For most consumers of organic food, the “USDA Organic” seal is a familiar sight. This emblem, printed on the packaging of whole and processed food items, informs many shoppers’ buying decisions and has contributed to the rapid growth of the organic food industry in the United States over the last decade. In theory, the seal indicates a food item is certified organic, meeting a set of standards that guarantees it is free of pesticide, sewage sludge and chemical fertilizers, among other stipulations.
So it seems likely that with such stipulations in place, someone or something verifies that the food is meeting the standards—right?
Probably not a safe bet, as recent studies have indicated. Last spring, a report published by the Inspector General of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) revealed problems with many aspects of the nation’s organic program, including the lack of residue-testing (also called field- or spot-testing) for pesticide or chemical fertilizer residue on certified organic products. The USDA administers the National Organic Program (NOP), which sets the standards for organic food production and certifies growers and their products as organic. In revealing its own shortcomings, the agency confirmed doubts that many critics of the program have had for years.
“People are distrustful of USDA organic, which can even contain a certain amount of non-organic products, because there are so many loopholes in the program,” Dr. Gregory Tomso recently explained.
Tomso, a professor in the University of West Florida English Department, is currently teaching an Honors seminar titled “Politics of Food,” which examines numerous issues related to organic and local food production. Among the topics addressed in the course is the fact that organic is indeed an industry, earning billions of dollars annually (an estimated $1.2 billion in 2007), primarily for large-scale food producers.
The increasingly expansive scale of organic food production contributes to the difficulties of monitoring the industry. While the initial certification process is set, and relatively straightforward, ensuring that producers and processors comply with the federal standards is an ongoing process. Periodic residue testing and annual onsite inspections of organic farms and processing facilities are requirements of the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act, which also established the NOP. Though the federal government has had the NOP in place for over 20 years, lack of funding resulting in lax regulatory oversight has been a constant challenge.
Until recently, that is. The Obama Administration, making good on a campaign promise to support organic agriculture, increased the NOP’s budget to $6.9 million in 2010, up from $3.9 million in 2009. Due to increased funding for the NOP, the program is more able to act in response to the audit findings, and is committed to making improvements in the program. Last spring, the NOP announced it would begin implementing field-testing regulations to confirm that USDA certified organic products were indeed free of synthetic chemical residue.
As well-known advocates of organic and sustainable farming, President and Mrs. Obama most famously drew attention to the issue when, in 2009, the First Lady organized the planting of a vegetable garden on the White House lawn. The efforts of the Obamas reflect a growing national concern about how our food is produced. In many communities, the importance of the certified organic label is taking a backseat to that of locally-produced food, grown with the methods of pre-World War II generations (the original organic, if you will).
Natalie Treadway of Port City Farmer’s Market has observed that typically there are two types of shoppers drawn to organic products: those “who want to do what’s right for the environment…and those who buy organic because that’s what they grew up with—a generation with memories of gardening.” More and more, the former group is implementing food production methods of the latter, creating an alternative to the existing certified organic option.
With questions regarding the integrity of the organic industry ever present (including concerns about the amount of fuel required to transport organic food products across the country, and sometimes the globe), the focus on local, sustainable food production, much like the refining of the NOP, is intensifying.
But outside of buying certified organic, are there other ways for consumers to know how their food is grown? As Sarah Bossa of Manna School Gardens puts it, the answer is simple: “Know your farmer.”
Bossa, who works to promote community and school gardening efforts in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties, stated that for many, “Organic is a word, a set of regulations. Knowing your farmer, going to the farm, looking around and seeing that there is nothing there you wouldn’t eat,” is the best way to quash doubts about the purity of the food you are purchasing.
It should be acknowledged, of course, that simply because residue testing wasn’t carried out in the past doesn’t mean producers and processors were not adhering to the standards. The federal organic standards exist, however, to prevent food items from intentional and unintentional exposure to synthetic chemicals alike; that’s what the certification (and the corresponding retail price) protects against.
Fortunately for consumers, the National Organic Program is improving the residue-testing program. Early this month, the NOP published new instruction documents outlining practices for pesticide residue testing on organic agricultural products. How frequently and stringently the testing will be practiced remains to be seen.
For consumers committed to reducing the amount of chemicals in America’s food supply, buying organic, whether produced locally or elsewhere, remains a worthwhile investment, if for no other reason than to express their desire for an alternative means of food production. With continued funding for the NOP, consumers may actually know they’re getting what the USDA certification promises.
For additional information on local community gardening initiatives, check out Community Gardening Day on Saturday, March 12 at Bayview Community Center, 2000 E. Lloyd St. The program, which runs from 10 a.m.-4 p.m., will feature speakers from the Atlanta Urban Gardening Program and the American Community Gardening Association, as well as workshops with local leaders and experts. The registration fee is $5 for students and $8 for adults, and a lunch prepared with local ingredients is included. For more information or to register, contact Manna Food Gardens at 432-2053.