Over the last decade, the organic food industry has exploded. It’s now valued at about $40 billion dollars a year. Since the USDA started tracking organic operations in 2002, the number of certified organic companies has increased 300 percent.
On the surface, that would seem like good news. More organics are better for the earth and the people who live here. But exponential growth in any industry has a downside. Especially when it comes without regulation, as the organics industry (largely) has. Unfortunately, some companies have capitalized on the popularity of organics to make a quick buck, and as a result the “organic” label has become watered down.
I talked about this a few years ago in the Reality Health Check “Why Whole Foods isn’t as wholesome as you think.”
The Whole Foods brand was built on the explosion of consumer demand for organics. So when I went into one after not having been there in a while, I was horrified by what I saw. It was filled with conventional produce at inflated prices, shipped there from across the country. Despite the fact that organic produce from local farmers is widely available.
Basically, Whole Foods has been profiting off the organics trend but not abiding by the organic principles. And they’re not alone.
Just look at organic eggs. To carry the organic label, egg producers need to ensure their hens have outdoor access and don’t live in cages, in addition to being fed organic feed. But some food producing giants have done the bare minimum to comply with regulations. Instead of using cages, they just cram thousands of hens into a building that has a tiny concrete patio most of the birds never see.
Outdoor space? Check. Sort of.
Recent changes to organic standards take aim at those types of workarounds. Two days before leaving office, President Obama instituted new, more stringent regulations for the treatment of organically grown animals. The new rules are intended to make sure livestock raised in organic-certified operations have ample room — with enough space to lie down, stretch their limbs, and turn all the way around. Poultry will be able to stretch their wings. And producers won’t be able to use the inhumane practices of removing chicken’s beaks and cutting off cattle’s tails.
Those buildings with a measly covered patio as “outdoor space” won’t cut it anymore either. Animals will be required to have fresh air, adequate ventilation, and direct sunlight. And poultry would need to go outside daily, to an area with vegetation or soil.
It all seems reasonable, right? And probably what you thought you were getting already when you pony up the extra money to buy organic. I know when I buy my meat and eggs from the farmers’ market, I ask questions about how the animals are raised. If I don’t like the answers, I move on. Not as easy to do in a supermarket that gets its food from thousands of miles away.
Of course, Big Agribusiness isn’t happy about these new regulations. They argue that the new rules will drive up food prices and force some farmers out of business. Which is just another way of saying, “We want the increased profits of organics, without the increased costs.”
Agribusiness in this country has been given far too much leeway to destroy our environment and our food supply. All the while, they’re subsidized by the government. So essentially, our tax dollars are supporting a scheme that, for all intents and purposes, poisons us. What industry other than Big Pharma is so loosely regulated?
While I’m happy about these new rules, I’m also certain the new administration will try to change them — maybe even before they start to take effect in 2018. That gives them plenty of time to stop the progress.
So with Spring finally here, once again, I can’t urge you enough to seek out your local farmer’s market.
That way, at least you know you’re always getting what you pay for — and exactly where it came from before it landed on your dinner plate.