Thanks to Big Ag, that 'organic' label might not mean what you think

Thanks to Big Ag, that 'organic' label might not mean what you think
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The integrity of the Organic Standards is in jeopardy. With my five-year term on the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) just completed, I am concerned about the future of the USDA Organic Seal.

The interests of big business and industrialized agriculture are having an outsized and growing influence on the organic standards, compared to the waning influence of organic farmers, who started the organic farming movement. Perhaps that is not surprising.

As organic food is becoming a $50 billion business, big business not only wants a bigger piece of the pie, they seem to want the whole pie.

We now have "organic" Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) for chickens, with as many as 200,000 chickens crammed into a building with no real access to the outdoors.

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And the chicken industry is working behind the scenes at USDA to make sure that the animal welfare standards recommended by the NOSB — which would require chickens to have more space and access to the outdoors — never see the light of day, just like the chickens in their CAFOs.  The image consumers have of organic chickens ranging outside has been mostly relegated to pictures on egg cartons.

 

We have "organic" dairy CAFOs with 15,000 cows in a desert feedlot. There is compelling evidence that at least one CAFO is not meeting the grazing requirement for organic dairies — not by a long shot. But when USDA did its obligatory "investigation," instead of a surprise visit to the facility, USDA gave them a heads up by making an appointment, allowing the CAFO to move cows from feedlots to pasture on the day of inspection. This gives a green light to that CAFO owner to move forward with its plan to establish a 30,000-cow "organic" facility in the Midwest.

A rapidly growing percentage of the fruits and vegetables labeled "organic" on grocery store shelves are being produced hydroponically, without soil, and mostly in huge industrial-scale facilities, according to the USDA hydroponic task force. And the hydroponics industry has deceptively renamed "hydroponic" production — with 100 percent liquid feeding — as "container" production.  

With that clever trick they have been able to, based on my experience on the NOSB, bamboozle even the majority of NOSB members into complicity with their goal of taking over the organic fruit and vegetable market with their hydroponic products.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to find that big business is effectively taking over the USDA organic program, because the influence of money is corroding all levels of government. Big business is tightening its grip on the USDA and Congress, and the USDA is increasingly exerting control over the NOSB. Industrial agriculture representatives have publicly called on the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee to weaken the NOSB and give industry a stronger role in the National Organic Program. Sympathetic senators may do just that.

What can consumers looking for real organic food do? Avoid dairy products and eggs labeled with the private labels of chain grocery stores — they are likely from "organic" CAFOs.

Find a source of organic dairy products and eggs that you know are from animals allowed real access to the outdoors, preferably from a local source. Ask the produce manager of your grocery store if their fruits and vegetables are grown in soil or are hydroponic. Produce managers probably won’t know the answer, but insist that they find out — and ask them to label hydroponic produce as hydroponic. Finally, whenever possible, buy organic food from a local source you can trust.

The organic label is at risk. There is a growing pressure from big business to weaken the organic standards in order to increase their profits. It is incumbent on organic farmers and organic consumers to work together to maintain the integrity of organic food and to be vigilant and active against the efforts of big business to put profits over organic integrity.

Francis Thicke is an organic farmer, soil scientist, and former National Program Leader for Soil Science for the USDA-Extension Service.