The second installment of Debunking the Organic Myth (click here for Part 1 if you missed it) is, quite frankly, a pretty easy myth to get rid of.
Myth #2: Organic has no specific definition; therefore, anything reporting that organic isn’t better isn’t testing the right stuff.
I believe this myth shows us a little about the organic movement and those that support it. The people pushing for it would have you believe there is a difference between a large farm producing organic foods and a small farm doing the same thing. Of course, the large “corporate” farm is bad and evil and not doing it right. The little farm with mom, wearing a sundress, and pop, wearing overalls, is doing it just right. The differentiation ignores the fundamental realities of farming today: it is a business and a corporate form is necessary, not evil. For some reason, perhaps to stop agriculture lobbying or a ridiculous desire to be correct, these so-called environmentalists want us to go back to an age where farms are small, not profitable, and we use horses instead of tractors.
The myth goes a little like this:
While the analysis by the Stanford researchers seems fairly conclusive, the implications of its findings are actually extremely narrow given the infinite variety in agricultural practices. The range of products produced under an organic label range from those produced on an “industrial-organic” scale to those produced by small and mid-scale farmers who go well beyond the USDA’s standards with their methods. (Source: Huffington Post)
Right. So apparently there is a difference between “organic” and “organic.” There is no conformity to the word. Therefore, the Stanford study is bunk.
Not so fast. While it is true that some words, such as “natural,” are not legally defined words, organic is clearly spelled out. A producer of any type of food can slap a “natural” label on the package, but not just anyone can put “organic” on their produce.
Organic food is regulated under the National Organic Program. In order to be accredited and given permission to use that all-so-holy organic label, you must have one of the 90 certifying agents (41 of whom operate in foreign countries) come out to your farm and conduct an inspection. If you’re not certified, then you use the USDA organic seal at your peril: each infringement will cost you $11,000.
Once a farmer wants to be organic, they have to start following this list of regulations, at least 7 years prior to becoming certified. Everything from the source of your seeds, to the soil, to the surrounding area is micromanaged by the government. Then, and only then, will you be certified as organic. Maybe this is why the stuff costs so much.
The word “organic” is a legal term that has a very definite meaning. Other terms that you’ll see on food packaging does not. Take a look at the definition of the other labels:
Free-range. This label indicates that the flock was provided shelter in a building, room, or area with unlimited access to food, fresh water, and continuous access to the outdoors during their production cycle. The outdoor area may or may not be fenced and/or covered with netting-like material. This label is regulated by the USDA.
Cage-free. This label indicates that the flock was able to freely roam a building, room, or enclosed area with unlimited access to food and fresh water during their production cycle.
Natural. As required by USDA, meat, poultry, and egg products labeled as “natural” must be minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients. However, the natural label does not include any standards regarding farm practices and only applies to processing of meat and egg products. There are no standards or regulations for the labeling of natural food products if they do not contain meat or eggs.
The definitions are much more wishy-washy. You can argue about whether or not your stuff is produced “naturally.” You won’t be able to argue whether your stuff is “organic.”
Which brings us back to the myth. The Stanford study was not misleading because it studied “organic” food without differentiating between a “corporate” farm and farms where mom and pop fit certain stereotypes. Organic is organic. It is clearly defined and regulated by the USDA. Organic is going to mean the same thing regardless of what type of farm it came from.
And the results were conclusive: organic produce is no more nutritious than conventional produce.
Perhaps these organic folks have a problem with “corporate” farms (which would just mean they don’t get how to run a business), or maybe they have a bigger agenda. The bottom line is that you can’t wiggle your way around what it means to be “organic.”
Maybe the organic farmer with only 20 acres has the time to go talk to each of the plants. We would probably call him a “hobby” farmer. Perhaps you’re the type of person this appeals to and you’re willing to pay more for it. However, it doesn’t mean the vegetables are more nutritious or better for you. It does mean the organic farmer isn’t able to produce enough food to feed very many people, so the issue is pretty much moot anyway (unless you’re going to advocate for people starving, but again, I digress).
Obviously what the so-called environmentalists are concerned about is something much deeper than things being “organic.” They’re afraid of evil corporations and modern technology. It isn’t about how the food is produced, it’s about whether or not you can imagine great-grandpa doing it the same way 70 years ago. This fear of science and technology isn’t just found in farming; we also see it in things like vaccines and medicines. People don’t trust what they can’t understand.
That’s ok. Try asking a farmer about it. I’m sure they’d be more than happy to explain it.
Or maybe they just really want to find flaws with the Stanford study.
Whatever the case, organic is a legal term of art and this myth is debunked.
I think you're right, fear of the unknown is a big issue behind a lot of this. I think buying organic, refusing vaccines, etc., gives people the illusion of control: no to technology, yes to nature. They think nature is more benign than science and technology, because they haven't been exposed to raw nature without the protection of technology. I'm not a farmer, but I grew up in a place that's about as close to nature as you can get, and my early childhood memories are watching subsistence (organic, though not by choice) farmers struggle to survive and hearing the weeping of parents, nails pounded into coffins of babies frequently lost to early childhood diseases. But people here have no exposure to that kind of life, so it's easy to romanticize. Thanks for speaking truth on the organic fable.