NRDC OnEarth
NRDC   OnEarth
The Earth’s Best Defense

Current Issue
About OnEarth

Cover, Current Issue
Letter from the Editor
Contact OnEarth
Full Table of Contents
Back Issues
Media Kit

NRDC Membership

A NEW WEBSITE! blogs, more multimedia, and award-winning journalism come join the conversation at

Living Green


by Jason Best

Photo of a tomato So you thought "organic" meant a simpler way of doing things, right? Well, ask yourself, if "organic" is so simple, why has it taken the U.S. Department of Agriculture ten years and more than 500 pages to define it? Come October 21, the country will finally implement the first national standards governing which foods can be labeled as organic and which can't. (You'll have to keep buying your organic sheets and shampoo on faith.) We seem to be getting them just in time: Farmers now spray almost a billion tons of pesticide on U.S. crops annually; reports of drug-resistant food-borne illnesses are on the rise; and, as Katherine DiMatteo of the Organic Trade Association points out, the big agribusinesses that might have pushed for a weaker definition are only beginning to show interest in producing organic food.

"Now we have a regulation that they have to meet along with everyone else," she says.

So what does the regulation mean? It's anything but simple.

The explosion in the number of processed organic products on store shelves -- everything from soy burgers to soups to (yes) organic frozen TV dinners -- is nothing compared to what the food industry predicts now that we have national organic standards. The standards are a blueprint for big companies who want to tap into the organic market, and in the next few years, sales of processed organic foods are expected to outstrip sales of organic produce. The Dirt: To some longtime organic farmers, such as Eliot Coleman, there's an obvious downside to all this. "Basically the standards allow you to turn out organic junk food," Coleman says. "Organic Coca-Cola is right around the corner."

Farmers and ranchers aren't the only ones who have to be certified organic; the middlemen have to as well. The system stops well short of your fork, however. Retailers -- restaurants and grocery stores, for example -- are required to obey the law, but they don't have to be certified, which means no one is making sure they do. The Dirt: Retailers have shown little interest in voluntarily boning up on what's required of them under the law. Seminars on the subject are sparsely attended, and, according to one state-level inspector in California, "almost every store" he visits "has handling and labeling violations" such as allowing organic produce to touch non-organic.

Organic livestock must be raised on organic feed, given no hormones or antibiotics, and have access to the outdoors. Cows and other ruminants must also have access to pasture. Vaccinations are allowed; withholding other medical treatment from a sick animal is prohibited (though treated animals can't be sold as organic). The Dirt: Few would argue that the standards are a marked improvement over conventional handling of livestock, but they hardly prohibit factory farming: Horizon Organic, which controls 70 percent of the country's organic dairy market, has farms with upwards of 5,000 cows each.

All imported food, according to the USDA, has to meet the U.S. standard to be labeled "organic." The Dirt: Not quite. The USDA is negotiating "equivalency agreements" with other countries, basically recognizing that their standards are the same as ours. But they're not always. The European Union, for example, allows the use of sewage sludge as fertilizer and does not require buffer zones between pesticide-laced and organic crops.

USDA seal Produce, and other foods made with ingredients that are at least 95 percent organically produced, can be labeled "organic" and use the USDA's specially designed seal. Your favorite soup may say "made with organic vegetables," in which case 70 percent of the ingredients must be organic, including all the vegetables -- but the seal can't be anywhere on the can. The Dirt: Note how bland the label is, and that it's not shaped like other USDA labels, which look like shields. That's because the big food companies balked at anything that might imply organic foods are better than conventional ones (hence no sumptuous produce in the seal), or safer (hence no shield).

Don't go looking to grill up any organic salmon steaks this fall, or pan-sear a juicy organic red snapper fillet. Fish -- wild or farmed -- weren't covered under the original Organic Foods Production Act, so they can't be certified as organic. The Dirt: We'll get organic standards for fish -- someday. The National Organic Standards Board is currently trying to hash some out. It has already rejected an argument by Alaskan fishers that salmon caught in demonstrably pristine Alaskan rivers are inherently organic.

If the USDA's original regulations, released in 1997, had been adopted, we'd be eating "organic" tortilla chips whose genetically modified corn was fertilized with contaminated sewage sludge and then irradiated at the mill. But 275,000 angry letters persuaded the agency to ban such practices, and today they're prohibited along with pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Local inspectors, some of whom have already been certifying farms that meet state-level organic standards, are authorized by the USDA to inspect organic farms annually, reviewing each operation's mandatory farm plan, which addresses such issues as fostering soil fertility, protecting groundwater, and encouraging biodiversity. The Dirt: The standards can be mind-numbingly detailed (e.g., even the sawdust used to grow organic mushrooms has to be organic), but that doesn't mean they prohibit everything that might raise the eyebrow of the diligent shopper. For example, after pleading with the National Organic Standards Board, pineapple growers in Hawaii get to use petroleum-derived ethylene to stimulate flowering on their "organic" crops.

Even the naysayers concede: Food grown under the new organic standards is better than the pesticide-drenched monocultures that dominate the country's farmlands.

But many small-scale farmers, such as Eliot Coleman, who started his organic farm in Maine in the 1960s, decry the way the rule-making process has "commodified" organic. The rules prohibit anyone from marketing a product as exceeding the U.S. standard, so these farmers are looking for a new way to describe an even more eco-friendly system of food production than USDA-certified organic.

Coleman is proposing calling it "authentic food," and even encouraging people to think in terms of "food miles." (How much gas-guzzling transportation was used to get your food to you?) Already, those who were first in line at their local Whole Foods Market years ago are taking things a step further: community-supported agriculture, or buying a share in a local farm and getting farm-fresh goods all season long. For more info visit

For other tips on environmentally conscious living from OnEarth magazine, visit the Living Green index page.

Photo: Burke/Triolo Productions

OnEarth. Fall 2002
Copyright 2002 by the Natural Resources Defense Council