Organic food – What is an ‘organic’ label really worth?
Consumers are willing to pay a premium for organic products, but the realities can mean you get little more than a psychological boost for your buck
Supermarkets in North America and Europe are overflowing with organic-labelled 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 impact of “buying organic”? The answers are murkier than you might think.
Ecolabels represent an ecological, ethical, ingredient or sustainability claim. The US, Canada, the European Union and Japan have comprehensive organic standards overseen by governments. Many nations have a “100% organic” label. But the devil is in the detail, and the details can be devilish indeed.
In the US, the Department of Agriculture label has numerous levels – headed by the 100% designation USDA Organic seal. The US government also allows the word “organic” on products that contain 95% organic ingredients. But they could contain monosodium glutamate, a flavour-enhancing natural ingredient, or carrageenan, a seaweed substance that thickens food. Both ingredients are an anathema to organic-favouring foodies, who believe that they pose health dangers even though government scientists have cleared them as perfectly harmless.
A third category designates products with a minimum 70% organic ingredients. They can be labelled “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 labelled “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% organic ingredients cannot be advertised as organic, but can list individual ingredients on the packaging.
Devil’s in the label
So, how reliable are organic labels? For one thing, conventional and genetically modified seeds are known to occasionally mix with organic supplies. But in-depth field-testing to ensure compliance on this 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 EU’s new organic label, farmers and processors must follow a strict set of standards, including the requirement that 95% 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 EU-wide regime.
As of 2012, by agreement, and despite their exact definitions being different, the EU and the US recognise 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 €40bn a year. According to the European commission, those regions comprise 90% of global organic consumption.
Of course, with success comes temptation; the organic industry is no different from any other. For the most part, fraud has been sporadic. Over the years, there have no doubt been instances of panicked farmers facing an insect infestation spraying an unapproved herbicide; or a hard-pressed supplier mixing in conventional low-cost eggs with pricier organic ones.
But fraud has rather flown under the radar. And as sales have boomed and the stakes have risen, the scale of deception has broadened.
In 2009, for example, American retailer 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 relabelled. 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 labelling, and governments have gradually tightened restrictions.
China has emerged as a nettlesome challenge. It’s moved aggressively into the organic market, exporting canned tomatoes, milk and dried fruit and tea. But its certifying system is less than reliable. Banned toxic pesticides and other chemicals have shown up on several occasions. Chinese officials have said they are cracking down, but who knows?
Looming large over the labelling 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.
The organic industry has been growing in part by promoting the demonstrably false claim that its products are more nutritious than conventional varieties.
The US-based Organic Trade Association boasts: “Families continue to cite their desire for healthful options, especially for their children, in choosing organic foods.” That’s edging towards green-washing; 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.
The 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 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 6bn additional head of cattle to produce enough manure to fertilise that farmland – and there are only about 1.3bn cattle in the world today.
“Clearing that much land would produce around 500bn tonnes of CO2, or almost as much as the total cumulative CO2 emissions of the world thus far,” writes Ramez Naam in his new book on sustainability, The Infinite Resources. “Moreover, the cattle needed to fertilise 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.