In September 2013, the USDA’s organic standards were reduced in a way that might have changed them forever. In letting this happen, the USDA angered much of the organic community for a very simple reason. The changes diminished organic standards in exactly the ways agribusiness and Big Food companies have wanted.
Since standards were established in 1990 by the Organic Foods Production Act, synthetic and non-organic ingredients were allowed to be present in organic foods by exemption for a period of five years. After that time, in what is known as a sunset process, the exemption expired, unless the 15-member National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) voted to extend it for another five years.
The Empire Strikes Back
The new organic rules changed all that. Synthetic and non-organic ingredients are now exempted indefinitely, unless specifically ended by a two-thirds vote of the NOSB. The new rules were announced without outside approval or public input. As a result, when the announcement was made, a court challenge based on lack of transparency as a violation of the Organic Act was filed immediately.
In April of 2014, the political director for the Organic Consumers Association was arrested for refusing to end a protest of the changes at a meeting of the NOSB in San Antonio. The arrest had ripples throughout the organic world, and it reached news feeds of the larger world, as well, evidenced by its appearance on the Daily Koz Network. The first news we received of the arrest was on the website for Seattle Organic Restaurants. In all the hubbub surrounding the arrest, no one in government was forced to answer the political director’s charge, that the changes to the standards were illegal.
Just What They Wanted
The weakening of standards matters a lot – enough to go to jail in protest. Not only do the changes completely reverse the intent of organic standards. They raise synthetics to the equal of organic ingredients. Judging from the work of watchdog groups like Cornucopia, the Organic Consumers Association, and Beyond Pesticides – all of whom are fighting for consumers – this is what American agribusiness has always wanted. As long as cheaply produced industrial food was excluded from being organic, there was a market Big Food didn’t control and couldn’t profit from.
But it’s not just agribusiness and industrial food producers behind the weakening of standards, or behind the buying up of small organic producers. Within the organic industry itself, large producers and distributors – known collectively as Big Organics – also seek to widen the organic pool. To hear them tell it, it’s a matter of making organic products – with all their nutritional and environmental advantages – available to more people, making organic less exclusive and elitist. What they don’t mention is, if standards are lowered, and it’s easier for products to become organic, being organic won’t mean anything. Which is also what agribusiness wants.
If the Bar Is Low Enough, Anyone Can Clear It
Marion Nestle – Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University – puts it this way in the May 1, 2014 issue of Food Politics, “Big Organics want the rules to be as lenient as possible to allow them to follow the letter of the organic standards without having to adhere to their spirit.” So, if the actual written standards can be lowered to the point where industrial food producers can meet them, the spirit of organic – its soul, its original intent – will become irrelevant and American agribusiness will have eliminated a genuine alternative, and competitor, to industrial food.
We’d be foolish not to see that misrepresenting issues and lowering organic standards is precisely what food-industry marketing is meant to accomplish. And it’s hard to argue with a history of success. After all, the industrial food industry, the one behind the weakening of standards, is the same industry that’s convinced consumers it’s not sugar content but hydration that’s the real question surrounding pop machines in schools. It’s also the industry that continues to insist Count Chocula is part of a balanced breakfast.