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What “Organic” Means

Buying organic produce often gives people a feeling of responsibility and care: it helps many feel they’re making a difference in the world, and making healthful purchases for their families.

But is this correct?

In a story yesterday for Modern Farmer, Brian Barth considers the hidden practices that may lurk behind your USDA-certified organic products:

By all appearances, Kathy Evans would seem the ideal organic farmer. The fourth-generation proprietor of Evans Knob Farm, in Bruceton Mills, West Virginia, she has never used chemical pesticides or growth hormones. Her poultry—45 laying hens, 250 broiler chickens, 50 turkeys, and 22 ducks—is free-range; her Romney and Hampshire sheep, grass-fed. Evans also shears, cards, spins, and dyes fiber produced by those sheep, as well as that from her alpaca and llama. (She reserves a few cows and one goat “just for the family.”) The resulting mountain of manure enriches vegetable plots where the 53-year-old grows everything from potatoes and peppers to squash and salad greens. Yet not a single cage-free egg or Toma Verde tomatillo that emerges from Evans’s 130 acres sports a USDA Organic label.

This wasn’t always the case. In 2003, when the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) first bestowed organic certification on Evans’s operation, which supplies farmers markets and a CSA, the annual processing fees totaled $200. By the time she opted out, in 2013, they had risen 350 percent, to $900. Though diversification is an important aspect of sustainable agriculture, the government “rewards” the practice with a separate form for each crop and animal, burying Evans Knob Farm and others like it in an avalanche of paperwork. For Evans, the inspections began to take on a “big brother” quality, but the final straw came when she learned that eggs can be, in her words, “considered organic if the chickens are fed organic grain and are cage-free. But they can be confined to a building, and the USDA doesn’t say how long they have to be outside.” (See sidebar, below.) The more Evans learned, the more dissatisfied she became. “It felt like the Department of Agriculture was creating loopholes for big agribusiness.”

Back in 2oo7, Michael Pollan warned in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma that terms such as “cage-free” and “organic” could be more deceiving than you may think. He profiled several Whole Foods farmers whose products marketed happy chickens and small sustainable farms. Sadly, the reality was often starkly different from the branding. “Free range” chickens had but a fraction more space than their conventionally-housed counterparts, and often lived similarly putrid and unsavory existences. The idyllic little organic farm was often a large factory farm, treated with synthetic substances approved under USDA organic guidelines.

Last year, I wrote a story about the locavore movement and its adherents. It was interesting to hear various farmers’ opinions on the “organic” subject. While some thought it important to get organic certification, for its accountability and importance to consumers, others were less certain that it mattered:

Hope Hall, owner of Sunflower Farm Creamery in Cumberland, Maine, says organic farming has undergone a “sad twist” as its popularity has grown. Many organic enterprises have adopted the careless commercialism they once fought. And [Joel] Salatin believes the federal government has “hijacked” the organic movement. Accountability has weakened as a result. The mystique of organic certification remains intact, but standards have eroded.

Procuring organic certification is often expensive, too. The Glaesers already pay $600 a month for GMO-free chicken feed. If they were to go further and “went organic,” the cost difference would trickle down into the price of the eggs. “That’s a jump a lot of people don’t want to have to make,” Glaeser says. And no one has complained about the eggs’ lack of organic certification. “It seems to me that a lot of people are not wanting the organic stamp as much as they want things to be done the right way.”

I think Glaeser is right: a lot of shoppers aren’t as concerned about an organic stamp on their tomatoes as they are about knowing whether farmers are raising their produce or animals in a sustainable, humane fashion. Certifications have become a stand-in for relationships between farmers and consumers. Where consumers are able to know their farmer and interact with them, those labels increasingly become irrelevant—or at least, less important.

None of this necessarily means you shouldn’t buy USDA organic—but it does mean we should consider what our vision for being responsible, wise consumers includes. This vision will likely vary from person to person: for some, getting grass-fed and humanely-raised meats will be the most important thing. For others, knowing their produce is free of harmful pesticides and herbicides will trump the list. Most of us have to balance our wish list items with their accompanying price tags, which can often be steep.

But being an informed and wise consumer is worth it, in the long run. Super market branding can be intentionally and subtly deceiving—”cage free” or “free range” eggs are just one example of the ways in which, apart from a “USDA organic” label, we can be tricked into thinking a product is something it isn’t. This is why the locavore movement appeals to so many—you don’t have to take the label’s word for it: if you want to know how your chickens are being raised, go visit the farm.

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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