What Does the USDA Organic Label Mean?
When you see the USDA organic label on produce, dairy, meat, and other products; you feel confident that there are certain standards and protocols being adhered to. You probably think that these foods have more nutrition, no synthetic chemicals and pesticides, and sustainable not to mention humane farming practices. When you give your money to these organic companies, you may think you are supporting small, ethically and environmentally-minded farms. At least I did.
After all, that is what you are paying for with the extra price tag, right?
Well, no. At least not now.
What is “Organic”?
It turns out that all those ideals of environmentalism and animal welfare are not accurate to what the organic industry actually is. But before we dive into that, let’s start by clarifying who controls, defines, and enforces what is legally required for a company to receive that handy dandy label you see on organic foods.
From the beginning…
Congress passed the Organic Food Production Act of 1990 (OFPA) in response to the growing concern to the multiplicity of standards that confused consumers and called into question the integrity of the organic label. The OFPA set up an advisory panel called the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). Congress gave them statutory authority on all ingredients that may be used in organic foods. The NOSB also recommends policy and modifications to organic agriculture and food processing regulations in the United States.
The U.S. Secretary of Agriculture appoints each member of the NOSB for a 5-year term. As a way to balance interests and power, Congress earmarked the 15 seats for members to belong to specific parts of the organic sector. Four must operate or own an organic farming operation; two must own or operate an organic handling operation; one must own or operate a retail establishment with significant trade in organic products; three must have expertise in areas of environmental protection and resource conservation; three must represent public interest or consumer interest groups; one must have expertise in the fields of toxicology, ecology, or biochemistry; and one must be a USDA accredited certifying agent. (1)
USDA and Big Organic
In theory, this is all a good practice. In reality, the USDA stacked and misallocated the NOSB members in favor of big businesses, an illegal practice that has stretched over at least three different administrations.
For example, Katrina Heinze held the slot reserved for a scientist from 2007 to 2012 but works for General Mills (GM) as an Organic Ambassador (and has been working there for 21 years) at the time of her appointment. She is responsible for food safety and regulatory matters. There is no indication that she is an expert in toxicology, ecology, or biochemistry other than a degree in Chemistry (no specialization in biochemistry is stated). And it’s no surprise that she represented General Mills interests when she didn’t recuse herself from the vote to add DHA to the National List. FYI, the DHA manufacturer occasionally uses technology licensed by GM in making it. (2)
Other examples include Tom Stoneback, who held a “farmer” seat but is vice-president of Rodale Books. I didn’t realize Rodale Books operates an organic farm too (they don’t by the way)! William Friedman, an attorney and member of the New Mexico Organic Commodity Commission, held the “environmentalist’ seat.
And, you guessed it, he doesn’t have any expertise in environmental protection or conservation. Infant formula manufacturers and later Dean Foods (Horizon and Silk soy milk) that used Martek’s DHA and ARA oils hired him to push those additives onto the approved list.
The “consumer” seat, which should be held by people from a traditional consumer advocacy group, has been allocated to people like Donald Kinsman, former director of the American Meat Science Association and professor emeritus of animal science. In fact, he was considered “the board’s principal authority on livestock production and products” so why is he serving in a consumer interest seat?
In some cases, the seat could have been properly allocated but it doesn’t take from the fact that most seats were being dominated by big agricultural business. Since it’s beginning in 1992, the following agribusinesses have had representatives on the board according to the Cornucopia Institute:
- Earthbound Farms (formerly owned by Danone, now by Taylor Farms) 2 seats, a handler and a consumer representative
- General Mills 4 seats, 3 handlers and a scientist
- Dean Foods, a farmer slot
- Campbell Soup Company, a handler slot
- Grimmway Enterprises, Inc., a farmer slot
- PurePak, Inc., an environmentalist slot
- Smucker’s, a handler slot
- CROPP/Organic Valley 3 seats, all appointed to a farmer slot
- Purina Ralcorp, a handler slot
- Driscoll’s, a farmer slot
- Phillips Mushrooms, an environmentalist slot
Policy that Favors Big Biz
Those examples are only former members of the NOSB. When I was looking at the list of current members, it appears much more in alignment with the OFPA. None of them are full-time employees for General Mills, Campbell Soup, and the like. However, the USDA has largely stripped or leveraged the NOSB’s power by this point has been largely stripped away or leveraged in big business’s favor.
During Obama’s administration, the USDA under Thomas Vilsack and the National Organic Program (NOP) headed by Miles McEvoy, amended the provision set up by Congress requiring a “sunset review” of all non-organic materials every five years. Originally, the review removed materials from the National List unless two-thirds of the NOSB voted in favor of retaining them. Vilsack and McEvoy changed it to leave all non-organic and synthetic materials on the list indefinitely and requiring a two-thirds vote to remove it. In 2015, the Cornucopia Institute and 14 stakeholders sued the agency in federal court to overturn this action on the grounds that previous changes to the procedures of the NOSB operated on were implemented after consultation with the public and the USDA had no legal authority to change it. The USDA prevailed.
The reason for the original sunset procedure implemented by Congress was intended to be an incentive for innovation in organics. The problem with this ruling is it makes it easier for big agribusinesses to keep these ingredients in organic production and handling. At the time the board was stacked with corporate-friendly members so removing any materials that big business wanted to continue using was near impossible.
Additionally, the Obama administration stripped the NOSB of its authority further. The Policy and Procedures Manual (PPM) was the operations manual originally developed by the NOSB under public review with an opportunity for formal input from organic stakeholders before it was approved by the USDA. However, in 2015 the USDA completely rewrote the PPM without the NOSB and public requesting it. One of the many changes made to the PPM was that the NOSB could no longer set their own agenda. (3)
During the Trump administration, the USDA Secretary, Sonny Perdue, has systematically ignored NOSB decisions. For example, the NOSB recommended removing four non-organic materials being used in organic food production: conventional whey protein concentrate, Turkish bay leaves, inulin oligofructose, and carrageenan (a very controversial and possibly carcinogenic additive). Thousands of public comments were submitted in support of the NOSB’s position but a few letters from corporate lobbyists carried more clout with Perdue.
Even more damaging, Perdue under the wishes of lobbyists from the largest US corporate “livestock factory farms” withdrew the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices rule that was pending to go into effect at the end of Obama’s administration (Obama’s administration was also delaying this bill as well). This rule would have set minimum standards for outdoor access to all livestock animals. It would have forced these big Agri farms to comply with current regulations. This included that their animals must have access to the outdoors year-round and live in “conditions which accommodate the health and natural behavior of animals”. For Confined Animal Farming Operations (CAFO) where they house 15,000 cows or 200,000 chickens, that is next to impossible for them to do. And yes, there are now “organic” CAFOs.
But beyond stripping the NOSB of any authority, the USDA under Perdue has failed to fill vacant seats on the board. Francis Thicke’s (he wrote a fantastic article on his experience here) appointment in the environmental seat came to a close last January and Joelle Mosso resigned from a handler seat. Neither of these seats has been filled. The NOSB has in effect become completely ineffectual by the USDA.
The Farm Bill – One of the Most Important Bills You Don’t Know About
However, the slow figurative lobotomy of the NOSB since its inception hasn’t just come from negligence and corrupt officials in the USDA. There is another element to the organic story that further strips the NOSB of its abilities. Have you ever heard about the Farm Bill?
If you haven’t, you are in the same boat I was until a month ago.
The Farm Bill is a large, multifaceted piece of legislation that is renewed by Congress about every 5 years. The first version of this bill was passed in 1933 during the Great Depression. The intention was to support farmers when crop prices began to plummet. Since then, the bill has grown to address everything from international trade in farm products to the nutritional quality of school lunches to the management of the country’s national forests. Trump passed the newest version of the Farm Bill in 2018.
Why It Matters
The Farm Bill touches so many aspects of every American’s life. It can impact international trade, environmental conservation, food safety, and the health of rural communities. Who farmers are, what they grow, how it is grown, and most importantly, who can afford it; are all questions this bill answers among many others. The Farm Bill is a truly obscure policy that very few know about. But with $867 billion in investments and the scope of elements it covers (like food stamps and school lunches), it is perhaps one of the most important pieces of legislation that everyone should be paying attention to. After all, everyone has to eat.
The 2018 Farm Bill gave the “Sunset Review” change mentioned above statutory coverage after the fact. In essence, it sanctified ex post facto a practice that was arguably out of USDA’s authority to do away with in the first place. Now any challenge to that change in policy has been rendered moot. The bill also included changes to how board members are picked. The seats allocated to farmers can now be filled by employees of corporate agribusinesses. (4)
In essence, the 2018 Farm Bill might be the coup de gras to the USDA organic label. In response advocacy groups like the Cornucopia Institute turn elsewhere to find a new standard for the organic market that is both ethically and environmentally minded as well as transparent.
Organic Doesn’t Mean Humane
For many consumers, the label means more than just ingredients made using no antibiotics, unapproved pesticides, and the like. It carries a holistic approach in agriculture that supports regenerative soil practices, biodiversity, and humane livestock practices. Many consumers who buy organic are pushing back against the CAFOs and industrialization that have placed the public health, animal rights, and environment at risk for decades. They are willing to pay the higher price for these ideals.
However, that is not how the label is being used by the USDA. According to the USDA, “organic” means produce must be grown without unapproved synthetic pesticides, synthetic fertilizers or genetically modified organisms. Organic meat has to come from animals that were raised in a natural setting, didn’t receive any antibiotics or hormones, and were fed 100 percent organic feed. That’s it.
The National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances is pretty cut and dry but animal welfare under the organic label not so much. While it might not seem that unambiguous to us when the regulations state that animals should have year-round access to “fresh air” and “direct sunlight,” the interpretations of these terms change from industry to industry with the most extreme one coming from the egg industry. In fact, the USDA estimated that half of all organic eggs sold in the US come from chickens living in continuous total confinement despite the requirements stated in the National Organics Program (NOP). It was one of the main reasons the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices rule was being made. But the problem isn’t with that rule being withdrawn. The problem is that the USDA isn’t enforcing current regulations.
For example, in 2002 right after the NOP published its outdoor requirement a Massachusetts egg producer applied for certification and was denied. They appealed the decision to the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) arguing that roofed, screen-in porches for laying hens should qualify as outdoor access. They agreed and without input from the NOSB, AMS told the certifier to approve their application. That set the standard for any producer to build a porch onto a barn and get certified.
That decision cleaved the industry in two. On one end, the majority of organic farmers run their business following the regulations. On the other end, a few big agribusinesses using a loophole to gain market advantage. And in that process, they have outpriced the smaller farms and gobbled up the profits. And these animals are not living in conditions any better than their respective conventional cousins.
Organic Doesn’t Mean Good Soil Management
The other side of this coin is that organic and regenerative soil practices do not seem to go hand-in-hand. The USDA passed a policy allowing hydroponics to be certified organic.
The contention with hydroponics and other no-soil systems is that food grown in no-soil systems lack the nutritional profile that food grown in soil does. There is an entire ecosystem living in the soil. That system impacts the nutritional content of the food in question. However, there is the argument that soil-less food can have more nutrition depending on the solution used.
But what about soil management?
According to the NOP, certified farms must implement various soil management practices. Besides using only chemicals found on the National List, they must practice crop rotation; use “materials to maintain or improve soil;” cover crops; and specified pest, weed, and disease management. These are good steps to protect the land but much more is necessary for regenerative soil management.
USDA Organic Enforcement
Likewise, laws are only as good as those that enforce them. And the USDA doesn’t have a great track record in that department so far (eggs anyone?). But if that isn’t convincing enough, here’s another example a bit closer to home to help clarify what I mean:
In 2017, the Washington Post wrote about millions of pounds of corn and soybeans imported to the US were grown conventionally. Somewhere in the process of these shipments coming from Ukraine to Turkey to California, the label changed from conventional to organic.
How did this happen?
Part of the problem is that farmers hire their own inspection companies (QAI, CCOF, OTCO, etc.). These companies announce their inspections days to weeks in advance so they lack the element of surprise (as in the classic debacle with Aurora diary). And testing for pesticides is the exception, not the rule.
These vulnerabilities are magnified with imported goods. There are often more middlemen. These middlemen that would be tempted to relabel conventional grains as organic to reap in twice the profit. In this case, most of these specific shipments were slated to be used for animal feed. That feed was bound for some of the largest organic food industries to feed their livestock. But by the time the USDA sent out a county official 4 months later, about 21 million pounds of the 36 million-pound shipment had already reached the farms and mills they were slated for. However, the most disturbing thing of all is that despite the fact that the amount of organic corn and soybean imports to the US has more than tripled in the last few years, the USDA has not issued any major sanctions on the import of fraudulent grains.
So there you have it. The USDA doesn’t play a direct role in the enforcement of their standards. And the certification companies don’t have to test for pesticides.
So you tell me, do you trust that these mandatory practices are actually being used?
Why Should You Care?
Now we come back around to the original question of this entire piece. Are organic foods worth the price you are paying?
But beyond our personal standards of value for our hard-earned dollars, there is so much more at stake.
Livestock and CAFOs (both organic and conventional)
From a global perspective, this is such an important issue for the state of the environment and the public’s health. To start, livestock farming contributes 14.5% of all global greenhouse gas emissions and most of those coming from CAFOs. Part of these emissions come as methane (from massive manure lagoons) and respiration from sheer numbers. But the other contributing factor is that these same factory farms destroy forests (primarily rainforests) due to a global shortage of grasslands. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) reports that cattle for meat and dairy production contribute 65% of the total amount from this sector.
From a public health perspective, CAFOs cause health risks to the nearby communities. Also, the meat from CAFOs contain more chemicals and less nutrition for general consumption. According to the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC), manure from these CAFOs “can contain plant nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, pathogens such as E. coli, growth hormones, antibiotics, chemicals used as additives to the manure or to clean equipment, animal blood, silage leachate from corn feed, or copper sulfate used in footbaths for cows.” Air quality impacts include “emissions from degrading manure and livestock digestive processes.” (5)
People who work and live near CAFOs experience high levels of respiratory problems including asthma. In a study of 226 North Carolina schools, children who lived with 3 miles of a CAFO had higher rates of asthma and more asthma-related emergency room visits than peers who lived more than 3 miles away.
Lack of treatment facilities for livestock waste may result in contamination of nearby waterways which both impact both communities near and far. Animals from CAFOs are commonly covered in their own feces which poses a risk of food contamination via through the workers of the facilities. And because these places fall into the category of agricultural processes, CAFOs are largely exempt from state and federal industrial exposure monitoring, inspection, injury and disease reporting, and surveillance. Without this monitoring, it is extremely difficult for public health officials to reduce the occupational health risk associated with these facilities.
From a nutritional perspective, beef from cows raised on a diet of grain (which is what CAFOs use) has more total fat than cows fed grass. Grass-fed beef has more healthy fats like CLA and Omega 3. Grass-fed beef also contains more Vitamin A and E. (6)
Produce Factory Farming
The zero waste community and the media seem to focus heavily on the livestock industry and its environmental impact. And with livestock contributing almost 15%, they have a valid reason to. However, what about factory farming and our produce?
According to the EPA, agriculture accounted for 8.4% of US emissions in 2017 with the highest amount coming from soil management. Nitrous oxide impacts climate change by 310 times that of carbon dioxide but has a much shorter lifespan. Nitrous oxide emissions in soil management include tillage practices and synthetic fertilizers. But that isn’t the only culprit. According to the EPA, carbon dioxide has increased by 109% since 1990. In part, this is due to applications of urea fertilizer but also the loss of cropland (10 million hectares to be exact) which resulted in a loss of carbon storage by 44%. (7)
So yes, livestock contributes a significant amount of greenhouse gases but they aren’t the only problem.
Food and Climate Change
Many prominent voices in the zero waste community believe that going vegan is the solution (with a capital S) to combating climate change. If you don’t eat meat or dairy, then there is no need for the industry. And if everyone were to suddenly stop eating meat that would solve the problem.
However, I believe that is an oversimplified and inaccurate solution that is possibly fueled by other agendas as well. I see it as a similar solution to the one posed by the geoengineering community to use a layer of sulfate aerosols to reduce solar radiation and cool the atmosphere. It is a focus on the symptoms but doesn’t solve the problem.
The problem with this argument?
By now if life has taught me anything, it is that nature is a tapestry: if you single out and eliminate one thread the entire piece falls apart. Pigs, cows, and other livestock animals are just as needed for plants as the other way around. In the case of trees, these animals eat the nuts and fruits that fall and improve the soil. The fertility cycle of trees has depended on these animals for a long time. Grass needs cows and other ruminate creatures like the buffalo that used to dominate the American grasslands. Grass that doesn’t have grazing animals will tend toward desertification according to Allan Savory, founder of the Savory Institute.
Reconnecting grazing animals to the land actually reverses desertification and restores the land by rebuilding topsoil and improving water retention after a rainfall. Lush grasslands sequester carbon from the air and store it in the soil. Proper land management (especially rotational grazing) is not only necessary but will heal our planet. If you buy meat and dairy from farms that use regenerative farming practices, you are actually supporting places that not only produce negligible emissions but in fact improve the environment.
Regenerative farming practices in produce would also help combat climate change. These practices would improve and remineralize soil, stop soil erosion, and protect the purity of our groundwater by reducing runoff from pesticides and fertilizers. It mimics nature rather than creates a monoculture vacuum.
Regenerative practices are essential to solving the climate crisis. According to the Rodale Institute, if universally instituted, organic regenerative farming would offset global emissions by 40% on cultivated land and 71% on pasture land.
Beyond that, these methods would increase food security. Farms that use regenerative practices often produce yields that exceed conventional ones (20-40 kg. per hectare of wheat, 10-20 kg. for corn, and 0.5-1 kg. for cowpeas). No-till methods could sequester as much as 1 ton of carbon per acre annually (2.5 tons/hectare). This amounts to nearly a quarter of emissions in the US alone. (8)
What You Can Do and the Labels to Look For
Unlike opting for mass transit or using green energy where there are alternatives, who do you turn to for food?
The best thing you can do for the environment and your family’s health is to support local farms that use regenerative farming methods. My family and I have started ignoring the USDA organic label as the USDA clearly compromised it. But we also don’t feel safe with conventional foods either with the Trump administration rolling back bans on previously banned toxic chemicals.
So what is a family to do?
The good news is that there are groups who feel the same way. In light of the USDA and 2018 Farm Bill, groups of organic farmers and advocacy groups are stepping up to create new labels. These labels will bring back the integrity of the organic label and create transparency in the agriculture system.
What labels should you be looking for?
A group called Real Organic Project (ROP) is stepping up to make a certification that exceeds and implements the policies that the USDA has failed to do. And while they are a great start, I’m not finding regenerative farming methods as a focus in their certification.
However, the Rodale Institute and Savory Institute are two groups that are.
The Rodale Institute in 2018 introduced the Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC). The Regenerative Organic Alliance oversees the ROC. The Regenerative Organic Alliance is a coalition of like-minded farmers, ranchers, brands, non-profits, and other organizations who believed in the need for an all-encompassing regenerative certification.
There is also the Savory Institute. The Savory Institute’s mission is the large scale regeneration of the world’s grasslands through holistic management. They educate professionals in holistic management and support a hub network of professionals. These Hubs are locally owned, led, and managed initiatives. They offer consulting and training, support, accreditation, and other tools and resources for holistic land management to create local impacts.
Both the ROP and ROC labels are currently accepting applications into their pilot programs. As these labels are just getting started, you will be hard-pressed to find them in your grocery store. But keep your eyes peeled, you’ll see them soon enough. In the meantime, look to your local farmer’s markets or farms to make up the difference.
Not sure where to find one?
The far-reaching implications that this fiasco with the organic label is staggering, to say the least. But beyond the fraudulent practices from the USDA and the big organic agribusinesses, the organic industry has largely convinced the public that these higher prices also support sustainable and ethical practices.
Instead, most organic food comes from CAFOs and factory farms that produce food using the same practices as conventional foods. These “organic” farms are not much better than their counterparts especially when it comes to the climate crisis and public health. And from a political standpoint, these guys are working against you and using your money to do it.
So is buying organic worth the price you’re paying?
I really hope you found this article helpful. If you have any questions or comments please please please leave me a comment below. This issue is very near and dear to my heart so I would love to talk with you about it.
With Love and Respect,
Tina (Late Summer Mama)
Here are some additional resources if you want to know more:
- The Organic Watergate—White Paper Connecting the Dots: Corporate Influence at the USDA’s National Organic Program. By Cornucopia Institute.
- Organizing Organic: Conflict and Compromise in an Emerging Market. By Michael A. Haedicke.
- Regenerative Organic Agriculture and Climate Change: A Down-to-Earth Solution to Global Warming. By Rodale Institute.
- Savory, A. (2013). Allan Savory: “How to Fight Desertification and Reverse Climate Change.” By TED.
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