The History and Mystery of Organic Foods

A brief history of the organic movement

When used by a chemist, organic refers to chemical compounds with carbon-carbon or carbon-hydrogen bonds. One of the simplest organic compounds is methane, which is made up of one carbon bonded to 4 hydrogen atoms. On the other hand, a biologist would use the word to describe something derived from or having properties of living organisms: “Fish, poultry, and amphibians are organic life forms in a wetland environment.”

Organic farming took on additional meaning in 1940 when a nobleman, Lord Northbourne, coined the term ‘organic farming’. Due to the industrialization of agriculture in the early 1900s, a small group of farmers in Europe, Australia and the United States began to oppose synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. They formed associations such as Demeter International in Germany, a group that promoted “biodynamic farming”, a holistic approach to farming covered with mystical and spiritual components. In 1972, several like-minded organizations came together to form the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM).

IFOAM’s stated mission was “the worldwide adoption of ecologically, socially and economically sound systems, based on the ‘principles of organic agriculture’. Today, the common usage of organic has been extended to mean ‘healthy or “close to nature”. It is also widely accepted that organic describes food grown without pesticides or artificial fertilizers. However, according to US NOP guidelines, this is not always true because several synthetic materials are available for be used as pesticides in special circumstances.

American NOP Standards

While the IFOAM principles are overriding, lofty, and conceptual, the American NOP standards are specific, pragmatic, and down-to-earth. Unlike IFOAM, NOP makes no claims for human health. There are no spiritual benefits, mystical ties to the land, or mentions of fairness or fairness to workers in the NOP standards. It’s a marketing program, pure and simple.

American agriculture was in crisis in the 1980s, with thousands of farmers facing bankruptcy. The organic category was created to provide new markets for farmers and growers, especially where traditional crops such as tobacco, soybeans and wheat have lost their subsidies and faced eroding markets. AMS understood the demands of the modern consumer and pivoted to give them what they wanted: AN ORGANIC LABEL.

“Organic is a labeling term which indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced by approved methods. Organic standards describe the specific requirements that a USDA-accredited certifying agent must verify before products can be labeled as USDA organic”.

NOP standards [emphasis added]

A group of advisors meets twice a year to determine what is organic and what is not. The NOP website then lists standards for crops, livestock, poultry, and the handling of different ingredients.

A row hard to hoe

Obtaining USDA organic certification is time-consuming and expensive for agricultural producers. Some specific requirements seem arbitrary, based more on speculation than science. Some approved organic methods are still in the discovery phase, so we will have to wait and see if they are more sustainable than chemical pesticides or GMOs. There is constant change in program standards depending on who sits on the NOP Advisory Board.

Dairy producers have a mandatory one-year transition period to transition their cows to organic production. Farmers growing crops must wait three years and document that the land has not used banned substances such as certain pesticides or fertilizers during that time. This poses great challenges for farmers who want to make the transition but have little or no income until they are certified.

Some standards are difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. For example, breeders must feed their animals 100% organic ingredients – GMO free. In 2006, 61% of corn and 89% of soybeans planted in the United States were GMOs. If livestock producers find a non-GMO feed source, they pay through the nose to buy it.

In addition, farmers must prevent the mixing of organic products with non-organic products; most organic certifiers have a limit between 0.1 and 0.9% upper level of cross-contamination with GMO ingredients. This means that farmers must find separate and dedicated storage, handling and transport equipment for exclusively organic products. This adds expense not only to farmers, but throughout the supply chain and ultimately to you, the consumer.

If you didn’t write it, it didn’t happen.

Did I mention the paperwork? The US government administers the NOP, so many forms are needed for documentation. Here is a comment from an organic producer in 2019 on a USDA publication on organic certification:

“I have never seen so much arbitrary nonsense in my life as getting an organic certification. Filling in page after page of paperwork on how to follow some arbitrary rules creates no value and wastes a lot of time, which we , farmers, could use to make organic food.

Another farmer said the forms took 89 hours to complete. According to the USDA’s Sound and Sensible Initiative, the NOP will make available 75 fact sheets, 16 training presentations, and 15 videos to explain the certification process and standards compliance. Why so much? It is complicated. Here is the Code of Federal Regulations for permitted and prohibited substances in organic agriculture and record keeping guidelines for pesticide use.

More and more farmers are willing to go through cumbersome steps, inspections and certifications to get a premium price for their specialty crops, milk and meats. Organic foods enjoy a price increase of 30 to 60% compared to foods from traditional agriculture. Given the increased regulatory burden, we should expect organic foods to cost more. But do we want our farmers to fill out forms, follow untested methods, spend more on equipment, or… as stewards of the land?

Sources: USDA Agricultural Marketing Service – About Organic Standards

Code of Federal Regulations – Organic Substances and Handling

USDA Agricultural Marketing Service – Organic Regulations

Public domain image of methane on Wikipedia

FDA Biological Seal in the Public Domain at Wikipedia

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