Is Organic Food Over?

As corporations rush in to make a buck, some farmers are pushing back — and fighting for the soul of organic 

by Lisa Elaine Held  Jan 3, 2019
Illustrations by Keith Carter

One morning in 2015, instead of heading into the fields, a group of about 50 farmers gathered in a parking lot 
in Vermont — a handful on tractors. They arrived to protest outside a meeting of the National Organic Standards 
Board (NOSB); on a mountain of decomposing kale stalks, onion peels, and tomato stems, they objected to a 
proposal that would allow producers of hydroponic vegetables to put a USDA-certified organic label on berries 
and greens grown without soil.

The demonstration was the start of a movement called Keep Soil in Organic, and it’s one small example 

of the many big ways people are arguing about what “organic” really means now.
Unlike vague food label terms like “natural” and “humane,” the USDA-certified organic label has long been 
seen as a reliable stamp: It signals that a food was produced according to set standards that prohibit the use 
of most synthetic pesticides and includes other requirements related to conserving biodiversity and animal 
welfare. It means the farm and any processing facilities involved in producing that food have been evaluated 
by a third-party certifier to verify the standards are being followed.
Those who believe in organic as a solution to negative effects of “conventional” food production assumed the 
word would evolve into shorthand for “healthy” — but it was never going to be that simple. Talk to farmers like
 the ones at the protest, and “organic” is a lifestyle that involves a philosophical understanding of the 
relationship farmers (and all people) have to the earth; talk to a Whole Foods supplier and “organic” is a 
value-add that means a higher price on the shelf. Talk to a consumer, and organic is now simply confusing.
A big reason for that is that those within the industry — not to mention the institutions that use and govern the 
term — don’t agree on several contentious issues. First, animal welfare standards: Advocates say factory 
farm operations that use organic feed but confine thousands of chickens or cows into cramped indoor spaces 
do not meet the standard, but those farms are continually approved for certification. Second, the aforemen-
tioned soil: 
Should hydroponic vegetables be certified organic?
Farmers like those at the protest see these issues as related to an influx of corporations trying to cash in on 
the term. Organic product sales reached nearly $50 billion in 2017 and demand still vastly outstrips supply, 
sometimes leading to outright fraud. A Washington Postinvestigation last year, for example, revealed that in the 
rush to satisfy demand, millions of pounds of soybeans and corn from Turkey were sold into the U.S. market as 
organic but had been grown using conventional farming practices.
At a time when more eaters than ever say they care about where their food comes from, can “organic” weather
the storms to settle on a clear definition and resell consumers on its promise? “There’s no question organic is
at a very critical juncture right now,” says Max Goldberg, founder of Organic Insider. “It has become very big 
business, and everyone wants a piece of it.”

The history of organic

To understand the organic standard, it helps to know the history. Chemical pesticides began to transform 
American agriculture after World War II. With war-torn countries desperate for food, the global call was 
to produce as much food as possible, quickly.