It’s taken us just under twenty years for the American consumer, maybe the global consumer, to start to turn its back on organic labeling. More and more, people are questioning products and food that are branded, advertised or certified organic.
That’s amazing when you consider that sales of organic products in the U.S. has risen from $13.2 billion in 2005 to over $53 billion in 2018. The marketing and message of all things organic has been pushed and pushed to new heights as the organic consumer and converts to organic, worry about health, food safety and the environment.
“The organic food market will see a steadier pace of growth as it matures, but it will continue to surpass the growth rate of the broader food market," said Laura Batcha, chief executive officer and executive director of the Washington-based Organic Trade Association. “Demand for organic is flourishing as consumers seek out nutritious and clean food that is good for their health and for the environment. That demand is driving innovation, and there are now so many organic options that we can all eat organic for breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks and everything in between.” - Food Business News 2018
This is what happens when a market that started out with great intentions begins to get too big for its britches. We start labeling and manufacturing everything under the sun as organic. Not only can you buy fruits and vegetables that are labeled as organic in every grocery store across the country now, but you can also buy toys, soap, fertilizer, pesticide, clothing, make-up, even organic vodka that comes in a really cool blue globe for forty bucks a liter.
As I wrote in the BIG Food blog in August of 2019, all of these sales are really a drop in the bucket compared to conventional food, clothing, make-up, baby toys, pet food and alcohol. It’s not even close, not even a race. Total organic sales are less than 8 percent of everything that can be sold as organic, when compared to it’s non-organic and traditional competitor.
If that’s the case why is there so much suspicion around organics?
It starts with the bottom line - the standards. Organic labeling is the ONLY type of standard in the world that has a multi-layered approach to what is and what is NOT organic. If you hop onto the USDA AMS (Agricultural Marketing Service) Page and look at their piece on Organic Labeling Standards, you will see the four categories of labeling that products can have based on the “composition” - “100 percent organic,” “Organic,” “Made with Organic” and “Specific Ingredient Listings.”
Having multiples of organic standards makes it impossible, from a consumer's perspective, to understand what they are buying. It allows the doors of “greenwashing,” advertising and marketing in a way that appears to be good, honest and clean, but that is really just a manipulation of public trust.
Look again at those organic categories, do you understand them?
The first two can use the USDA organic label, the other two cannot. But, the “Made with Organic” may state right on the front of their package that they are made with organic “whatever” which is confusing for the consumer. It’s the reason that someone can buy “organic” Oreos, real-life Nabisco Oreos and think that what they are getting is a “health” food, or at least the health-food option of Oreos.
This ridiculous example is precisely what has made consumers of organics over the past couple of years start to question the label and ask themselves, “Is it really organic?”
The ridiculousness doesn’t stop there. If we want to dive deeper into the sea of organic, we will learn that a farmer can use chicken manure from a conventional chicken farm as a fertilizer on their organic crops. Say what?! There are limitations by the USDA on when and how manures can be used on organic farms, but the fact is that conventional AG waste can be used, and is used all of the time on organic farms. This is a really dubious practice.
I have done my own personal and informal survey of thousands of gardeners who have attended my organic gardening classes, lectures and workshops. I ask every one of them if they understand the term organic and what it means for a product to be labeled “organic.” Ninety-nine-point-nine percent (99.9%) all shake their heads with a resounding “NO.” This is a big problem that I don’t see being addressed in the marketplace or by the powers that be.
New questioning about what is and what is not organic started popping up about two or three years ago when GMOs became a popular news item during the last election cycle. California was demanding mandatory GMO labeling of products, and several counties across the country were seeking to ban the growing of GMO crops. The gardeners in my classes started asking me if there were GMOs in the plants and seeds at the nurseries? Oftentimes, this was being asked of me at a nursery in front of the nursery owners and staff.
I tell my classes that the seeds and plants that they are buying are not from GMO seed, so in theory, they are not buying any GMO products at the nursery. I also tell them that many of the items that they are buying from the nursery most likely have residues in them that are the byproduct from farmers growing GMO crops and selling their AG waste into the lawn and garden industry. I always tell people that this byproduct gets into their gardens.
This is always a disturbing moment during class and one that I feel has to be addressed. This GMO issue is becoming the ten thousand pound gorilla in the room. It is now becoming the threshold for measuring organic products as true organic.
I always explain that GMO crops are sprayed with the broad spectrum herbicide glyphosate because they are “Round Up Ready” crops. The crops that animals eat on conventional farms - corn, soy and alfalfa - are sprayed with the herbicide to kill weeds, while leaving the crop "safe" through genetic engineering and modification. The herbicide gets onto the leaf structure of the plants, as well as into the soft tissue of the plant, during the uptake of nutrient from the soil. This is why I do not recommend using bone meal, blood meal or feather meal in the garden or grow.
My position goes one hundred percent (100%) against the conventional wisdom, or lack thereof, of conventional farming, gardening and growing for decades. I believe that to ignore this fact any longer is to accept a lie that will do harm to all of us through our food, water and environment. It’s wrong for us to continue to perpetuate this myth any longer.
Now, because of all of this, there is a new issue looming on the horizon. Consumers are clamoring for Non-GMO certified products.
This is interesting because all certified organic products are supposed to be Non-GMO, or GMO-free. This means in theory that no organic product is allowed to have genetically modified organisms in it. This claim doesn’t really seem possible when you have conventional AG waste being used to fertilize organic growing. Without running genetic testing of products, it’s pretty much an impossibility. The testing is available. We’ve done it at Malibu Compost and on our products for years. It’s one of the ways that we get to show our customers that we are serious about our commitment to them, the environment, soil health and food safety. It also lets us sleep better at night.
Now that Non-GMO and GMO-free are hot buttons, a new issue has cropped up. We now have all sorts of certifiers who allow you to “logo” your product as to not having GMOs in it. This is making a confusing situation around the organic label even more confusing. When consumers look at packaging on the shelves in their 6 second decision-making process, now they have to ask themselves if the orange butterfly on the NON GMO Verified Project is better than the green butterfly of CERTIFIED NON-GE from A Greener World? Or, is the brightly colored ProTerra tree with a human holding up its leaves the real Non-GMO because it’s supposed to be Sustainability Non-GMO? Even the USDA has jumped into this mess with USDA PROCESS VERIFIED and its red, white and blue shield to allegedly help consumers distinguish products that claim to be non-GMO. To me this looks like nothing more than another big mess!
Come on people! We now have Non-GMO labeling on everything from Himalayan salt, to butter spread, baby formula, soda, water, candy, sushi and even soil mixes that have nothing in them that could possibly make them a GMO soil! This is ridiculous! It’s green-washing, phone-baloney, hooey!
The way I see it - It’s just another money grab of your hard-earned cash that is going to further bastardize organic labeling and the good intent with which it was created.
© Randy Ritchie 2019