More Than Words

One of the fastest growing segments of the specialty foods industry has been natural foods. Yet those active in the natural foods industry have long decried the bastardization that the words “natural foods” have gone through. Purists decry that the words have come to mean anything anyone wishes to postulate – which, of course, means the words mean nothing to the consumer. At best, the words have developed into some kind of feel-good marketing pseudo words implying, but not assuring, some connection with being wholesome and good.

In no small part out of their frustration with the way the word “natural” came to have no substantive meaning, natural food stalwarts vowed to make sure the word “organic” would, in fact, have substantive meaning.

For many years this was a de Tocquevillesque movement as proponents of organic agriculture worked diligently to give meaning to the word organic via a series of mostly voluntary certification organizations. In time, legislation was passed in some states regulating what could be marketed as organic. On this sort of grassroots basis, an industry was born working out all kinds of difficult questions: If land is converted to organic agriculture from conventional techniques, how long does it take before it can be marketed as organic? What is it called in the meantime? Many more questions were gradually resolved.

Yet the local hodgepodge of laws, regulations, and certifying bodies was almost bound to cause consumer confusion. Even many in the trade would have a lot of difficulty defining the differences between organic food regulations of different certifying bodies. So, in the fullness of time, the organic community petitioned for federal regulation.

The very fact that I can reference an organic “community” shows that the organic industry is different. It is that difference which is at the crux of the current disputes over federal law regulating organic agricultural practices and the marketing of product as organic.

In 1990, in a stunning display of political heft, the organic community was able to see passed the Organic Foods Production Act, a small political miracle of a bill that was passed on the house floor over the objections of the House Agricultural Committee. The agriculture committee, with its roots strongly in conventional agriculture, had little desire to fan the growth of organic agriculture. But an unusual coalition of organic farmers, ecology advocates, local health food stores and more worked with Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy to circumvent the traditional agriculture powers and pass the act.

This act called for the promulgation of national organic standards, and to bring that about, called for the holding of public hearings and the creation of the National Organic Standards Board to advise the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) as to what these standards should be. This board was composed of a variety of people with interests in this area – retailers, distributors, producers, scientists, etc. After years of diligent work, the board proposed a rule to the USDA.

The current controversy comes about because the USDA has now issued a proposed rule that differs from the proposals of the National Organic Standards Board. To be more precise, the proposed rule is almost a discussion document. In fact, in 41 places the draft asks for input. Despite what you may have the read, the USDA’s document does not say that product can be called organic if it is genetically engineered, raised on farms fertilized with municipal sewage sludge and then irradiated. In fact, the document asks for input on how all these practices might integrate, or not integrate, with organic agriculture.

The biggest quandary, though, is that those who consider themselves part of the organic community are truly passionate. It is common to hear community members speak of themselves in almost religious terms. That organic agriculture is a “lifestyle and total commitment” is a popular phrase. The notion that organic is something evolving and that it is less a standard than a system is also a common explanation.

The problem is twofold: First, government really is not very good at regulating systems. Most regulations are really intended to establish verifiable outcomes. An inspector can look at an apple and determine if it is Extra Fancy or Fancy without knowing anything about how it was grown.

The second problem is that, although reducing consumer confusion may be a valid governmental purpose, many would question whether the use of governmental regulation to simply codify and enforce a particular set of preferences is really desirable.

When one studies the organic industry, one learns that much of what the organic industry wants to restrict has nothing to do with a layman’s or even a scientist’s definition of “organic” substances. For example, there is a big dispute in organic circles about the use of Chilean nitrate as a fertilizer. European organic standard-bearers don’t like it at all, but in the proposals of the Natural Organic Standards Board, it was allowed but under special circumstances in which it would only account for 20 percent of a given farmer’s nitrogen budget and so forth. The shocking thing about these rules and this controversy is that, incontestably, Chilean nitrate is organic. Go to the right part of Chile, dig down deep, and there it is. It is as organic as a substance can be.

Now there may be a lot of reasons to oppose the use of Chilean nitrate, and many other substances – maybe they are not good for the soil or other, better substances are available. I don’t doubt that the people going to the mat against Chilean nitrate have their reasons. Yet, it strikes me that these reasons are a step away from helping consumers clarify if something is truly organic or not.

The organic community would like to empower a bureaucracy to perpetually monitor and change these regulations. Yet, if the bureaucracy cannot be given a clear charge – distinguish if Chilean nitrate is organic or not – but instead is given a kind of amorphous charge to determine what is good for the earth, I think the organic community will rue the day it wins this battle.

Inevitably, this type of bureaucracy discretion will be exercised on behalf of the politically influential. The organic community is not, in the long term, likely to beat out continuously other power sources for influence in government.

If the organic community wants to promote a way of life, it needs to trademark a name and a symbol and only grant it to those who abide by its precepts. The community needs to promote the symbol so that those consumers who value that way of life will understand the symbol’s meaning and will choose to patronize those who market products under this trademark.

Government regulation should be made as clear cut as possible so that bureaucratic discretion and political influence play a minimal role in the organic trade. Otherwise, today’s sweet victory will be embittered when that discretion and influence turns away from its founding impulse and, eventually, organic becomes as distorted a term as natural foods. This would be a shame because the clientele for a rapidly growing part of the specialty foods industry will wind up deeply disillusioned, and those who want to be part of an “organic community” will find its leadership usurped.