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Of Organics Big, Small & Indifferent

July 11, 2012

Apparently last night was the All-Star game. Presumably this morning people will talk about it over the water cooler. I read that Pablo Sandoval hit a triple from one of Justin Verlander’s pitches at the beginning of the game. But that statement means nothing to me. I wouldn’t know either of these two gentlemen even if they were wearing their jerseys with their names on the back.

In my social circle people are talking about the New York Times story from this past weekend about the weakening of the national organic standards.

Hopefully little of this should have been news to those of you daily readers with keen memories. The NY Times story focuses on a couple of key groups. One is Eden Foods and the other is the Cornucopia Institute. Back in May I linked to an opinion piece from Eden Foods about the eroding organic standards. Their CEO has had issues with the Organic Trade Association for a long time.

And way back in 2010 I mentioned how unhappy the Cornucopia Institute was when they discovered “the dirty little secret of the natural foods business.” This of course referred to hexane-extracted soy protein, which could be used in products labeled “Made from organic soybeans.”

These two groups and the NY Times would have you believe that Big Organic is bad. That the governing bodies are in the pocket of Big Ag and allow for far too many dilutions to the organic standards. While I see their point, I think this is a gross oversimplification of the story. There is an upside to Big Organic. There’s an upside to small organic.

In the end, organic is just a label. It’s more important what farmers, processors, and manufacturers do (or don’t do) with the food they produce than what they call it.

Let’s not forget that this New York Times article is a hefty piece of brand marketing for Eden Foods. It is. Public posturing is a big part of marketing. The statement that is being made quite clearly is, “We are more organic than you are.” And believe me, that message is going to have a profound effect on segments of the natural food buying crowd. My expectation is that this exposure will have a positive effect on Eden’s bottom line this quarter.

But let’s for a moment assume it’s not marketing.

From the sound of it, the National Organic Standards Board is letting just about anything through. I mean, if they approve DHA and carrageenan for use in organic products, they must not care at all about maintaining the integrity of movement. Except this makes no sense, and I know there are things they still don’t allow.

These Big Ag giants have invested a lot of money into organic food companies. They did that to cover their bets and to profit off this segment of the market. It was a smart thing to do, and they would be wise to protect their investment.

Are you curious about what is not approved for organic food production? Well for starters, BioTelo biodegradable “plastic” mulch. I know this because Roxbury Farm just recently detailed their organic pesticide usage in a newsletter to shareholders, and it was fascinating. Here’s a blurb about their use of this “plastic” mulch:

We use [it] to grow peppers, eggplant, onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, summer squash, zucchini, winter squash, and early brassicas like cabbage and  broccoli. Certified organic growers have to use regular plastic mulch that they dig up in the fall and throw away.  The BioTelo warms the soil for these heat loving plants and keeps the moisture in the soil near the plants because we use drip irrigation lines under the mulch.  After the crop has been harvested the BioTelo is plowed into the soil to break down.  BioTelo is made of corn starch from non-GMO sources and breaks down into CO2 and water once it is buried in the soil.  BioTelo is certified organic in Canada and Europe.

Apparently it’s just some kind of glitch in the system that BioTelo is not yet allowed for organic production in the U.S. But my point here is that it’s not the Wild West out there. The National Organic Standards Board is a big old bureaucracy. And it is maddening. Do you want to take a peek at some of the things that are approved for use in organic food?

You can check all of them out here. For now let’s look at what’s allowed in organic food processing, as it’s a much shorter list. And let me call your attention to potassium hydroxide, which carries the following disclaimer: “If used for lye peeling of fruits or vegetables, may only be used for peeling peaches during the Individually Quick Frozen (IQF) production process.”

Lye peeling?!?!

It’s not that I object to lye in food. It cures green olives, is used in hard pretzels, and helps to form Japanese ramen. But using it to peel fruit and then labeling it organic? It doesn’t seem to pass the sniff test. For the record, it has also been recommended for use with organic canned peaches as well.

Although the bottom line here is that if you don’t want your organic food to be processed, you probably shouldn’t be eating processed organic food. Seriously, how else is a giant factory going to peel all those peaches? When you stop to think about it, this makes total sense.

The point here is that bureaucracies breed shenanigans. But Big Organic isn’t evil. Yes, it may not be as pure as the organic food was 20 years ago. However think about this. Without Big Organic, how many more tons of synthetic pesticides would have run off into our watershed? How much more widely would GMO crops have spread, if there weren’t organic non-GMO alternatives? How many communities outside of urban centers would have access to cleaner organic food?

Clearly, it’s not perfect. There are problems. Some of them are big. And the people who are defining what it means to be organic now are different from the people who tried to define it at the beginning.

So now in response we have a focus on local and seasonal foods. We have biodynamic farms. Growers will cite that they are using “organic practices.” But organic isn’t the panacea. Consumers need to stay vigilant and pay attention to the ingredients in all products, including the organic ones. Less processed foods are better. And it pays to find some farmers you trust.

And if they make clean food without GMOs and limited use of non-synthetic pesticides, it doesn’t matter what they call it.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 11, 2012 10:51 am

    Word. Processed crap is still processed crap, “organic” or not.

  2. Matt permalink
    December 5, 2012 6:57 pm

    The reason BioTelo is not certified organic is that it is NOT just cornstarch. The starches are converted to a synthetic product and mixed with a plasticizer (makes the mixture the right consistency to stretch into thing sheets). It is the plasticizer that does not break down.

    Several different components can be used for the plasticizer. Glycerin is the preferred substance due to it’s full biodegradeabilty. Glycerin though is hard to maintain with a constant consistency. It also costs more.

    When the existing formulation of Biotelo breaks down the “starches” will be converted to CO2 and Water, but the plasticizer will remain. It does not breakdown. It is in small amounts, but it will still be there.

    A recent review of Biodegradeable mulches by the National Organic Standards Board has found that some of the mulches have not even broken down by 90% after 18 months. They are recommending that these types of mulches NOT be approved for Organic production in the USA due to their incomplete degredation testing in actual farm fields. All testing was done in labs simulating best case scenerios.

    I can confirm what they have seen. I jumped in and have used 13,000 feet of BioTelo over the last two years. Biotelo that was disced and plowed into the soil in the fall of 2011 still remained mostly the same in the spring and summer of 2012. I am a little concerned about how long full degredation will take. It is a little disconcerting to have small pieces of BioTelo on the surface blowing around the year after being laid.

    I have a hard decision to make for the 2013 growing season. Do I use more BioTelo, switch back to polyethelene mulches or go strictly organic with straw type mulches? I personally would prefer only straw based mulches as I KNOW they will degrade, but I will loose the acclerated growth I get get with the black mulches.

    Read more about it in the recent submission of BioTelo for organic certification (Starts a few pages down):

    http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/CFS-NOSB-Comments-24-Sept-2012.pdf

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