Is the USDA Organic Label Going Out of Style?

Is the USDA Organic Label Going Out of Style?

A growing number of farmers are opting out of the USDA organic certification, and the reasons why are eye-opening.

The USDA isn’t managing the label the way it should

The USDA organic label doesn’t look much like what people who lobbied for it in the ’80s and ’90s were hoping for.

“Organic was a very small industry – we called it a movement, back then,” says Mark Kastel, co-founder of the Cornucopia Institute, an organic watchdog group. But the movement gained more traction, and soon, the Organic Foods Production Act was developed. When it was passed in 1990, the Act authorized a National Organic Program, which was to be administered by the USDA.

“I like to remind people of the exquisite irony, that when Congress held hearings on the passage of OFPA, the USDA actually testified against it,” says Kastel. “They said, ‘We don’t want anything to do with organics; we don’t want to regulate it.’”

The USDA wasn’t the only group with reservations concerning the plan: within the organic community, there was worry over “handing over [the] precious word organic,” according to Kastel.

“People said, ‘If you do that, it’ll become corrupted,” he continues. “And maybe they were right.”

Today, Kastel says, the label is “tainted for sure.”

“The people who are really in charge at the USDA are the agribusiness lobbyists,” he says, and most large organic brands are owned by an even larger food corporation. Take Annie’s and Cascadian Farm, for example. Both are owned by General Mills, a parent company that also owns Cheerios, which were found in 2016 to be tainted with Monsanto’s glyphosate, and ultra-processed Hamburger Helper, featuring MSG and artificial colors, two of the top seven most dangerous ingredients in processed food according to Mercola.

“Now that the corporations are involved, if we brought up legislation, it would be much friendlier to industrial farming interests and corporate food companies,” says Kastel.

This is compounded by the fact that much cutting-edge plant science is funded by agrochemical companies.

“Who’s going to fund all these studies that say that growing naturally or without pesticides is better?” says Don Smith, co-founder of Kiss the Ground, a non-profit devoted to soil health. “There’s no money to be made on it, so who’s going to fund it?”

It’s a far cry from the original organic movement made up of what farmer Eliot Coleman calls, “a bunch of old hippies following their dreams.”

“He predicted this, and he’s all pissed off,” says Kastel of Coleman, who purposefully has not sought out the certification.

“The same people who ruin most everything have been working hard to ruin this,” he says, citing the oft-misquoted statement usually attributed to Eric Hoffer, which is nonetheless applicable in this case: “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”

“I’ve been in this game for 50 years, and I know exactly how it should be done and why it should be done and the quality of food that comes out of doing it correctly,” says Coleman. “And it just breaks my heart to see that the USDA has no integrity at all.”

Cost-prohibitive for small farmers

While the big-picture questions of integrity are certainly reason enough, cost may be an even bigger deterrent.

The USDA notes that organic certification can cost anywhere from “a few hundred to several thousand dollars,” but The Balance says that more often than not, the certification costs around $700 for farmers and $1,200 for processors, and that’s not counting the increased expense of actually running an organic farm for the three year transitional period, during which farmers must pay the price of organic feeds, composts, and weedkillers, but cannot charge organic prices. A transitional label, developed by the Organic Trade Association earlier this year to ease some of this financial burden, is currently stalled due to vacancies at the USDA, notably the lack of an administrator for USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service.

And while big organizations can often swing it with or without a certified transitional label, smaller farms have a tougher time, especially when they’re biodiverse.

“Each crop requires reporting,” explains Smith. “It’s not that the certification is that expensive; it’s the time and documentation that is just burdensome for a smaller farmer.”

Davon Goodwin, the farmer behind 60-acre Off the Land Farms in North Carolina, says that cost is definitely “the biggest thing” keeping him from seeking out the USDA organic certification.

It doesn’t do enough for the humane treatment of animals

While the organic certification has some stipulations about the treatment of animals, most experts agree that they don’t go nearly far enough.

In January, for example, a rule passed forcing certified organic farmers to provide at least one square foot of outdoor space for each 2.25 pounds of poultry in their flock. As a point of comparison, the Certified Humane pastured label requires 108 square feet per bird.

Some farms don’t even fulfill the basic requirements outlined by the USDA organic program, such as Aurora Organic Dairy, which made headlines this summer when a Washington Post exposé found that it was keeping all of its 15,000 cows in pens instead of in pasture; organic farming requires that dairy cows graze at least four months out of the year and have mandatory outdoor access yearround.

These lax regulations have led some sustainably-minded companies to opt out of the organic certification in favor of others that better target animal welfare. EPIC Provisions meat-based protein bars, for example, are certified with Global Animal Partnership rather than USDA organic.

“[USDA organic] is really good at regulating what animals are fed, but it’s not good at regulating how those animals are raised,” EPIC co-founder Taylor Collins told Organic Authority.

“It provides an extremely limited and misguided vantage point from which to assess product and process quality,” explains Katie Forrest, EPIC’s other co-founder. “For example, cows can be confined and eat a diet of ‘organic corn and soy’ — which they’re not biologically intended to consume — and still be labeled as ‘organic’ and commended by the labeling system at hand. The current concept of ‘organic’ in no way addresses animal welfare, animal health, land management, and long-term impact on our planet.”

It doesn’t do enough for the soil

The USDA organic label was created with soil regeneration in mind, but in its current iteration, it doesn’t do nearly enough to protect this rapidly depleting natural resource.

Healthy, biodiverse soil is home to a host of bugs, bacteria, and fungi. But pesticides, herbicides, and antibiotics create imbalances in the soil, and monocultures seep nutrients from it and give nothing back. While USDA organic does prohibit antibiotics and synthetic weedkillers like glyphosate, the program doesn’t do much to encourage farmers to build healthy soil.

“We were after a soil fertility that was self-maintaining and wasn’t wearing out the planet,” says Coleman, noting that this is a far cry from the reality.

“They’re trying to allow hydroponics, and that’s just ridiculous,” he says. “That has nothing to do with what organic farming has always meant.”

“There is a dilution,” explains Ryland Engelhart, co-founder of the soil-focused non-profit Kiss the Ground, “Based on more and more people’s interests and how to monetize organic, scale it really big, and make it mechanical and not ecological. The organic standard has turned more into just a list of what you can’t use, as opposed to practices and philosophies to use to make a resilient environmental, ecological soil health system.”

Not having a certification encourages people to ask questions

Many of the folks opting out of USDA organic are doing so because they think that there’s something better out there: not a label, per se, but a return to a more old-fashioned way of knowing about the quality of your food.

“The old saying was that the only way to be sure was to know the first name of the farmer,” says Coleman.

Janelle Maiocco, founder of Barn2Door, a vertical SaaS platform connecting farmers to chefs, agrees. She says that while she’s glad for the “baseline standards of organic practices,” there are “hundreds of thousands of farms that employ farming practices well above and beyond the baseline requirements of organic certification.”

“At Barn2Door we work with countless ‘non-organic certified’ farms who apply sustainable, regenerative farming practices, value heirloom seeds and heritage breeds, actively work to increase biodiversity, employ high-welfare living conditions for animals, and strive to make their farm ecosystem as healthy as possible,” she says.

Smith notes that small farmers like these often find that once they’ve established reputations and rapport with local farmers markets or CSAs, “they just opt out of certification, because they’re going to keep farming this way, but it’s just not worth the cost and the time and the paperwork, and all the hoops you have to jump through to say that it’s organic.”

He notes that many such farmers have open-door policies to allow people to come explore their farms.

“A lot of these smaller farmers, in order to build their client base, are bragging about their practices. ‘Come look at our soil! Check out our compost!’” he says. “And you can ‘t do that if you’re out there spraying chemicals that are known to be toxic.”

Goodwin invites people to come pick their own grapes on his farm, which he has dubbed “kind of past organic.” He welcomes questions about his practices and seeks to use his lack of certification as a sounding board to educate people about what USDA organic means and, more importantly, what it doesn’t: he notes that many people don’t realize that the USDA organic label allows farmers to spray certain herbicides, for example.

“People are just misled by labels,” he says. “I tell people, ‘You can come to the farm; you can see what we do.’”

Despite this movement away from the label, however, one thing is clear: there’s no doubt in the minds of any of our experts that USDA organic is the way to go, for now.

“Organic farming is the intelligent way to raise crops,” says Coleman. “But at the moment, it is being scammed because the USDA was the wrong organization to put in charge.”

Smith agrees. “With all the flaws with our national organics program, it’s still better than anything else out there,” he says.

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Emily Monaco

Emily Monaco is an American food and culture writer based in Paris. She loves uncovering the stories behind ingredients and exposing the face of our food system, so that consumers can make educated choices. Her work has been published in the Wall Street Journal, Vice Munchies, and Serious Eats.