Organic In Name, Yes. In Spirit? No.

One consequence of the rise in interest in food politics in recent years has been an explosion in organic food. It’s increasingly easy to find organic produce at the supermarket, along with organic options on the shelves, from flour to milk. The ready accessibility of organic products has even spread to large corporations like Wal*Mart, and more and more consumers are seeking these options out. As demand rises, agricultural producers appear able to meet it, and prices are also dropping for many products in response to the fact that this is no longer a niche market and it’s possible to scale up production to increase market penetration and drive a drop in prices as companies compete for customers now faced with an array of choices.

On the surface, this is great news. Organic farming is supposed to be more holistic, which means that farmers are treating the soil more responsibly, focusing on sustainable production methods, and protecting the integrity of the foods they produce. Consumer interest in this subject indicates that people are concerned about the environment as well as nutrition and farming practices, which is exciting. We are approaching an era of more consumer literacy when it comes to food products, and that’s a good thing both for consumers and food producers.

However, there’s a dark side to the rise of organic, and that’s the development of organic kingpins. Buying organic doesn’t mean stepping outside the system of industrial agriculture, and organic certifications are growing heavily diluted. While a product may be certifiable in terms of the guidelines set by the government, that does not necessarily mean it meets the spirit of the organic movement. Consumers are sold on the greenwashing, and in the process, they inadvertently perpetuate the very food systems they are trying to oppose by buying organic. Misleading labeling helps along the way; peaceful cows on the side of milk cartons create an image of happy cattle grazing merrily in open fields with flowers, when that may not be an accurate representation of their living conditions.

Consumers buy organic because they want to do the right thing, and because they’re relying on regulators to make sure food labeling is accurate, and to certify organic producers appropriately. They’re counting on these agencies to develop consistent guidelines and standards that enforce, as much as possible, the spirit of organic food. What they aren’t counting on is slowly diluted regulations that have less and less power, and the force of the industrial agriculture lobby when it comes to applying pressure to regulators to change regulations and create an opening for what is known as industrial organic.

These certifications skip a lot of key areas, of which worker welfare is particularly important, in my opinion. Consumers may be misled into believing that organic means a small, cozy farm with workers who are treated fairly, provided with a safe environment, and given appropriate wages. This is not, in fact the case. Production on the large scale needed to ship huge quantities of organic food across the country, or internationally, requires considerable worker abuse to keep costs down. And it’s not small, by any stretch of the imagination. It is, in fact, extremely large.

Organic farms often coexist side by side with conventional ones in regions where industrial agriculture is the predominant economic force, like California’s Central Valley. The same companies own both, and use modified farming practices at one to get the coveted ‘organic’ label, the higher sticker price, and the credit for being environmentally responsible. The contamination of crops that leads to events like massive recalls of spinach and lettuce hits organic farms too, because they’re using the same water supply, the same workers, and the same land. Organic doesn’t necessarily mean better, or safer, for consumers.

It also doesn’t mean better for the soil, because responsible farming involves crop rotation, allowing soil to lie fallow, and adequate management of soil conditions. These are expensive things to do, and as a result, industrial organic relies heavily on abusing soil until it’s completely stripped. That’s hardly a holistic approach to farming, or a sustainable one. It’s just industrial agriculture, adapted for a new audience. And unless consumers know the farms behind the labels, they have no way of knowing what the ‘organic’ label on a bunch of lettuce really represents; yet another industrial farm cashing in on the organic cash cow, or an actual ethical farm interested in promoting organic values.

Meet your farmer programs are one way for getting around this, allowing consumers to actually visit food production sites, meet staff and supervisors, and see the environment where their food is grown and processed. Those aren’t an option for everyone, though. Consumers who want to be responsible and aware, who want to do the right thing, may not have the time or resources to access a meet your farmer program. Or they might not be aware that such a thing exists and is something they may want to consider doing to better understand the source of their food.

Or they might be in an area where their only buying options really are industrial organic; nothing is produced in the spirit of the organic movement. As consumers, this traps them in a poor position. They may want to buy organic to support the ideals, and to avoid some of the abuses of conventional agriculture, but they’re supporting another form of conventional agriculture by doing so.

They can lobby for better regulation and enforcement, but this requires a knowledge of farming and environmental ethics that may be beyond many consumers, people who are, after all, relying on the people in charge to have the understanding and background to ensure that food certification is conducted properly and ethically. A growth in food education is designed to help consumers understand some of these subjects, but it may not be keeping pace with industrial  organic and the ferocious marketing campaigns it uses to draw consumers.