Two-thirds of U.S. consumers make at least occasional purchases of organic products. Why? Nielsen research found that some of the leading motivations for eating organic are that it is healthier, more nutritious, better for the environment, tastier, and that it helps small farmers. The only problem is that organic does not necessarily mean any of those things.
Organic does not mean water-wise. Some organic farms utilize the same overhead watering systems that conventional farms do, which means that almost half the water will evaporate without ever reaching the soil.
Organic does not mean that the vegetables are heirloom varieties or that they even taste good. Organic produce can be grown from hybrid seeds designed to look good on supermarket shelves even if it is not close to the most flavorful variety available.
Organic does not mean unprocessed. The environmental footprint of a product’s processing, packaging, and distribution often overwhelms all the sustainability merits of its organically cultivated ingredients.
Organic does not mean the food is healthy. Oil, cheese, butter and sugar can all be produced organically. Nevertheless, a recent study from the Cornell Food and Brand Lab found that consumers believe organic products contain 40% fewer calories solely because the product is labeled organic.
Organic does not mean that the food is produced by a small, local or family-owned business. Your purchase of Kashi and Naked Juice products enriches Kellogg and Pepsi shareholders, while mark-up on Boca Burgers bolsters profits at Kraft and Silk Soy Milk sales fund the lobbyists and lawyers retained by Dean Foods. (Click here for a larger image)
Sometimes organic does not even mean organic. The USDA outsources the organic certification process to third-parties who are paid by the farmer. A bad review and the third-party certifier loses a client; for them rigorous enforcement of standards is bad business. To its credit, the Obama administration is moving in the right direction on organics. The National Organics Program has seen its budget grow from $3.9 million in 2009 to $6.9 million in 2010 and $10 million in 2011. Nevertheless, the perverse incentive structure for certifiers ensures continued lackluster enforcement of organic standards. (Click here for a larger image)
There are a lot of things that organic does not mean, but there are two important things that organic does mean. Or at least that it should.
Organic does mean that the farm uses compost or other natural fertilizers instead of synthetic fertilizer. Creation of synthetic fertilizer is incredibly energy-intensive and its frequent over-application results in run-off that produces algae blooms that decrease available oxygen in the water, killing native fish species.
Organic also means that the food is free of synthetic pesticides. Scientific studies have linked pesticide exposure to cancer, neurological disorders, birth defects and more.
For those reasons, organic is a good place to start. But it is time to ask for more. Let’s ask for food that is grown using water-wise practices. Let’s ask for more unprocessed food. Let’s ask for products whose revenues are not used to fund Twix commercials.
Food offerings will not transform overnight, but wildfire growth in the popularity of organics should provide hope that determined consumers can aggressively steer the market in the right direction. And they already have the tools to do so.
Product scanning technology allows you, the consumer, to learn about the farm where that vegetable was grown. Your smart phone can scan a bar code that pulls up a profile of the farm where it was grown.
CSAs that provide the consumer with a personal connection to the farm where their food is grown continue to flourish.
Urban farming businesses are springing up all over the country to provide consumers with produce that needs no verification of growing methods since it is grown across the street, or even in the consumer’s own backyard.
As citizens and as consumers, it is time to decide that organic is not enough and ask for more.