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As Organic Produce Grows Beyond Local And National Borders, Will Government Step In To Set Definitions And Change Certifications?

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, January 4, 2012

Elisabeth Rosenthal over at The New York Times recently wrote a piece titled, Organic Agriculture May Be Outgrowing Its Ideals. Nothing in the piece is new to industry members, but it is interesting, partly because it raises the question of what, precisely, the role of government ought to be in defining standards that presumably are supposed to help consumers make purchasing decisions.

The piece focuses on the fact — shocking — that a producer can be organic and yet not meet various standards some might wish had been set for water usage, small scale, sustainable, etc. In fact, horror of horrors, some organic produce is grown utilizing “intensive irrigation”:

Clamshell containers on supermarket shelves in the United States may depict verdant fields, tangles of vines and ruby red tomatoes. But at this time of year, the tomatoes, peppers and basil certified as organic by the Agriculture Department often hail from the Mexican desert, and are nurtured with intensive irrigation.

Growers here on the Baja Peninsula, the epicenter of Mexico’s thriving new organic export sector, describe their toil amid the cactuses as “planting the beach.”

Del Cabo Cooperative, a supplier here for Trader Joe’s and Fairway, is sending more than seven and a half tons of tomatoes and basil every day to the United States by truck and plane to sate the American demand for organic produce year-round.

But even as more Americans buy foods with the organic label, the products are increasingly removed from the traditional organic ideal: produce that is not only free of chemicals and pesticides but also grown locally on small farms in a way that protects the environment.

The author makes no distinction between an inclination and a policy. Wanting to help the environment may be fine, but how is that best accomplished? We could write a treatise the thesis of which would be that the use of “intensive irrigation” and other advanced techniques helps save the environment by increasing yields and thus reducing the number of acres that need to be devoted to agriculture.

The great unspoken point here is that, of course, this is a free country. Anyone can set up any set of standards they choose, get a trademark and then only allow producers who meet these standards to use the trademark. Then consumers could buy only organically grown produce, raised on bio-diverse farms, watered only by raindrops, that consist of less than two acres each that a shaman visits once a year and does a moon dance around.

The issue here is the use of the power of government to set a definition.

New York state has had some issues in regard to Kosher foods. We have pre-existing laws against fraud, so anyone can bring a civil suit alleging they were sold Kosher food that was not so, and a court, in the fullness of the evidence, can make a ruling.  But when New York State has tried to define Kosher legislatively, it has run into religious freedom issues. Why can’t the Reform Movement define Kosher its way and the Orthodox another way?

We ran a piece on the Pundit that dealt with how some Jewish groups felt that the Kosher standards ought to include ethical requirements, but facing resistance they decided to create a separate certification. You can read the piece here.

We read The New York Times article and think that those who care about these issues ought to think in the same direction, not so much changing organic standards but creating some supplemental certification.

Organic certification doesn’t raise religious freedom issues, but it is not entirely clear that the current organic rules reflect much more than subjective preferences. For example, genetically modified items can’t get organic certification, irradiation can’t be used, etc. These have nothing particularly to do with things being “organic” or not — they are just marketing choices.

In time the organic community may find that having the government be involved in organic standards is a kind of deal with the devil. It means that either organic will be an unimportant niche product, in which case advocates can make whatever rules they want and no one will care, or organic will be a large and important industry, in which case there will be large and important players and the rules will facilitate production on a scale capable of feeding lots of people.

We wrestled with this issue five years ago in a column in Pundit sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS titled Organics Redux. Note the opening contrast between two statements, one from Joan Dye Gussow from Columbia University, and one from Eugene Kahn of Cascadian Farm. It really tells the whole story. 

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