

I also confess that I have questioned the growth of organic at times and even the monitoring of the select group of ingredients that are not available in an organic form but are allowed to be present in organic foods. This list and how it is made was the focus of an article that ran in last Sunday’s New York Times business section, entitled, “Has ‘Organic’ Been Oversized?”

Big Organic vs Big Ag

While conducting focus groups over the past two years, I often heard consumers share a similar sentiment, “Is big organic any better than big conventional ag?” To this, my answer is “yes.”

Big organic is better than big conventional ag. Big organic doesn’t use pesticides, at least not intentionally (and there are organic regulations against pesticide drift from other farms). Big organic is more environmentally friendly.

Now, if you’re asking me if an organic Oreo is any better than a conventional Oreo, then no, it’s all bad—and not just because I don’t like Oreo’s. Junk food is junk food. But if you pressed me, I’d still buy the organic Oreos.

I would buy the organic Oreos because of the transparency built into the organic industry. I know exactly what is in the organic Oreos and how they have been made. I know how the ingredients were grown and, I can easily trace where the ingredients have been sourced.

So while the New York Times may take issue with the non-organic ingredients that are allowed in organic foods, I at least still know exactly what is in my food and can choose to eat or not to eat it.

Not only do I know what’s in my food, the understanding is that organic is non-GMO. So at the moment, the organic label along with the Non-GMO Project are the only guarantees I have against eating GMO foods.

I realize there are ingredients like carrageenan that many would like to not see in organic foods and I’m thankful for those who continue to question the strength of organic and push to make sure standards are maintained. But at the end of the day, does anyone really know what’s in Kraft Macaroni & Cheese or Doritos for that matter?

Look at what has happened to our food system, with pink slime, hormones in beef, MSG in everything conventional, and sodium and sugar content skyrocketing. Our food system has run amuck. To me the only guarantee I have of a semblance of a standard is organic.

For all of the organic industry’s leaps and bounds, even surpassing the $30 billion mark in 2011, it is still woefully under represented in government, even with the presence of organic advocate Kathleen Merrigan, deputy to Tom Vilsack, secretary of agriculture. Organic does not receive the same amount of government handouts to make it tick, but still there are roughly 14,500 and growing certified organic farms in this country and 2,500 certified organic processing facilities in the United States.

And while big companies like General Mills certainly want a piece of the pie, they did not create the organic industry and they do not sustain the organic industry. Everyone loves to poke fun at Dean Foods, when it is in fact Whitewave that they’re poking at.

And Kelly Shea and Ellen Feeney, who both work for Whitewave and have for many years, happen to be two of the most dedicated and well-versed people I know in the organic and sustainability conversations. Their work has helped to pave the way for smaller farmers and manufacturers. 

Organic may not be perfect, but it's not conventional

We have to be careful not to shoot the messenger and the people who have been at the forefront of this industry and may or may not have been swallowed up by bigger companies.

I love Eden foods and its constant ethic to do the right thing, before people even knew it was the right thing (for the longest time they were the only company to have cans that were not lined with BPA). But the New York Times article focused on a very small group of people, including Eden’s Michael J. Potter and the Cornucopia Institute, who are very vocal about the failings of the industry on a consistent basis, without much to say about the successes. 

Whether it’s big companies like Smuckers, independents like Late July Organics, or my local farmer producing an organic product, I’ll buy it because all of these products have to be certified. They have to live up to the organic standard, which is better than the majority of foods on a conventional grocer’s shelf can do.

I do my best as a mom to give my kids the best food I can. But I need someone to help me do the scrutinizing. So until someone can truly prove to me there is a better system or a better standard, I will continue to buy organic. 

Discuss this Blog Entry 5

on Jul 10, 2012

I agree. The NYT article failed to clearly define the systems approach to organic agriculture, processing, and certification. Small and large operations are held to the same standard of organic certification, regardless of output or revenue. Because organic is sysem-based, you can't cut corners and expect to bypass your inspection. Certifiers need paper trails and proof of your organic system plan, and they must keep this evidence on file in order to maintain their accreditation with the NOP. (Trust me, I've done my time filing those inspections in client binders thicker than a car tire, and I have the papercuts to proove it).
Yes, there are some (few) allowable substances on the National List, which allows even small producers to enter the marketplace. When an organic ingredient is hard to come by, the price jacks up and the only ones who can afford it are the large corporations with deep pockets- and that's how Capitalism works. To allow small organic producers to maintain their place in the market, the National List provides them with safe alternatives in very small amounts to organic ingredients that are either non-existent, not commercially available, or damaged from a rough season.
Remember when New Zealand couldn't grow organic hops as abundantly as usual, due to drought? What was available was snatched up by large beer corporations like Gordon Biersch, and without the National List that allows non-organic hops in beer, small micro-breweries would be out of business. (Organic Hops are swiftly becoming commercially available and the non-organic hops have enjoyed their brief time on the National List). Which proves the point- when an organic crop or ingredient reaches scalability, there is no excuse for organic products not to use it, and it is struck from the National List. Small and large companies must comply with the rule change.
The National Organic Standards Board, which makes recommendations to the National Organic Program on decisions like these, is meticulous in their recommendations. All entities within the organic sector are represented and board members are trustworthy individuals held accountable by one another and the industry at large.
What other agricultural system takes such care and resources to maintain its integrity? None other.
Organic is the gold standard. Consumers can trust the USDA label.
For those who dismiss large organic corporations, consider the environment. Because they must comply with USDA standards, they must source the bulk of their ingredients from organic growers and processors. That means more land is in organic production, which means more labor hours and therefore more jobs, which means fewer pesticides in our drinking water and soil, which means less toxicity in our bloodstreams, which means food safety.
I support small producers as often as I can. But I do not resent them when they scale up and build successful businesses, nor do I resent large corporations entering the organic sector because- no matter their motivations- more land will go into organic production. And they can provide Americans with more access to organic products and produce across the country, in areas where small producers can't. Their products are scalable, and that matters to folks like my dad living in rural Idaho, where you can only grow so much during the year. And I'll support my dad's right to access organic beer during those bitter cold winters.

Tabitha Farrar (AngelOrganic) (not verified)
on Jul 10, 2012

The more that mothers take this crucial stance the faster the economy will get out of the rut that has been created by cheap and toxic commercial foods. Mothers in particular need to pay attention, the health of the future generation is dependent on what they eat! This is shrugged off by many, but no one can deny the fact that you are what you eat. Cheap, chemical foods are not compatible with the growing or grown human body. Go Moxy Moms!

GMKnowBoulder (not verified)
on Jul 10, 2012

I support, buy and eat only pure food sans chemicals and genetically modified DNA. I do so for my health and to support our planet which is under assault from industrial Ag practices. GMO DNA doesn't play nice with our human immune systems and presents as foreign. Our bodies haven't had time to assimilate these novel proteins, designed to support an industrial pesticide delivery system, so our systems attack the GMO foods and ingredients and our bodies become compromised. We may not feel the results immediately, but in time the damage will be done. When I eliminated all GMOs and pesticides from my diet my health improved and allergies stopped completely! It's something to think about.

on Jul 12, 2012

Hello Nancy,

I certainly agree with the majority of what you've written. Organic consumers are not going to go back to conventional food. Those who have made the commitment for their families, especially children, are going to continue to seek out the safest and most nutritional food in the marketplace. They need to depend on the integrity of the organic label.

But all participants in the industry need to realize that when the working definition of organics is watered down, when the spirit or the letter of the law is violated, it degrades the value of the organic label.

And who owns the organic label? We all do. Farmers, processors, retailers and consumers. If the integrity of the labels undermine everyone loses, big and small.

Although I can't say I agree with every word in the New York Times story killing the messenger is not the answer to preventing further damage to the reputation of organics.

That's why it is worth fighting to protect the process at the USDA which has become corrupted. If you haven't yet read the Organic Watergate you should do so. It documents a violation of public trust: http://www.cornucopia.org/breaking-scandal-the-organic-watergate/

A couple corrections/clarifications:

When we criticize behavior at Horizon or Silk (improprieties concerning factory farms, importing Chinese soybeans or confusing consumers between natural and organic), we are criticizing Dean Foods.

WhiteWave is simply Dean Foods' branded product division.

What does Horizon organic milk and International Delight nondairy coffee creamer, something in Wisconsin we refer to as "white death" have in common? WhiteWave.

The people at WhiteWave who are constantly telling us how dedicated they are to the environment, human health and organics are also pushing the profitable International Delight (read the label sometime and decide if you think my criticism here is too harsh).

Profit is good in organics. It's the basis of our capitalistic system and needed to provide healthy products to our citizenry. But if decisions are being made primarily based on profit, forgetting about the values that helped grow the organic industry, this will implode.

And you referenced Michael Potter (Eden Foods CEO) in the same breath with The Cornucopia Institute suggesting that we represent a "very small group of people."

I cannot speak for Mr. Potter. But with 8000 members Cornucopia is proud to represent the interests of more organic farmers than any other policy group in the country. These are the founders of the organic movement and they are interdependent with food processors of every size.

About a third of our income is derived from the industry including feed mills, ethical manufacturers/marketers and retailers (the largest share of this funding comes from the nation's approximately 275 member owned food co-ops).

Please don't under estimate the passion of these key organic industry stakeholders who are placed at a competitive disadvantage when the guiding principles, and the law, governing organics are compromised.

Sincerely yours,

Mark A. Kastel
Codirector and Senior Farm Policy Analyst
The Cornucopia Institute
Cornucopia, Wisconsin

Lydia Freund (not verified)
on Jul 14, 2012

Could not have said it better myself: the more demand, the more American farmland and water gets cleaner, the better the health of all Americans! Nothing in life is 100%, so lets support steps in the right direction.

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