By Harold Brown
Despite the claims that organic food is safer and more nutritious, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) simply won’t say so. And it’s not alone.
On its National Organic Program Web site, the agency remarks, “USDA makes no claims that organically produced food is safer or more nutritious than conventionally produced food.”
Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act in 1990, requiring the USDA to develop national standards for organic products. Yet, 23 years later, the USDA still will not validate the organic ads.
Then there’s the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Asked on its Web site, “Are foods made with ‘organic’ ingredients safer than those made with ingredients from other sources?” the FDA’s response is, “No. An ingredient’s source does not determine its safety.”
Other scientific sources have similar conclusions.
Scientific studies are nearly unanimous; still, the perception persists that organic food is safer and more nutritious.
Surely the perception of safety and nutrition persists partly because the USDA Seal of approval is on the package. But like beauty, the choice is in the mind of the beholder. The beauty of organic food is not just that it is perceived to be safe and nutritious, but that it results, as the USDA states in its definition, from “practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biological diversity.”
Because the organic movement is about so much more than food safety and nutrition, its practice is riddled with ethical choices, many of them arbitrary. Are human and animal labor preferable to the use of chemicals to rid crops of pests? Why, then, is the use of fossil fuel preferable to animal power for farm implements? Why not prohibit the use of fossil fuels, claimed to cause global warming, in producing organic food?
The “better way” of organic food is as socially and politically correct as it is complicated. Animals must have year-round access to the outdoors, no genetic engineering is allowed, and ionizing radiation cannot be used to sterilize food. Yet the FDA maintains on its Web site that, “FDA has evaluated the safety of irradiated food for more than thirty years and has found the process to be safe.”
Organic regulations are laced with feel-good commandments, but they are apparently as open to opinion and debate as any social issue. The provisions of fresh air, shelter, direct sunlight and outdoor free range for farm animals may be commendable as humane treatment, but what about killing and eating them in the end? Should the degrees of humanity shown farm animals be decided, interpreted and regulated by USDA?
Choices based on such perceived ecological good require no objective tests, but require faith that buying organic will help attain some future, obscure goal(s). There are no clear goals for “ecological balance” and “biological diversity.” Nor can there be; the judges and conditions are too diverse.
The goals implied by the USDA’s definition of organic agriculture are nebulous, but not free. Somebody must pay. Taxpayers help. The latest figures available (2008) show $108 million being spent by the U.S. government on organic agriculture.
But consumers who choose organic pay a bigger subsidy. In 2011, organic food sales reached an estimated $31 billion. With prices for organic food items averaging about 75 percent higher than their conventional counterparts, consumers are subsidizing organic agriculture to the tune of about $13 billion per year.
Organic is no longer small and local. Farms with sales of at least a half-million dollars in 2011 accounted for 12.5 percent of farms but more than 75 percent of the total income. The future of organic food is reflected in its adoption by factory farms and big-box grocery stores, even Wal-Mart.
Any movement with such nebulous rules and benefits requires large helpings of chic. When the chic is gone, the exclusivity blurred, and everyone is on board, “organic” becomes just another marketing gimmick.
Many consumers already believe it is. In a Harris poll this year, 59 percent of respondents agreed that the organic label is just an excuse to charge more. The relevance of “organic” cotton to protection of food and health, for example, stretches logic. “Organic” tobacco destroys it altogether.
University of Georgia Professor Emeritus Harold Brown is a Senior Fellow with the Georgia Public Policy Foundation and author of “The Greening of Georgia: The Improvement of the Environment in the Twentieth Century.” The Georgia Public Policy Foundation is an independent think tank that proposes market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.
© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (November 1, 2013). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.