USDA’s arbitrary rules about what is permitted for the “organic” designation prohibit important advances in agriculture and food production, and they unnecessarily restrict consumer choice. That could be remedied by expanding what is permitted under the federal National Organic Standards, and this would be an opportune time.
The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 required USDA to develop national standards for the production of “organic foods” because of consumer demand for food that was supposedly more healthful and produced with more sustainable farming methods than traditional farming. However, the standards actually adopted do not improve food safety, quality, or nutrition – nor were they intended to. When the final National Organic Standards were issued in 2000, 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.”
Another Secretary of Agriculture, John Block, added in 2014, “Yet USDA’s own research shows consumers buy higher priced organic products because they mistakenly believe them safer and more nutritious.”
Organic agriculture has burgeoned. According to the Organic Trade Association, sales in the U.S. from domestic and international sources totaled some $47 billion in 2016, an increase of almost $3.7 billion from the previous year. About 56 percent was for crops, and the remaining 44 percent was for livestock, poultry, and related products.
Innovation to improve safety, quality, or nutrition of organic products has faltered. In fact, various studies have raised concerns about a lowering of organic foods’ safety, quality and nutrition, and about the burdens of organic production on the environment, especially its excessive use of water and arable land. Moreover, typically organic crop yields are lower and their retail prices significantly higher.
Meanwhile, innovation in the organic sector has not benefited from three decades of escalating use of precise molecular techniques for the genetic improvement of food crops and food processing. This genetic engineering – primarily of commodity crops but increasingly of some specialty crops – has contributed to more efficient, sustainable food production, and also to the introduction of traits appealing to consumers. Read more