What Does 'Organic' Mean Anymore?

11 Percent Organic | Photo: Beige Alert/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Stephanie Strom's article "Has 'Organic' Been Oversized?" has been, as you'd imagine, causing quite the stir in the food world.

In the piece, Strom profiles Michael J. Potter, owner of organic wholesaler Eden Foods and a big critic on how the organic label is currently being used. What started as a way to distinguish between large scale factory-farmed foods and local, homemade-by-mom-and-pop products has, through continual deregulation and an influx of corporate lobbyist dollars, become corrupted. In Strom's words, Big Food has turned into Big Organic.

In one harrowing scene, Strom follows Potter to the National Organic Standards Board -- the folks who get to decide what ingredients get the coveted "certified-organic" label -- where they're deciding the fate of carrageenan, a seaweed-derived thickener with "a somewhat controversial health record." During the debate process, Potter gets his three minutes to voice concerns, the board ushers him off with a "thanks," and they vote 10-5 to include it on their list of organic products anyway. Says Potter after the vote: "Either they don't have a clue, or their interest in making money is more important than their interest in maintaining the integrity of organics."

Of course, making money is a point of corporations. (The only point, actually, one of the aspects that makes them a bit different from people, despite what the Supreme Court would have you believe.) And with "organic" quickly becoming a much-demanded buzzword for grocery shoppers, it makes sense Big Food would want to get involved. The example Strom uses in her piece is that 12 six-ounce boxes of Kraft Organic Macaroni retails for $25.32, while a dozen 7.25-ounce boxes of the classic stuff goes for $19.64. Crunching the numbers, that's nearly 13 cents an ounce extra on the "good stuff," profits that quickly turn into thousands and millions when dealing with sales on the Kraft level.

But is the fact that corporations are getting involved in the organic game really that big of a deal? Twilight Greenaway at Grist.org has an interesting consenting opinion:

"At the base of it, what has always mattered to me about organic is still largely true. Organic farmers are still not allowed to use synthetic nitrogen fertilizer (the cause of the Gulf dead zone and a contributor of a dangerous greenhouse gas), the most dangerous pesticides (although I know people who point to some dangers with organic pesticides, from what I can tell they are much less toxic overall), and they can't plant genetically engineered seeds. There's much more to it, but even if the standard stopped there, it would still be a huge, huge step in the right direction."

While Greenaway admits that Strom's article is making people aware there's a board of folks who are discussing what kinds of foods can be labeled "organic," and that the knowledge is "probably a good thing," she doesn't agree that corporations = bad, at least not in this case. In fact, corporations being involved might actually be taken as a good sign. It means they're taking the hint from consumers that they'll spend a little more to make sure they're not eating cancer-inducing pesticides and changing their production model thusly.

So, what say you? Does the push from corporate interests into the organic game creep you out? Or is this simply evidence that the organic food revolution is working?

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About the Author

Rick Paulas has written plenty of things, some of them serious, many of them not, scattered over the vast expanses of the Internet. He lives in Los Angeles and is a White Sox fan.
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