The organic food industry in the US alone is worth billions in sales every year. The market for organic food in the US has grown by more than 1000% since the 1990's. It seems there's an organic version of just about everything sold in the marketplace these days. But, the question is "are these products really organic?"
In order to answer that question, we must first develop an accurate understanding of what the US Government's definition of the word "organic" is and how the Organic Regulations are applied to farmer and growers.
So, let's begin with the definition. Simply stated, the terms "organic" is defined as "organic produce and other ingredients that are grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms, or ionizing radiation. Animals that produce meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products do not take antibiotics or growth hormones."
Pretty straight forward, isn't it? I think so. But, not everything is at it seems.
Now, let's take a look at how a grower or farmer becomes certified by the USDA as "organic." Of course, there is some red tape and paperwork that has to be dealt with. Assuming the paperwork is in order, an inspector from the USDA comes out and physically inspects the food production operation to make sure everything meets the applicable regulations. If the operation meets those standards, it is certified as "organic" and the food produced can be labeled or marketed as "Organic." However, according to the USDA Organic Regulations, a certification of "Organic" is not required if gross sales are less than $5,000 per year. I'll come back to this feature a little later on.
So, now we have a general understanding of how the application and certification process works. Now, let's take a look at what happens after a producer is certified "organic."
The USDA Regulations provides a list of approved herbicides and pesticides for those producers who have been certified organic. In the alternative, the USDA Regulations also provide a list of approved synthetic herbicides and pesticides that may also be used by certified organic producers under certain circumstances. Those circumstances are the herbicides and/or pesticides listed on the approved list do not work, are not available or are impractical or too expensive.
In order for a certified organic grower to use any herbicide or pesticide listed on the approved synthetic list, they need merely submit a statement to the USDA that outlines any one of the above criteria and they are good to go. No one comes out to investigate the matter. No one asks for proof. Its more or less dealt with on the "honor system" simply because the government lacks the manpower to deal with the volume of these claims.
Now, what are these synthetic herbicides and pesticides and how often are they used?
According to the USDA, more than 50% of growers with yearly receipts of $25,000 or more use the synthetic substances contained on the list of approved synthetic substances. By definition, those synthetic substances are chemicals. Yes, that's right.....chemicals. The Organic Regulations actually permit the use of chemicals in the production of organic food.
CFR §205.601 sets forth the list of approved synthetic herbicides and pesticides that may be used in organic farming. Those approved substances include alcohols, ethanol, Isopropanol, calcium hypochlorite, chlorine dioxide, hypochlorus acid and sodium hypochlorite (*the levels of chlorine based chemicals approved for use cannot exceed the maximum disinfectant limit listed in the Safe Drinking Water Act).
The Regulations go on to itemize many more chemicals that are approved for use in organic farming. In total, there are more than 2,500 approved synthetic chemicals that are allowed to be used in organic farming.
According to the USDA, the most common reason claimed for the use of the synthetic herbicides and pesticides is because the non-synthetic herbicides and pesticides are too expensive. Again, no verification of these claims are undertaken, even when the applicant is a multi million dollar corporation.
This is where the issue of Organic Food in the United States becomes disturbing.
WARNING: If you are an ardent supporter of organic foods and have faith in the integrity of this system, you may wish to stop reading now and return to your regularly scheduled program.
Of the thousands of chemicals that are listed on the USDA's "approved synthetic list" of herbicides and pesticides, 77% are manufactured by Monsanto or wholly owned subsidiaries of Monsanto. Just take a moment and let that stunning factoid settle in and unpack. This is the same company that produces RoundUp; the scourge of planet that's killing everything from bees to zebras and linked to cancer not to mention the sworn arch enemy of every environmental activist and organization from Maine to Malibu.
How is this nightmare even possible?
Simple. Long before the Organic Regulations became a reality in 1990 and the NOP (National Organic Program) was first published in 2000, manufacturers of pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers and other chemicals used in agriculture saw the handwriting on the wall. With the slow, but steady, increase in popularity of organically produced food in the 1990's, these companies realized two things: 1) they needed to get in on this organic food thing on the ground floor; and 2) if they don't, the popularity of organic food and the vilification of conventional farming practices has all the potential to cause damage to their bottom line. In other words, adapt or go extinct; a lesson learned with great bitterness by those manufacturers, including Monsanto, that produced DDT before it was banned almost 50 years ago in 1972.
These chemical companies came up with an idea that was as brilliant as it was diabolical. Why have only half of the pie when they can have the whole thing? So, what did they do? These companies lobbied for and literally wrote the USDA Organic Regulations that presently govern organic food production in the United States. So, not only do these companies manufacture the chemicals that supporters of organic food hate with the fiery, white hot passion of a thousand suns, they are also manufacturing more than 70% of the synthetic chemicals approved by the USDA for organic farming. How's that for a sucker punch?
But, what about the growers and producers who sell their organic products at farmer's markets and directly to restaurants? Many of them are reputable, hard working, genuine producers who actually give a damn about the food they produce and the environment they produce it in. But, for every one of these, there are several more who see this as an opportunity to make a quick buck.
Like I said, producers who report less than $5,000 per year in gross sales do not have to apply for an organic certification from the USDA. In fact, they can do whatever they want. They can grow their food and completely ignore the USDA Organic Regulations and still market their food as "organic." Why? Because the Organic Regulations do not apply to them. Since most of the revenue generated by these producers is in cash, they are free to report whatever they want in gross receipts on their taxes. Its a dynamic that works like tips and we are all very familiar with how many people under-report their tips in this business. So, theoretically speaking, a grower who claims their food is organic can be raking in tens of thousands of dollars per year in cash receipts and still report less than $5,000 to avoid coming under the Organic Regulations. Like I said previously, the USDA simply does not have enough manpower to investigate and police the massive volume of growers in the US thus leaving the door wide open for less scrupulous people to take advantage of the system......and you.
What about the produce and meat sold as organic in grocery stores?
These organic products are far more likely to be legitimately produced and inspected organic food because many of these products are produced by major producers who are too large to fly under the radar. These are the producers that the USDA pays attention to because of their size and because of the volume of food they produce.
But, this is not the end of the story. There are a few levels of "organic" that are acceptable within the meaning of the USDA Regulations. The most strict of which is the label "100% Certified Organic." This means that the food produced was not grown with any chemicals whatsoever nor were chemicals, antibiotics, growth hormones or any other chemical used in the production of livestock or the produce. Foods that meet these strict standards are generally not found on the shelves of large grocery chains. They are most commonly found in the restaurant industry produced by farm-to-table producers. Outside of the restaurant industry, foods that meet these strict standards can be found in smaller, more specialized grocery outlets.
The labeling that carries less stringent requirements, but yet, still meets the standards set by the USDA Organic Regulations will say "Organic" or "Organically Grown" or some variation. These foods are commonly found in your local grocer's "organic" aisle and organic section of the produce and meat departments. These foods may or may not be grown using approved synthetics.
But, if the meat is organic, that means antibiotics and growth hormones weren't used, right? Not necessarily. With the exception of meat, poultry and produce that's labeled "100% Organic," all livestock grown in the US and sold for public consumption must meet minimum inoculation standards set by Federal Law. That means the use of antibiotics.
The use of substances that accelerates growth, however, is rather convoluted. Actual growth hormones are generally not used in commercial animal productions for two reasons: 1) its very expensive; and 2) its not worth the negative PR. That doesn't mean other countries don't use growth hormones in meat and poultry imported into the US.
In the US, farmers and growers have cottoned on to the factually simplistic truth that a cow, pig or chicken will grow twice as fast if fed a high protein, non hormone diet thus achieving substantially similar results produced by the use or growth hormones. Its unclear whether or not the effects of these proteins are passed on to those who consume the meat. But, as long as its not hormones, then, it appears the organic community, at least for the moment, is happy.
The bottom line is if you are going to your local grocery store and think that you are making the healthy choice by paying a little extra for the organic food offered in the organic aisle and produce sections, you may not be getting your money's worth and in some cases, you be getting ripped off. There is so much white noise out there that most consumers really have no clear understanding of what they are buying. They see the word "organic" and they automatically assume its better, healthier and more nutritious, which is not always the case. A perfect example is the myth that organically grown fruits and vegetables are healthier, more nutritious and altogether better than conventionally grown produce. This has never been proven but, it has been repeated often enough, especially throughout the internet, that it has taken on the illusion of truth.
The same is true with respect to GMO food. Most people do not realize that nearly all fruits and vegetables, including organic, are genetically modified. Over the expanse of time, humans have domesticated most of the fruits and vegetables we know today. The ubiquitous tomato originated in South America and is vastly different than the tomato we find in the supermarkets or grow in our backyards. In fact, if most people were to see the tomato native to South America that gave birth to the tomato we know today, its doubtful anyone would recognize it. The same is true for corn, beans, grapes, oranges, lettuce, zucchini, squash, carrots, onions, cauliflower, broccoli, brussel sprouts, egg plant, peppers and so on. They all have their origins in wild plants and were genetically modified over the centuries. By definition, that makes them genetically modified organisms.
However, the most prolific myth about GMO food that has probably done the most to promote the popularity of organic food is the myth that GMO food will cause changes in your body at the genetic level or that GMO food contains "human DNA", such as the "Frankenrice" hoax a few years back.
In the first instance, its biologically impossible for any food, GMO or not, to actually change or effect you at the DNA level. The human digestive system simply does not break down the food far enough during digestion to the point where it can reach the DNA level. Even if the food was broken down to such a level, in order for the food to effect the DNA, there must be a delivery system that introduces the food to the cell's nucleus such as a virus or some other mechanism that transports the broken down food across the nuclear membrane.
As for the "Frankenrice" hoax, this one is my favorite. Most populations that suffer from systemic malnutrition include rice as a staple in their diets. As we all know, by itself, rice lacks certain nutrients such as Vitamin B and Beta Carotene, which is converted by the body into Vitamin A (retinol). Most populations that suffer from malnutrition have a deficiency of these nutrients. So, scientists developed a genetically modified strain of rice that produces these nutrients. Instead of being white or brown, the rice had a reddish/orange color.
Now, here is where the organic activists created the "Frankenrice" myth.
All DNA contains the same four proteins, Adenine (A), Guanine (G), Cytosine (C) and Thymine (T). It does not matter if the DNA is animal or plant. All DNA on this planet is made up of these four proteins. Since human DNA, like all other DNA, contains these four proteins and so does the genetically modified rice, the activists took advantage of the average person's scientific illiteracy and claimed that this GMO rice contained "human DNA", hence "Frankenrice."
Like I said, not everything is at seems or as advertised. Just because a label says something, it doesn't always mean what it implies or suggests. As professionals in the food industry, we are on the front lines of these issues and that makes us one of the best sources for information for the public in terms of the food they buy and provide to their families.
As always, thanks for reading.