Organic foods are “in.”  Analysts estimate that U.S. organic food sales have reached $35 billion, or over 4% of all the foods consumed at home.  While that means 96% of the foods we consume are not “USDA Organic,” 4% is statistically significant.   Produce and dairy are the top two organic food categories.  Many supermarkets have an organic produce section.  The Fire Lake Restaurant in Bloomington, Minnesota has “organic eggs” on the breakfast menu.  

So, what is USDA certified organic food and why is the market growing?   

The Organic Foods Production Act enacted in the 1990 Farm Bill served to establish uniform national standards for the production and handling of foods labeled as “organic.” The Act authorized a new USDA National Organic Program (NOP) to set national standards for the production, handling, and processing of organically grown agricultural products.

The Agriculture Marketing Service (AMS) oversees mandatory certification of organic production. Producers who meet standards set by AMS may label their products as “USDA Organic.”

According to the USDA National Organic Standards Board definition, “Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony.”

Organic foods are not to be confused with “locally grown.” No single definition of "local" or "local food systems" exists.  The demand for locally grown foods is also increasing dramatically; some of the farms are organic and some are not.  For example, driven by the strong demand for locally grown foods the number of farms in Connecticut grew by 22 percent and the amount of land being farmed in Connecticut grew by 8 percent over the last five years.

Mr. Gary Hirschberg, the Chairman of Stonyfield, a producer of organic yogurt, says on the label: “It’s a complicated world.  But this yogurt is simple.  We make it without the use of toxic persistent pesticides, artificial hormones, antibiotics and GMOs.” 

Mr. Hirschberg is sure correct that it is a complicated world, but the criteria for determining USDA organic foods, and the organic concept, are anything but simple.

For instance, according to USDA, for milk to be labeled as “organic” the cows must be out to pasture for not less than 120 days per year and receive at least 30% of their feed from pastures.

While the current USDA definition of “organic” was the result of an elaborate public comment process, at the recent meeting of the USDA National Organic Standards Board in Texas, the Organic Consumers Association and other organizations protested the current USDA organic standard.  They want to see changes in both allowed and prohibited ingredients in foods certified as organic by USDA.  According to Mark Bittman writing in the New York Times, “organic often generates unreasonable expectations.”

While concern for human health and safety seems to drive the organic market, organic foods are, in fact, no more nutritious than conventional foods.  According to the Mayo Clinic, “[a] recent study examined the past 50 years' worth of scientific articles about the nutrient content of organic and conventional foods. The researchers concluded that organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs are comparable in their nutrient content.” 

Commercial agriculture, by comparison, places a high priority on maintaining nutritional value while increasing the supply of food to meet the world’s growing demand.  It uses modern technology and innovation to produce foods certified as safe by USDA and FDA at the best possible price for the consumer.  The agriculture community, across the board, is working to conserve resources and improve sustainability in the face of climate change.

The world’s population is expected to grow by 2.5 billion people, reaching 9.6 billion people by 2050.  We must meet the demand for food for economic, social and ethical reasons. The #1 recommendation of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs is to “Make global food security one of the highest priorities of US economic and foreign development policy.”  It is also why “President Obama has made food security a top priority in our global development efforts” according to Susan Rice, the National Security Advisor. 

The Vatican has declared that hunger “shows fundamental disrespect for human dignity” and there are “no limits” on modifying the genome. According to Pope John Paul II, “The findings of science must be put to use in order to endure a high productivity of the land.”

Consider these facts about dairy productivity:

·         The size of the US dairy herd has decreased from 25.6 million cows to 9.2 million cows. During that same time, annual milk production has increased 72%. This gain in production can be attributed to improved genetics and modern technologies including hormones and antibiotics.

·         By decreasing herd size and improving efficiency, our modern dairy system is much more environmentally-friendly than in the past. For every billion gallons of milk produced today, America’s dairy farms emit 24% less manure, 43% less methane, and 56% less nitrous oxide.

When it comes to crop production:

  • Biotechnology has led to increased crop yields and a reduction in the environmental impact of insecticides and herbicides.  Biotechnology facilitates “no-till” and reduced tillage farming practices. This reduces soil erosion, water pollution, and fuel consumption while promoting carbon sequestration.
  • President Obama said last month, “investment in enhanced biotechnology is an essential component of the solution to some of our planet’s most pressing agricultural problems.” 

USDA’s organic standards, in short, describe how farmers are to grow crops and raise livestock, including which materials they may use to be certified at “organic”.  The USDA criteria for organic foods do not take into consideration human nutrition, global food security or water conservation.

Organic is a complicated concept that it is anything but “simple.” Organic food, in the final analysis, is a marketing term, regulated by the USDA, Agriculture Marketing Service. It is a philosophy and personal preference like being a vegetarian or a vegan, buying locally grown or preferring “free range.” 

So, are organic foods worth the extra money and the “right thing” for your family?  Like beauty, it is largely in the eye of the beholder.  You must decide for yourself. 


Marshall Matz, former Counsel to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, specializes in agriculture and global food security at OFW Law in Washington, D.C.