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
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.