by Marion Nestle
Dec 29 2008

Are organics a scam? This week’s Q and A for Eating Liberally

This week, wants to know whether I think organics are honest.  Do organic food producers really follow the USDA’s Organic Standards?  I think most do, but the question comes out of an incident in California where a fertilizer seller was passing off an unapproved chemical fertilizer as organic. Apparently, state agriculture officials knew about this but didn’t bother to tell anyone or do much about it.  Not a good situation.   Here’s my response to all this.

  • Foodaroo

    I think the term “organic” has become an oxymoron. You really have to know what you are buying, or it will become a scam.

    Having read your article, it now makes sense why some organic strawberries taste like “water”, some taste like “plastic sugar”, while others taste just right.

    I used to buy a lot of organic Earthbound Farm produce but not anymore. Ever since I learned that Earthbound grows its winter lettuce in southern California where the soil is high in perchlorate, I said, “No, thanks.”

  • Mark

    The bigger question is whether the whole underlying concept of organics is a scam, healthwise: Is there really any evidence that your lifespan is increased or there is any other health benefit from organic vs. nonorganic food? I’m not talking about nonorganic food poisoned with contaminants, but rather nonorganic food grown with chemical fertilizers and legal pesticides. The organic movement is a non-scientific religious movement as far as I’m concerned.

    There are a lot of (non-health) benefits of organic food that have nothing to do with the organic aspects, such as picking food that is riper, transporting it a shorter distance to get it to you fresher, use of more tasty seed varieties, etc. But this has nothing to do with organic standards.

  • Whose health Mark? One of the reasons I buy organic when possible is that I’m not just concerned with my personal health, but with the health of the soil, the health of the workers who grew and picked the food, the health of the system. If we can move away from the indiscriminate use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides and start rebuilding the health of our agricultural soils, our food security will be in much better shape in the long run (and we won’t be poisoning the workers).

  • Maybe we can ask the farm workers who are no longer exposed to dangerous chemicals on farms that are transitioning to Organic or have already become certified Organic. I’m sure they appreciate the distinction.
    If we could also ask the nearby wildlife, including the downstream creatures, I’m sure they would also appreciate the Organic farms as well.

    Using petroleum based fertilizers and pesticides matters:

  • So let’s support Organic farming.
    You can even ask the staff in your local farmers market or produce section to let you know more about which foods are grown without pesticides; which farms are on the way to becoming certified organic. These items will most likely be priced much less than the certified organics.

    For the next farm bill, I hoping the Corn Subsidies will end and we will have a different support system for promoting Organic, sustainable farming of crops meant for human consumption directly. (corn–>factory farm cow–>some humans just isn’t sustainable)

  • Of course, this is a widespread problem. Once it was determined that organics could be very profitable, plenty of less scrupulous business interests jumped on the wagon to claim their share. We’ve seen repeated attempts to dumb down organic standards to make them more profitable for companies like Aurora Organic Dairies.

    Cornucopia Institute has done a wonderful job of detailing the role played by companies like Aurora in the organic dairy industry. I posted yesterday at about their update to their two-year old study, which now includes 110 organic dairy producers around the country. It’s well worth reading and a little hair-raising, to say the least.

  • I’m in favor of organic. But um, for the folks who are really defending it here, did you know that there is a bunch of “organic” pesticides including Rotenone (can kill you and me), Copper Sulfate (kills fish), etc? Did you know that under the organic rules for California, hand-weeding (by migrant laborers no doubt) is legal, but in the rest of agriculture it is illegal because it is inhumane to make someone crawl in the mud and weed by hand all day? Agricultural paradise it is not… yet.

    On the other hand, you could use it as a shortcut to determining whether your food was grown/raised in better, more humane conditions, with a lower environmental impact. But if that was what you were looking for – why not push for an agricultural labeling system that specifically focuses on rating farms according to those standards, rather than a somewhat arbitrary set of rules based upon whether or not something is “natural” or not?

    Organic has got some good stuff, and is increasingly science-based, but as people are pointing out here and elsewhere, some of its means of determining whether or not something is organic is not always rational.