Business Review Board / May 4, 2017

About That Sustainable Organic Food…

Is organic food the best thing since sliced bread, or is it overpriced sophistry? Depends on who you ask.

Over the years, food fads have come and gone — this diet comes in, then that cancer-causing food goes out, only later to come back in because the science wasn’t settled. Many consumers are constantly looking for that new-and-improved way to health and weight loss. Organic food may well be one of those fads. At its essence, organic is a rejection of — or at least an effort to minimize — the impact of industrialization and corporate farming and to return to the days of yore when things were done more naturally. But it costs a heck of a lot more to produce far less, which raises an obvious question: Is it worth it?

That depends on who you ask. Some consumers swear by organic food while taking comfort in its supposed “sustainability.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture gives its seal of approval (literally) to all kinds of organic food, and has numerous and rigorous regulations for what it takes to earn that seal. But others see sophistry, a marketing gimmick and a needless limiting of food supplies.

The Washington Post conducted an investigation of one organic dairy farm in Colorado, leading to some interesting findings. (Let’s stop here to offer the caveat that the Post doesn’t have the final say or the best track record.) Here are some simple facts they recount:

“The ‘USDA Organic’ seal that appears on food packaging — essentially a USDA guarantee of quality — was created by federal rules in 2000.”

“Organic food sales rose from about $6 billion annually in 2000 to $40 billion in 2015, according to the Organic Trade Association.”

“In the case of milk, consumers pay extra — often double — when the carton says ‘USDA Organic,’ in the belief they are getting something different. Organic dairy sales amounted to $6 billion last year in the United States.”

Is the milk worth double the price simply because the government says so? Perhaps not if the Post’s investigation is to be believed. The farm in question didn’t appear to live up to the USDA requirements, and inspectors — which the USDA allows farms to hire independently — weren’t really in a position to determine otherwise. “About half of the organic milk sold in the U.S. is coming from very large factory farms that have no intention of living up to organic principles,” said Mark Kastel of the Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit group representing thousands of organic farmers. “Thousands of small organic farmers across the United States depend on the USDA organic system working. Unfortunately, right now, it’s not working for small farmers or for consumers.”

We tend to conclude that organic food is overrated and overpriced, because that’s what happens when government puts its thumb on the scales. The benefit of modern farming is to feed more people for less money, while organic food feeds fewer people for more money. Is organic bad then? No, though perhaps the proper phrase is “caveat emptor.”

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