Thursday, January 31, 2008

USDA Organic Seal - Killing hometown organic farms in America?

By Marcie Barnes

My mother is reading the book "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" for her book club and was telling about a discussion they were having about how the USDA Organic Seal many of us are familiar with is basically too expensive for small farmers to be able to acquire on their products. (See for specifics on this.) As a result, many farmers who have been proudly calling themselves "organic" for years, could be fined or even shut down for using that term today. This just makes my blood boil. Why, oh why, USDA to you all of the sudden get to define what is or is not "organic"?

Let's take a look at the USDA's Organic Labeling and Marketing Fact Sheet - my favorite quote from this resource is: "Products labeled 'organic' must consist of at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients (excluding water and salt)." (I'm still trying to figure out if this is by weight.) Basically, there is room for 5% of a product to be - whatever? That's kind of scary to me. Furthermore, I found the "list" that defines the kinds of things allowed in the 5% part here - and one of the "criteria" is: " The substance cannot be produced from a natural source and there are no organic substitutes." So basically, they are allowing ingredients because there is no organic counterpart? Hellllllllooooooo?

One of my classmates asked me to write an article defining "organic" last semester. On top of my busy schedule, I have quite frankly been trying to formulate an appropriate definition in my head for months. I realize now that the government has taken over the role of "organic police," I quite frankly want to encourage the world to come up with a new word or phrase to describe food that, as I like to call it, was made the way God intended. Or, maybe it would be better to say "the way Mother Nature intended." A lot of formerly organic farmers are turning to words such as "natural" or "whole" to describe their products, which is unfortunate because of the rising popularity of "organic" products (and the increasing awareness of the word itself) in the public. Ah, the government steps in to try and clarify the definition of a word and causes further confusion. Classic.

I still think choosing a USDA labeled organic product is better than one that is not, but it has become clear to me that this label should signify to the consumer that the product was made by a large manufacturer with enough cash to be able to go through all of the paperwork (among other things) required for the certification, and that it's also likely the cost of the certification is worked into the price you are paying.

For a plethora of reasons, there is one word that is beginning to stand out as the best one to describe how you should eat: local. Find a local farm here and join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program that allows you to buy a "share" of the farm and reap the health benefits of ultra-fresh, tasty, in-season locally-grown produce. There is nothing better in this world than a freshly-picked North Carolina strawberry in May. Well, maybe there is - where do you live and what are you missing out on?

More stories about small farms and their disgust with the USDA Organic program: