The Gold and Garbage of Organic Labels

Related to getting people to act, I address one label that is supposed to inform the public- “organic.”

“Organic” is a term often used in eco-labeling and it has become very popular with companies and consumers. Therefore, it warrants a discussion about its emergence in the food industry. There has been much debate over what is considered “organic;” as a result, the U.S. government has recently stepped in to regulate what can be labeled as such. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) now has national standards for the use of the word “organic.”  Other countries have similar standards.

“Organic,” as a labeling term, is defined as a food or other agricultural product that has been produced through approved methods integrating cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster the cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used. Consumers buying organic products (produced in the United States or abroad) can be assured that the foods are produced without antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, irradiation, or bioengineering. Organic farmers are required to adhere to certain soil and water conservation methods and rules about the humane treatment of animals.

The USDA, for example, now uses private and state agencies to inspect and certify food companies that market organic foods. Small farmers with less than $5,000 in organic sales per year (e.g., those selling at small farmers’ markets) are exempt from the certification process; however, they are still expected to be truthful in their label claims and comply with government standards. Individuals or companies selling or labeling a product as “organic” when they know it does not meet USDA standards can be fined up to $10,000 for each violation.

Currently, organic foods represent a small fraction of overall grocery sales in the United States, but the market is growing steadily. The new regulations are expected to help the organic industry as consumers become more confident in the labeling, and as larger corporations enter the organic foods market. U.S. sales of organic food and beverages (especially fruits and vegetables) has grown from $1 billion in 1990 to $26.7 billion in 2010 and then $over $39 billion in 2015. Yet, organic food and beverage sales represented approximately 4 percent of overall food and beverage production and less than .5% of sales in 2012.

Acreage managed organically in 2009, worldwide, totaled 37.2 million hectares (up 2 million hectares from 2008). Of the total area managed organically, 23 million hectares were grassland as counted in one report with data from 160 countries. Countries with the largest areas of organically managed land were:

The most significant growth in organic agricultural land occurred in Europe, with an increase of one million hectares. Regionally, the greatest share of organic agricultural land is in:

According to Organic Monitor estimates, global organic sales reached $54.9 billion in 2009, up from $50.9 billion in 2008 and continued to grow about 10 percent/year. The countries with the largest markets are the United States, Germany, and France. The highest per-capita consumption is in Denmark, Switzerland, and Austria.

As new regulations are phased in, it is important to keep in mind that the term “organic” does not necessarily mean “healthier.” The USDA makes no claim that organically produced food is safer or more nutritious than conventionally produced food. Consumers will still need to read nutrition labels and make wise selections to maintain an overall healthy diet. Keep in mind that the words “natural” and “organic” are not interchangeable; only “organic” food must meet the new USDA organic standards.


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