"Organic" Foods: Feeding the Frenzy

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I came of age in the 'sixties and early seventies,' when purchasing "organic foods" was the thing to do among middle class suburbanites enamored by the "back to the earth" movement. In those days, I inspected produce at health food stores with a religious fervor, somehow believing the worse an item looked and the more it cost the better it was for me.

Fortunately for my pocketbook, those days came and went pretty quickly. That's why at the Third National Conference on Organic and Sustainable Agriculture Policies, I was horrified to discover that a new generation of activists seems to have absorbed the same myths and acquired the same misplaced zeal about the benefits of things "organic." This time around, though, the ingenuous folks who are proclaiming the glory of organic food have stumbled into reluctant allies: a loose coalition of agricultural interests that don't necessarily believe the organic mythology, but want money allocated for research on more efficient and cost-effective ways to produce and market food. These include farmers and representatives of agricultural conglomerates, who want to use fewer "inputs" to produce the same yields; biotechnology companies that are beginning to profit from herbicide-tolerant and other types of plants; "big players" in the food industry, poised to produce their own lines of processed organic foods; and supermarkets ready to cater to this market segment.

The result? An "organic certification" provision was inserted into the 1990 Farm Bill, largely as a tradeoff for the organic folks' congressional lobbying support for sustainable agriculture, of which organic farming is a small part. "In 1985, when we first started lobbying for sustainable agriculture (which included many practices that are a legitimate part of scientific agriculture, such as integrated pest management and crop rotation), we refused to include the organic food people in our efforts. They were perceived as a real 'fringe' element," says one lobbyist. "But the Alar scare gave these folks a lot more support, at least temporarily. So we figured, why not? We'll position them as offering one more choice to consumers."

It's not quite as simple as "offering one more choice." By passing the organic certification provision, the government has in effect given its "blessing" to organic food. Unlike the kosher food blessing, however, this sanction is from the legislature a different power entirely, and one with substantial clout in the marketplace. Worse, the government doesn't even know what it's sanctioning; even ardent supporters of the provision can't agree on what an "organic food" is, or how to certify it. And taxpayers will be paying for them to figure it all out: two years of departmental costs to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) (their deadline for setting up a National Standard Board is September, 1993), plus costs of instituting certification programs in states where none currently exists (more than half). Add to that the costs of administering and monitoring the requirements of the provision, and thousands of dollars quickly turn into millions. Is that kosher?

A more insidious implication of the organic certification provision is that it is necessary and desirable. If organic foods are to be so strictly tested and regulated, then perhaps they're better than conventionally grown foods which don't require a special label. Unfortunately, that's just what the conference organizers want consumers to believe.

What the Zealots Are Saying

"Am I being hopelessly romantic if I say that what we consider 'alternative' agriculture now, will be 'conventional' in just a few years? Or if I envision a day when farmers will be held in the same esteem as the medical profession?" this from a keynote speaker and professor of human nutrition at a leading university, who set the apocalyptic tone that dominated the event.

Worse than the fantasizing, however, was the ignorance of the attendees. "The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) says two people in my neighborhood will die from pesticides in food" this was the interpretation of EPA tolerance levels from a consumer advocate at the conference. "At least I'm feeding my children food they'll grow from, instead of food they won't grow from," she said to me. If that's the case, how did we ever grow up?

Many of the conference attendees largely fresh-faced youngsters and former "sixties" people echoed similar themes: organic food is safer, more nutritious, better for you. Their leaders, at least in private interviews, were more guarded in their assertions. "No one is making nutritional or safety claims," says a major figure in the movement. Yet, the name of this organization clearly implies that conventionally-grown foods aren't "safe." One young woman stood at the microphone and stated that she "hadn't heard anything during the conference about the nutritional benefits of organically-grown foods." This comment generated applause from the audience but silence at the podium.

Why silence? Obviously, people who have the barest acquaintance with the literature on these issues (and most of the panelists had at least that) know there is an absence of data to support safety and nutrition claims. To the contrary; even the National Research Council/National Academy of Sciences recently recommended that Americans increase their consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables and noted the potential benefits of eating more produce greatly outweighed the hypothetical increased risk that might result from increased exposure to pesticide residues. But the acknowledged "leaders" of the organic movement have nothing to gain from imparting this type of information to their constituencies. If the organic food foot soldiers knew the score, they'd probably lose much of their zeal.

So the ringleaders continue to pontificate. "There isn't any safe level for a carcinogen. It depends on how much risk you want to take," said one of the movement's main spokespersons, with a shrug that implied only a moron would want to take this risk. "And remember, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has no standards or testing for neurotoxins that kill by affecting the nervous system," he said to me. "The nervous system of insects, you mean?" I asked. "Yes, and that's how they kill, by affecting the nervous system. They can have the same effect in the body," he said, looking very sincere.

Clearly, scare tactics and pseudoscience are being used to keep up the momentum for the organic movement. More frightening, its spokespeople, politicians at heart, can metamorphose into the "voice of reason" just as quickly. In the same interview, this person told me in a placating tone, "We're not making any safety claims and no one's saying organic foods are more nutritious. 'Organic' is only a production claim." And, "We're not saying everybody should quit using pesticides, but people should have a choice." What would his grassroots supporters think of such a statement?

Cutting to the Core

Because there's so much disagreement on every aspect of the issue, it was difficult to get answers to some of the basic, practical questions I raised about the consequences for consumers of the organic certification provision.

What Is Organic Food?

There's no such thing as inorganic food, ergo, all food must be organic. Where do we go from there? Why, to "organic production" of "agricultural products." Except no one can agree on what this means, either. Definitions run on for hundreds of words: grown with no chemicals, fewer chemicals, old-style farming methods, new-style plants. Forget about meat and poultry for now; everyone's focusing on defining produce and food processed from it. Some pretty arcane issues are raised with respect to the latter: e.g., can a processed food be called organic if it also contains some non-organically produced ingredients? If so, what percentage of ingredients should be organically-grown and what percentage can be non-organically grown?

How Will Foods Be Certified?

How are they certified now? Some states do it themselves, some hire one of the more than 30 private organizations that do it (all with different criteria and costs). Most states do nothing at all. If and when the provision passes, will everyone magically gear up to adopt and implement the standards? Hardly possible: yet proponents would have us believe that certification "won't cost the consumer or taxpayer anything," rather, it will be "100 percent user-supported." What about startup costs, transitional costs, and costs of "putting it all together?" Taxpayers will be footing a large part of the bill, literally, even if we never bite into an "organic" apple.

How Much Will the Certification Procedure Cost?

The best estimate I could get concerning current certification costs is two percent of gross sales. But proponents agree that once national standards are in place, costs will run much higher further driving up the price of "organic" produce, and driving out of business many of the farmers who support the movement.

What's to Prevent "Backroom Switching,"
i.e., Stores Selling Conventionally Grown Produce as Organic?

This won't happen, supporters say, because produce will either be pre-packaged (which, studies have shown, makes it less likely to sell), or individual products, or bunches of produce (e.g., bananas, grapes, celery) and will carry a label or "seal of approval" with a number. If the whim strikes you, and you have nothing else to do with your time, "you can use that number to trace the product all the way back through the distributor and wholesaler, right back to the farm," a spokesperson proudly proclaimed. And then what? Do you test the soil yourself?

How Much of a Premium Will Consumers Be Expected to Pay?

Right now, organic advocates claim, consumers pay anywhere from three to five percent more for organic produce. But surveys suggest costs frequently run much higher up to 176 percent more. Clearly, organic foods are not destined to feed the masses; who could afford them...middle class suburbanites?

In fact, a "prime mover" at the conference was a woman from Westchester County (who "feels as though (I'm) experiencing a political and spiritual revolution"). She had the grace to admit groups, such as the organic co-op she belongs to, "discriminate against people who can't afford the time, or money for a baby sitter." Nonetheless, she exhorted attendees to keep fighting for their cause, and to remember "the latent force of feminism in middle class women and its power to move this country." And yes, she praised Meryl Streep (who everyone remembers from the Alar scare as the country's most-quoted Hollywood toxicologist).

Must the Buyer Beware?

Amid all the confusion and infighting that went on, I was tempted not to take the movement too seriously. After all, the USDA is clearly dragging its feet, and the Office of Management and Budget refused to appropriate any money in 1992 towards the implementation of the National Standards Board. What if it doesn't happen?

That question, I realized, is beside the point. The reality is, these people have been amazingly effective in eroding consumer confidence in the way in which food is produced and processed. For example, preliminary results from a new survey of consumer attitudes indicate that shoppers would be willing to pay more for foods with labels that clearly stated the items had in some way been tested and certified whether as "pesticide-free" or "no detectable levels of pesticide" or "no residues above federal limits." Therefore, the message that the government is already appropriating money to monitor food and ensure its safety is getting lost.

Worse, the organic groups are succeeding in convincing the media to give credence and coverage to their position. Now, those of us who know better must become more effective in restoring consumer confidence that the alarmists are undermining.

Marilynn Larkin is a freelance health and medical writer based in New York City and author of the forthcoming book, What You Need To Know About Anemia.

(From Priorities Vol. 3, No. 3, 1991)