As a veteran of over 25 years in the natural and organic products industry, I have always been disappointed that the use of the word "natural" in marketing has never been regulated by the federal government. Through the efforts of a task force called the International Association of Natural Products Producers led by yours truly in the early 2000's, the industry now has a self-regulatory seal for products that meet the requirements of what constitutes a natural product. Unfortunately, relatively few marketers have opted to use the seal, but that hasn't stopped the industry from remarkable growth over the past four decades.
In spite of the lack of standardization among natural products, I have always taken solace in the Certified Organic program run by the USDA because it is defined and regulated. And while "organic" is still a relatively small subset of the vastly larger "natural" products industry, it is a very large and rather lucrative sector. Yet, in the 25 years since Congress passed the law establishing the organic category on a federal level and legitimizing it in the process, many questions have emerged which, when taken as a group, have ethical implications and concern me greatly. Here are some of them:
*Genetically-Modified Organisms (GMO's) are not allowed in Certified Organic products and the European Union has historically banned their use (although this might be changing). But hundreds of studies conducted over the past two decades have found that GMO's are safe for consumption increase crop yields, have been responsible for lifting billions out of potential starvation, and have vastly reduced the need for pesticides in agriculture. The use of what can now only be regarded as scare tactics regarding GMO's (see "frankenfoods") which have been used by many players in the organic industry, is rather disturbing.
*Also two dozen synthetic pesticides are permitted in Certified Organic products suggesting strongly that purely organic practices allow far too many crops to get infested by insects. This lowers yield and increases the need to devote more land for cultivation instead of leaving it in its natural state or converting it to a more productive use.
*Organic agriculture tends to result in lower yields overall which again increases the need to devote more land for cultivation.
*A recent study found that almost half fruits and vegetables sporting the USDA Certified Organic seal contained residues of prohibited insecticides.
*Despite well over 200 studies, there is still no evidence that a Certified Organic product is any healthier or more nutritious than a natural one, or is any less likely to contain bacteria than a non-organic product.
*A study conducted a few years ago found that over half of the food served in restaurants marketed as Certified Organic was not Certified Organic. And the smaller the cafe, the more likely it was to under-deliver.
*The cost of compliance along with the overall lack of scale inherent in organics makes the costs and therefore the retail prices far higher than mainstream offerings which prohibits most lower income consumers from buying.
*Larger operators have more difficulty complying with these regulations (such as giving cows enough access to pasture) that most organic afficianados will tell you were meant for small operators. Some small producers have sued larger ones as a result.
Indeed, National Organic Program practices like crop rotation and drip irrigation, both very important components of sustainable agriculture, are now quite common among mainstream producers. And an increasing number of mainstream companies are offering cage-free chicken products (McDonald's) and removing antibiotics (Tyson) than ever before, which is great news for everyone, but nevertheless erodes the competitive advantage of an organic brand. Indeed lots of products marketed as "natural" also comply with most of what is outlined in the National Organic Program requirements.
As the Organic law was being enacted in the early 90's, Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said, "Let me be clear about one thing. The organic label is a marketing tool. It is not a statement about food safety, nor is organic a value judgment about nutrition or quality". Decades later, numerous studies have validated this rather prescient statement, but that hasn't stopped marketers from making claims that boost the profile of organic products at the expense of non-organic products. The legal exaggeration allowed in "marketing puffery" is one thing. But false and misleading marketing is quite another.
Clearly the intentions of the law and of the vast majority of organic producers and marketers are benevolent. But to skeptics it looks a lot like the organic consumer is paying up to twice as much for a product that might not be healthier or better for the environment than non-organic offerings. Non-organic products do include the tens of thousands of products marketed as natural (a much, much larger category), which are generally free of artificial flavors, colors, and preservatives. For millions of consumers, natural products have been quite good enough. Perhaps it's time for regulators to review these organic assertions that so many of us have been taking as fact.
Discussion: Are you skeptical about organic products? Why or why not? Do you think regulators need to take another look at the organic regulations in the National Organic Program (NOP)?
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