Back in July I attended a webinar aimed at food manufacturers. It was supposed to tell them how to better market their organic products now that market growth is slowing. I wrote about it that week for my AGDAILY column.
My biggest complaint was that the companies were encouraged to prey on consumer misconceptions about the organic label. For example, organic consumers think the label represents foods that are more nutritious. But that isn’t the true. Yet the presenters encouraged marketers to play up the nutritional aspects of their products.
I made it very clear, as I always have, that organic marketing is a lie. And I’ll tell the truth whenever I can.
Shortly after the article went live, I was contacted by Maggie McNeil, Director of Media Relations at the Organic Trade Association. She told me the article was intentionally misleading and full of inaccuracies. She offered to help me with “organic facts.” And she referenced my “well-known bias against organic.” (Well, perhaps, I’m not big on bullshit, so I guess you could say that.)
After the pleasant introduction, Maggie’s biggest issue was my “egregious” comment that conventional farms are regulated as much as organic farms. She insisted they aren’t. Why? Because, as an example, “25 synthetic pest control products are allowed in organic agriculture; 900-plus are registered for use in conventional agriculture.” She provided similar figures for livestock treatment and manufacturing ingredients.
Um, so what?
Maggie is obviously a true believer in the natural fallacy. That is, that anything natural is good and anything synthetic is bad. It’s certainly an underlying theme to the organic narrative. And it’s a rather simplistic default position that some people take to try and grasp such a complex world.
But as we all know, that’s rubbish. There are lots of natural things that are actually really bad for us, like sunburns, arsenic, and viruses. And there are plenty of synthetic things that are actually really good for us, like medicines, computers, and air conditioning.
Here’s the other thing: synthetic vs. natural is completely unrelated to whether something is regulated. Yes, organic farmers have to follow the label’s confines. But that doesn’t mean that those confines are smart or safer. And it doesn’t mean conventional farmers have no confines.
Conventional farmers deal with regulations in almost every aspect of our operation. And perhaps nothing is more regulated than the pesticides we apply. In fact, if we don’t follow the instructions for restricted-use pesticides, we risk losing our applicator’s license. So following regulations is actually really important for conventional farmers!
Ironically, genetically-modified foods are probably the most regulated foods in the world. Yet Maggie isn’t a big fan of those.
Here’s the important part: notice what Maggie didn’t take issue with in my article. She didn’t challenge my assertion that organic marketing is a lie. And that was the main point of the article. Organic trade groups and marketers want to tell us that organic products are more nutritious, healthier, and better for the environment. But the label means none of those things.
So what does the label mean?
Quite simply, organic producers are only supposed to use production methods and inputs that are derived from so-called natural sources. We can quibble about the fact that Maggie admitted the label doesn’t even mean that anymore (apparently there are 25 synthetic substances they can use, too). And I understand that definition isn’t sexy, won’t sell as many products, and doesn’t fuel a well-funded activist organization. But that’s all it is.
And saying something else doesn’t make it true.
By the way, when I didn’t immediately respond to Maggie’s email (I’m sure she was expecting me to apologize and admit she was so right), she jumped on Twitter to make the same bad argument. I didn’t bother looking at the replies. I’m just glad it seemed to bother her so much.
And not surprising. She probably realizes what will happen if people start to hear the truth.