Organic Pipe Dreams

Much debate over the value of the organic label has erupted this year, a heartening response to the rise of industrial organic. I’m glad to see consumers starting to question this as well as other labels; especially given that the organic label is one of the few food assurance labels subject to rigorous third party evaluation, making it particularly important. Thus, the shift between the original intent and spirit of the label and its current incarnation is troubling, and talking about that shift alerts producers and regulators alike to the fact that consumers are wary of the label, and want to see some changes in the way it’s handled.

When you hear ‘organic,’ you think of ‘all natural’ food; produced without the use of herbicides and pesticides and with no artificial additives. Grown or raised in a way that promotes environmental health, with responsible waste handling, appropriate rotation of crops and livestock, and other measures to protect soil and local ecosystems. And often, you think specifically too of small farms; grassroots food production that puts you more immediately in touch with the source of your food.

These are the images people thought of when they originally developed the label, and they’re the same images big farms want to promote in conversations about organic food production. They want consumers to think of these things when they see an organic label in the store, to preferentially buy food labeled this way because they believe it’s the most ethically sound and appropriate choice. They also want people to think of organic food as healthier, and stress the idea in their advertising that natural food production comes with fewer risky ingredients. They adore studies illustrating that crops produced in rich, healthy soil tend to contain more nutritional value, because these studies can be used to shore up the reputation of the organic label.

However, there’s a world of difference between this dream and the reality. Many small farms that produce their food naturally can’t afford the process of organic certification and have to settle for the unregulated ‘natural’ label, and hope to connect with potential consumers in face to face encounters through farmers’ markets, online stores, and other measures. Medium-sized farms may indeed maintain the spirit of organic in some cases, but not all, and industrial farms? May follow the certification requirements to the letter, but the foods they make are not necessarily ‘organic’ in the sense people think of them.

Some allowable ingredients in organic food may surprise consumers. It may also surprise people to learn that while chemical pesticides and herbicides cannot be applied directly, it’s possible to use mulch from other farms which bears traces of these products. That ‘organic’ soy, in other words, could well contain unwanted chemical residue. And pesticides as well as herbicides are still in use; they’re different products, and they are allegedly less harmful, but it’s not like organic crops are produced in a happy meadow full of unicorns and sweetly scented flowers.

To say nothing of the fact that the certification provides no information about the welfare of workers and nonhuman animals on site at organic farms. Industrial organic facilities are just as prone to worker exploitation as their counterparts in conventional agriculture, and they can abuse animals just as easily as well, despite the slightly better standards set for livestock living conditions.

I don’t make a habit of buying organic. Many people seem surprised to learn this. I tend to buy whatever looks best, and if that happens to be organic produce, I may choose to buy it, but I’m not going to go out of my way to do so. The value of the label is so heavily diluted that I don’t really want to invest in it and perpetuate the idea that consumers will buy anything just because it says it’s organic. I also can’t really afford to spend substantially more for food that doesn’t seem to offer much of a net gain. If I was getting guarantees that workers and animals were not abused and that crops were being produced in actual sustainable conditions, the higher cost would be worth it. Since that’s not the case, it’s not worth it to me. Buying directly from local farmers is worth it to me.

I’m not going to dissuade other people from buying organic, and many people have justifications for their reasoning, but it’s not a high priority for me. The search for food justice has moved beyond the organic label, which has become hopelessly polluted at this point. It may not be as meaningless as the labels which aren’t regulated at all, but it’s a close call in some cases. And that means I’d rather sink my money, and my energy, into things that do make a difference.

If the organic standard can be cleaned up and restored to something more meaningful, I’d be interested in it. I’d be a lot more interested in certifications indicating that food was produced in fair conditions for workers, because that would indicate that the industry is actually responding to concerns raised by consumers. I’d like to see advocates for organic labeling integrating worker rights into their daily work and their efforts to clean up the label, and so far, I’m not seeing a lot of that. Food justice among many members of the organic camp is focused on environmental welfare and healthism. While I agree that the environment is a critical concern and I want to consume food produced in ways that are safe for the environment, that’s not where my concerns begin or end, and I’m not the only consumer who feels that way. While I agree that people should have access to healthy, fresh food, I want to have conversations about that in a way that is constructive rather than shaming.

The label isn’t a total fabrication, yet, but it feels like it’s on the way. At this point, producers can buy the certification they want to market most effectively to their target audience, and that means my trust in the label is limited.