Supermarkets in North America and Europe are overflowing with organic-labeled fruit, vegetables, eggs and meats. More than 80 countries have organic standards and products carry one or more of 200 seals, logos and certification claims.
But are consumers able to make informed choices? What’s the real ethical and environmental impact of buying organic? Does the certifying label mean anything of significance? The answers are murkier than you might think.
Ecolabels represent an ecological, ethical, ingredient or sustainability claim. The United States, Canada, European Union and Japan have comprehensive organic standards overseen by governments. Many nations have a “100 percent organic” label. But the devil is in the detail, and the details can be devilish.
In the U.S., the Department of Agriculture label has numerous levels, with the most stringent being the 100 percent designation USDA Organic seal. The government also allows the word “organic” on products that contain 95 percent organic ingredients. But that means they could contain monosodium glutamate, a flavor-enhancer, or carrageenan, a seaweed substance that thickens food. Although both are natural ingredients, they are an anathema to many organic-favoring foodies, who believe they pose health dangers even though government scientists have cleared them as perfectly harmless.
A third category designates products with a minimum 70 percent organic ingredients. They can be labeled “made with organic ingredients”. But such a label carries no guarantees about what else might be in the product. For example, consumers who buy a bag of popcorn labeled “made with organic corn” might be surprised to learn that their treat could have been processed using genetically modified canola or soybean oil.
Finally, products made with less than 70 percent organic ingredients cannot be advertised as organic, but can list individual ingredients on the packaging.
Devil in the label
So, how reliable are organic labels? Although hundreds of studies have demonstrated there are no health concerns linked to GMOs, many organic purists remain unconvinced and religiously avoid any “taint” of foods whose ingredients have been genetically engineered.
But how do they know for sure that they are eating what they think they are buying? Conventional and genetically modified seeds or ingredients are known to occasionally mix with organic seeds. In-depth field-testing to ensure compliance is a rarity. Typically, certification requires only that operations must have a system plan and compliance records.
Some organic labels are more rigorous than others. To earn the European Union’s new organic label, farmers and processors must follow a strict set of standards, including the requirement that 95 percent of the product’s agricultural ingredients have been organically produced and certified as such. Some member countries have their own organic labels in addition to the E.U.-wide regime.
As of 2012, by agreement, and despite their exact definitions being different, the E.U. and the U.S. recognize each other’s primary organic seal for the purpose of facilitating trade. That means meats, grains, cereals and wines and other products receiving organic certification in one region can be sold as organic in the other.
The organic industry in North America and Europe is now estimated to be worth a combined $60 billion a year. According to the European Commission, those regions comprise 90 percent of global organic consumption.
But success breeds temptation; the organic industry is no different from any other. Are there instances of farmers bending or breaking the rules?
Over the years, there have no doubt been innumerable instances of panicked farmers facing an insect infestation spraying an unapproved insecticide; or a hard-pressed supplier mixing in conventional low-cost eggs with pricier organic ones; or any of dozens of other ways that organic farmers have cut corners in a pinch. Because the organic industry is largely self-regulated, the frequency of incidents is unknown and fraud has largely flown under the radar.
As sales have boomed and the stakes have risen, there have arisen a number of highly publicized cases of deception. In 2009, for example, Target was nabbed for falsely advertising soymilk as organic. Two years earlier the USDA considered pulling the organic certification from Target’s dairy supplier—and the US’s largest—Aurora Dairy, which supplies mega-organic company Horizon, for selling non-organic milk marketed as organic for more than four years.
In early 2013, German authorities said they had identified more than 200 farms suspected of selling premium priced eggs as organic free range that actually were laid by hens kept in pens. While strict rules exist in many countries for meat, egg and dairy farms claiming to be organic, unresolved issues about the ethical treatment of animals remain contentious.
Italy has emerged as fraud central. In April 2013, in an operation dubbed Green War, prosecutors in Pesaro identified 23 suspected members of a counterfeiting ring. The fraudsters apparently set up a dozen shell companies across Europe, issuing fake organic certificates for conventional foodstuffs. In previous fraud cases, conventional goods were brought into the EU and then relabeled. Now, say prosecutors, products are stamped “organic” in the Ukraine or Moldova and fraudulently certified on site.
A number of countries have pushed the European Commission to establish a database of certified organic producers to help reduce fraudulent organic labeling, and governments have gradually tightened restrictions.
China has emerged as a nettlesome challenge to the organic movement. It’s moved aggressively into the global organic market, exporting canned tomatoes, milk, dried fruit and tea, and nurturing a booming market in fresh fruits and vegetables. But China’s certifying system is less than reliable. It’s estimated that as much as 25 percent or more of organic products in the U.S. contain ingredients that originated in China, and the percentages are growing. But banned toxic pesticides and other chemicals have shown up on several occasions and many Chinese crops are farms are known to be grown in fields polluted with heavy metals and contaminated water. Chinese officials have said they are cracking down, but who knows? Certainly innocent consumers do not know.
Looming large over the labeling controversy is a far more profound question: Is buying organic a personal values-based decision or is the added expense—often considerable—justified because of the broad health and ecological advantages of organic farming and products? The answer is prickly.
A recent study of organic marketing by Academics Review suggests that the organic industry has been growing in part by promoting the demonstrably false claim that its products are more nutritious or safer than conventional varieties, and demonizing genetically modified ingredients and foods–what it says is a fear-based campaign. (For an alternative view, see Genetic Literacy Project contributing writer organic farmer’s Rob Wallbridge’s analysis of the Academics Review study on the GLP).
The Organic Trade Association boasts: “Families continue to cite their desire for healthful options, especially for their children, in choosing organic foods.” That’s greenwashing; study after study, going back to the 1960s, has found organic foods are neither safer nor more nutritious than conventionally grown crops.
The most recent mega-study, examining 237 scientific reports over the past 50 years, evaluated the nutrient content of organic and conventional foods. Researchers at Stanford University concluded that organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs are nutritionally comparable.
Problem of scale
Organic promoters also ignore the sustainability contradictions at the heart of their passion. Although organic farming may be environmentally benign when producing small quantities for regional markets, it is ecologically precarious on a large scale. In 2008, the USDA conducted the Organic Production Survey, the largest ever study of organic farming yields. In line with previous research, the survey found that it takes one and a half to two times as much land in the US to grow food organically as it does to grow food by conventional methods.
This production shortfall puts pressure on global farmers to grow more to make up the difference. In the developing world, that can mean burning forest into farmland, a process that emits a tremendous amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and harms the water cycle and species that live in forests.
In other words, although organic farming might require the use of fewer manufactured pesticides, its broader impact can be environmentally problematic.
To convert the world to all-organic agriculture would require more acres cut from virgin woodlands and an estimated 6 billion additional head of cattle to produce enough manure to fertilize that farmland – and there are only about 1.3bn cattle in the world today.
“Clearing that much land would produce around 500 billion tons of CO2, or almost as much as the total cumulative CO2 emissions of the world thus far,” writes Ramez Naam in his book on sustainability, The Infinite Resources: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet. “Moreover, the cattle needed to fertilize that land would produce far more greenhouse gases, in the form of methane, than all of agriculture does today.”
Organic farming and products certainly address the expectations of a small but rapidly growing number of consumers. But there are unintended consequences. Many of us cannot afford the price premiums charged by the organic industry for what is, in environmental and nutritional terms, mostly a “feel good” purchase.
Jon Entine, executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, is a senior fellow at the Center for Health & Risk Communication and STATS (Statistical Assessment Service) at George Mason University. Follow Jon on Twitter