Diane speaks with Susan Glasser, staff writer at the New Yorker where she writes a weekly column on life in Trump’s Washington.
The market for organic food has grown from just $1 billion in 1990 to nearly $30 billion today. As big corporations enter the market, concern has grown about enforcement of organic standards, and some see the movement drifting away from its founding principles of sustainability and local farming. They are alarmed by organic tomatoes grown in far-off, Mexican deserts that require constant irrigation, organic cows living on industrial-sized feedlots, and chickens laying organic eggs while confined in high-capacity barns. But others say that big farms bring organic food to the masses. For this month’s Environmental Outlook series: the organic food paradox.
- Mark Kastel Co-founder, The Cornucopia Institute, a progressive farm policy research group based in Wisconsin
- Elisabeth Rosenthal International Environment Reporter, The New York Times
- Miles McEvoy Deputy administrator, National Organic Program, United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)
In 2002, the USDA established legal standards for organic food. Since that time, the market has grown into a $30 billion business. As organic food goes mass market, it raises concerns about enforcement and whether organics are drifting away from core values of sustainability and local
Organic food represents a $30 billion industry that grew at 10 percent even through the recession, Rosenthal said. Organic food is more available now than ever before. Diane wondered if it is really better for people. Rosenthal said she is concerned not only with the health benefits of organic food, but also with whether or not it is sustainable. For example, she noticed the tomatoes in her local supermarket labeled as coming from Baja, California. After some research, she found that the area the tomatoes are grown in has to be highly irrigated and is not environmentally friendly or efficient.
Setting And Enforcing Standards
The National Organic Standards Board continually assesses its guidelines and rules. McEvoy said. As stipulated by the USDA, each farm selling organic produce, whether in the U.S. or abroad, has to have an “organic system plan.” Highly qualified inspectors visit the farm, and certifiers also do unannounced inspections, sampling, and residue analysis,” McEvoy said.
Can Large Companies Do A Good Job?
Kastel believes there are a few large companies that can stick to the appropriate standards, but that there are problems with many more. For instance, the USDA recently closed legal complaints against giant industrial egg producers, some with 100,000 birds with no access to the outdoors (a requirement by the organic standards). “The organic standards are indeed scale-neutral but we feel they’re scale-limiting if they’re aggressively enforced,” Kastel said.
The Spirit Of The Law Versus The Letter Of The Law
Ropsenthal said that once something moves into the big business industrial sphere, it may be more likely that the food produced there is not what many consumers have in mind when buying organic. “I have in my mind an organic chicken farm where I see chickens wandering around. And that’s why I buy this pack of eggs,” she said. “There are a number of places that can comply with the letter of the law without really complying with the spirit of what I think of as organic agriculture. And I think that’s important to consumers,” she said.
You can read the full transcript here.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. In 2002, the USDA established legal standards for organic food. Since that time, the market has grown into a $30 billion business. As organic food goes mass market, it raises concerns about enforcement and whether organics are drifting away from core values of sustainability and local farming. Joining me in the studio for this month's environmental outlook, Miles McEvoy of the USDA. Joining us from a studio in New York City, Elisabeth Rosenthal of the New York Times, and by phone from Rockton, WI, Mark Kastel of the Cornucopia Institute.
MS. DIANE REHMI hope you'll join us, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to all of you.
MR. MILES MCEVOYGood morning.
MS. ELISABETH ROSENTHALGood morning.
MR. MARK KASTELThank you, Diane.
REHMGood to have you all with us. Libby Rosenthal, I'd like to start with you and get you to talk about how much the demand for organic foods has increased in the last few years.
ROSENTHALWell, it's a booming industry, and I don't use the work industry lightly anymore. I mean, I think we've moved away from the ideal of small farmers growing products where you know the farm and you know the farmer. I mean, this is, as you said, a $30 billion industry that even through the recession was growing at 10 percent a year, and that's meant that farms and farmers and big companies have moved in to what was previously a niche industry, and that's not good or bad, but it's just the reality. The good thing is, more of us get to eat organic food now.
REHMYeah. And I was about to ask you, what do you think accounts for the growing interest on the part of consumers in the organic food industry?
ROSENTHALWell, I think some of it is just general health consciousness. Some of it is that it is more available, that it's not just niche markets selling organic anymore, it's, you know, it's Wal-Mart, it's Trader Joe's, it's my supermarket on the corner of 111th Street.
REHMBut the question is, is it really better for us?
ROSENTHALWell, I think that's what I wanted to get at when I wrote an article about this last year, because I went to my local supermarket which is filled with wonderful organic produce now, and I started looking at the labels, and I noticed that a lot of them were coming from Baja California, a lot of the tomatoes, and I thought, that's funny. I think of Baja California as a desert, so how are they growing organic tomatoes there? And I started looking into that and discovered, of course, that it's high irrigated, it is certainly organic in the sense that it's pesticide-free, there is better and better water management, but it still does raise issues of sustainability, and I think previously maybe 20, 30 years ago, what was organic was also sustainable.
ROSENTHALNow we have organic foods that have different levels of sustainability, and my issue, and my goal in writing this article, was consumer education, so that when you see a label that says organic, you think well, is it organic and sustainable in the ways that matter to me?
REHMElisabeth Rosenthal, she's international environment reporter for the New York Times. Turning to you Miles McEvoy, talk about the criteria that have to be met for a food to be labeled or an industry to be labeled as organic.
MCEVOYYeah. Well, organic agriculture has been growing by leaps and bounds for a number of years, and because it's turned into an industry, there's many, many more small and medium-sized farmers that are able to be successful in organic agriculture, which I think is a very good thing. The standards are very comprehensive and address a number of different elements of soil and water quality, pest control, soil management, the seeds that are being used, and then there's an inspection and audit trail from the farm to the market so that organic food products are assured to be organic, not just at the farm, but all the way through the processing and distribution channels.
REHMTell me how many inspectors you have working on this area.
MCEVOYWell, the way the National Organic Program is set up is that we accredit the certifying agents, and there are nearly 100 certifying agents that work around the world.
MCEVOYOne hundred certifying agents.
MCEVOYSome of them are small, local certifying agents that work in a particular state, and some of them are certifiers that work globally, that work in South America and Africa, and in China and Europe to certify -- to verify that they're meeting the USDA organic regulations. The certification process is very rigorous. Each organic farms needs to describe how they're addressing soil and water quality, how they're using a biologically-based pest-control system, how they protect the integrity of the crops from adjoining land use to make sure there's no pesticide drift onto the organic crops.
REHMBut, for example, I was looking at the USDA National Organic Standard Board revising its rules to require that say for an organic milk label, cows had to be at least partly fed by open grazing. Now, I don't understand what partly fed by open grazing really means. Does it mean five minutes a day, does it mean 10 hours a day? What does that mean?
MCEVOYRight. Yeah. It's a very good question. The standards continually get developed and more precise in terms of how they're described and implemented. So the National Organic Standards Board continually is looking at the standards and looking at ways to improve those standards. So in regards to ruminants for dairies for instance, a number of years ago they looked at well, what would be the requirements to really ensure that all organic dairies are pasture-based, that the ruminants are getting their forage.
REHMThe ruminants being the cows.
MCEVOYThe cows. Getting their forage, getting their nutrients from pasture. So the requirements that were implemented last year require that all organic dairies are pasture-based, so they have to get -- during the grazing season, the majority of their feed and forage from grazing.
REHMDoes that mean that there is a time element involved?
MCEVOYYeah. It has to be at least 120 days, the grazing season, but you define the grazing season depending upon what region of the country or the world that you're in. So...
REHMBut how many hours of each day?
MCEVOYThey have to get at least 30 percent of their dry matter intake from grazing, from being out on pasture, and dry matter intake is a measurement of the amount of dry matter in the feed that the animal is consuming. So the feed that they're being fed in the barn is going to be much lower -- or much higher dry matter intake value, so they have to actually feed probably about 50 percent or more of their feed is coming from grazing out in the field.
REHMAll right. Miles McEvoy is with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Turning to you Mark Kastel, talk about why you believe organic farming is better.
KASTELWell, there's no doubt that it's better for the environment, but to play off of your well-taken introduction, consumers are fueling this trend because of health interest and health concern, and there's nothing wrong with this. It's selfish and it's based on old brain stem chemistry throughout our -- the history of our species. We've all endeavored to secure the safest and most nutritional food for our families. When kids are in play, this is an emotional issue.
KASTELAnd these are consumers who are voting with their pocketbooks in the marketplace for an alternative mechanism for producing and processing their food, and for a long time, this worked great. Unfortunately, we now see the dollar signs glowing in the eyes of corporate investors and corporate lobbyists, so we see a betrayal, maybe not to the letter of the law, and for all that's worked, the organic certification program, and as it's administered in this country, it's still the gold standard.
KASTELThere's virtually no rigorous oversight for how farming and livestock production takes place outside of organics. But we know that there's little price resistance to these premiums because people don't just think they're being selfish. They think they are supporting a different kind of environmental ethic in terms of food production, and that's where Dr. Rosenthal's story in the New York Times was so poignant.
KASTELThey think they're supporting a different kind of more humane animal husbandry model, and lastly, one of the reasons they believe organic food is more expensive is that the people who get their hands dirty for a living and crack a sweat, the family farmers, are being fairly paid. So when consumers find out that that milk we're talking about might come from a quote "factory farm" with 7,000 milk cows, or that the breakfast cereal has ingredients that shipped around the world from China, we don't even press the Chinese for our dog and cat food ingredients any longer, and some of these companies are undercutting the livelihood of these farming heroes that they've come to believe they're supporting.
KASTELThen we have a disconnect that threatens the golden goose, and so the true ideals of organic farming not only protect in terms of demonstrated lower levels of toxic agrichemicals, drugs, and hormones in our food, but it also is scientifically concluded to provide a superior level of nutrition which we've seen dropping over the last 70 years in our conventional food supply.
REHMMark Kastel, he's co-founder and director of the Organic Integrity Product at the Cornucopia Institute. We're going to talk further, take your calls. Stay with us.
REHMWelcome back. We're talking about the organic food industry, how it's grown, how regulations are growing right along with it and how big dollars are involved. Here in the studio Miles McEvoy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Elisabeth Rosenthal is in the New York Times studio in New York where she is an International Environment Reporter. And by phone from Rockton, Wis. is Mark Kastel. He's with something called the Cornucopia Institute. That's a progressive farm policy research group in Cornucopia, Wis. We are going to open the phones shortly.
REHMFirst though, I'd like to go back to you, Mark Kastel, get you to talk about why you got involved in this whole organic movement.
KASTELSure. I actually started my career in corporate agribusiness. I worked for two of the largest farm, tractor and equipment manufacturers, International Harvester and J. I. Case. And not in a story unlike what motivated many multigenerational farm families to switch their production to organics. I became quite ill from suspected pesticide exposure -- pesticide poisoning. And I was lucky enough to see at the time the preeminent environmental allergist in Chicago, Syran (sp?) Randolph who recommended I eat all organic food as a way to eliminate the strain on my immune system.
KASTELAnd after recovering and branching out into organic farming myself, this is about 30 years ago, it became very difficult to philosophically still engage in manufacturing and selling 400 horse power tractors and chemical sprayers to mono crop producers. It was obvious eight, nine years ago when we started Cornucopia at the point where the largest industrial dairy in this country with 50 brands, Dean Foods, a $12 million enterprise, at the point they bought the largest organic milk label Horizon, we knew we were in trouble in terms of the corporate takeover.
KASTELAnd we thought that a governmental and corporate watchdog would be necessary if we were going to maintain the values that have led to the success and the growth of this industry we've been talking about.
REHMMiles McEvoy, what kinds of close regulation are there in place to ensure that the kinds of rules that the USDA imposes are actually followed?
MCEVOYYeah, the rules are applied uniformly whether or not it's a small farm in local Virginia or a farm in China. There's a very detailed process in terms of the standards. Each of the farms has to complete an organic system plan. And in the certification process, the certifier evaluates that system plan to see that it complies with the USDA organic regulations. An inspector goes out that's highly qualified, does an intense rigorous inspection, looks at all aspects of the farming operation, looks at the fields, looks at the borders, does an audit to make sure that there's enough production capacity for the sales of that particular farm.
MCEVOYAnd that's done throughout the system from a farm to a processor to a handler, there's audits that are being conducted to trace that product from the organic field all the way to the marketplace. In addition to that, certifiers also do unannounced inspections and also do sampling and residue analysis as needed to protect the integrity of the organic system.
REHMLibby Rosenthal, that word integrity comes up a great deal. What did you find in your own reporting?
ROSENTHALWell, I think, first of all, it's great that these standards exist, but I think people need to understand -- and they are broad, but they cover a certain kind of activity and there are other things they don't cover. And like many industry standards, they're negotiated. For example, when the rules were changed on grazing, there was a lot of pushback from the industry, from industry lobbyists saying, you know, we don't want to have the definition so narrow.
ROSENTHALSo what I found in Mexico, visa vie tomatoes was that, you know, some farms were small farms growing organic tomatoes. All of them were using intensive irrigation. Some of them were overusing irrigation in the sense that other local farmers didn't have the water they needed. And some of them were just big farms, big farms that looked pretty industrial where at the -- I mean, I thought to me the most telling thing was at the end there were sorters who were looking at the organic tomatoes and deciding that, oh no we can't send this to the U.S. because it's got a bruise or it's not perfectly shaped.
ROSENTHALWell, in my mind ,a true organic tomato isn't about the shape. It's about the taste and the cultivation and the color. So for me as a consumer, there was something very un-organic about that process that I was seeing at that particular farm.
REHMIt's interesting because we've heard Mark Kastel use the word betrayal. Is that a word that makes sense to you, Libby, as far as the growth of this industry and what's happened to the basic principles thereof?
ROSENTHALWell, to me betrayal for me personally is a little too strong because I think organic means a lot of different things to a lot of different consumers. And so I think if I were a person who for the last 30 years had been devoted to buying organic I would feel betrayed by a lot of this labeling. I'm not, but I do go to the market and I am spending more for something labeled organic. And so I want it to be in accord with the things that organic means to me, which is one, not using pesticides, two -- but I'm an environment reporter and to me, environmental stewardship is really important.
ROSENTHALI don't like the idea of personally tomatoes flying from Mexico to New York, even though I know people will say food miles are not a huge part of global emissions. Yes, that's true, but personally, I guess I would prefer my organic food to be grown locally. And I'll eat tomatoes in the summer.
REHMMark Kastel, why do you use the word betrayal?
KASTELWell, I think that this has been a values-based industry that people aren't strictly buying that tomato or that half gallon of milk. They're buying the story behind their food and they're willing to pay a premium. And we're seeing this industry sadly morph into two. And one are the farmer direct marketers at farmers' markets, at CSA subscription farms where you receive a box of food every week. And a handful of just exemplary companies that have never lost track of those values that they were founded upon.
KASTELAnd then we have companies like Dean Foods. You'll never see their name on a half gallon of silk soy milk that had Chinese soybeans in there or Horizon milk coming from factory farms. Kellogg's, you'll never see their name on a brand like Kashi. General Mills, you'll never see their name on Cascadian Farms vegetables that there were quite a few of those coming from China also. And so you're getting professional storytellers. And it's a lot easier to farm by press release than to farm by these values that create better quality food and safer food.
KASTELAnd consumers want and can have both. And quite frankly, this can be a highly profitable business without giving up on not just the letter of the law that we want to see enforced, but the spirit of the law.
REHMMiles McEvoy, what about these professional storytellers?
MCEVOYYeah, I've been involved in organic agriculture for a couple of decades. I worked in Washington State, been inspecting organic farms all over the world. And I've seen, in Washington State, the number of organic farms expand from 63 in 1988 to nearly 1,000 by the time I left there in 2009. And the vast majority of those are small or medium sized family farms.
MCEVOYThere are some lager farms and larger businesses that have gotten involved and had some success in organic agriculture but I think that the --characterizing this as a betrayal is a real disservice to the tens of thousands of organic farms and businesses around the world that really are living the spirit of organic agriculture.
REHMBut would you agree that many large companies have gotten into it creating a whole other industry?
MCEVOYThe industry has grown. There's a lot of success and that has brought both large and small companies along. And it's great. Those large companies buy from small and medium sized farms. And to me, it's a testament to the success of organic agriculture that you have large companies involved.
REHMHow did the USDA get involved with organics to begin with?
MCEVOYIt started with the 1990 Farm Bill. So at that time there were different organic standards in many different states. So trade of organic products from one state to another was very difficult because you had certifiers that disagreed about the particular standards. So in 1990, Congress came in and said that there'll be one uniform national organic program. And then over the course of a dozen years the National Organic Standards Board worked on recommendations to the Secretary of Agriculture. And through rule making the National Organic Program was established in 2002.
REHMI wonder, Mark Kastel, do you see any of these large companies doing a really good job?
KASTELI think there are a few. They're generally still independently owned, not the investor-owned corporate agribusinesses. But I really want to respond to what Miles is saying in two regards. One, I want to agree with him. And when we've done (word?) investigations on organic dairy brands, 90 percent of them truly uphold the values that this industry was founded upon and have integrity. There's a scorecard on the Cornucopia Institute website that consumers and wholesale buyers can choose from.
KASTELBut the USDA has been really an apologist for corporate agribusiness since the organic program was launched long before Miles arrived at the program. And Miles is universally respected by us and many others in the industry. But we've been able to at Cornucopia file a number of legal complaints and decertify 10,000 cow factory farms where half the cows were on conventional feed and half the cows were on organic feed in a "split" operation. We forced them to downscale others. None of these were because the USDA or the certifiers they are credited took action on their own.
KASTELAnd right now, we just had the USDA close four legal complaints against giant industrial egg producers, some with 100,000 birds with zero access to the outdoors, even though that's required by the organic standards. And it's like pulling teeth sometimes to get these folks to act. So the organic standards are indeed scale neutral but we feel they're scale limiting if they're aggressively enforced. And that's what we're fighting for right now.
REHMMark Kastel. He is joining us from Cornucopia, Wis. where he's cofounder and director of the Organic Integrity Project. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Miles McEvoy, I know you want to respond.
MCEVOYYeah, in terms of the complaints about the organic poultry operations, all the organic poultry -- under the USDA organic regulations, all organic poultry must have outdoor access. And the complaints that we received were that that these operations were not providing outdoor access. Investigation was conducted, inspections were verified that outdoor access was provided as per the regulations. Now this issue around how much organic access to provide, outdoor access...
REHMAs per regulations. I'm having trouble with this. If Mark says on the one hand you have 100,000 chickens stuffed into one place and then the USDA comes along and says it's fine, how do I reconcile those two images?
MCEVOYWell, I'd ask you, what is meant by stuffed? The regulations require that 100 percent organic feed, no antibiotics or hormones are used and that the birds have freedom of movement. They're not caged and they have outdoor access. Now it's been a controversial issue that the National Organic Standards Board has been working on for a number of years. They've been working on animal welfare components. It's already a part of the organic standards but they're looking to clarify specific requirements just like they did for the pasture requirements.
MCEVOYThey came out with their final recommendations in December of 2011 to provide more precise definitions on how much outdoor access, 'cause currently the regulations say outdoor access. So what does that mean? How much? How often?
REHMYeah, what does that mean?
MCEVOYAnd what the regulations say is you have to provide outdoor access year-round but there are provisions for denying outdoor access if it jeopardizes the health and welfare of the birds. You don't want...
REHMElizabeth, do you want to comment?
ROSENTHALYeah, I think this comes back a bit to the spirit versus the letter of organic agriculture. And I think to me that's really an issue. Once something moves into the big business industrial sphere these are negotiated solutions. You know, what is the right amount of outdoor access? I have in my mind an organic chicken farm where I see chickens wandering around. And that's why I buy this pack of eggs.
ROSENTHALAnd what's really behind that is some negotiated solution between industry and the USDA. Well, that's not really why I'm spending twice as much money. That's not what I want. So I think there's a question of what happens when something gets industrialized. And inevitably you need rules and you need regulations. And much better that there be a system than not but there is -- there are a number of places that can comply with the letter of the law without really complying with the spirit of what I think of as organic agriculture. And I think that's important to consumers.
REHMAnd how can consumers possibly know the difference when they're buying a chicken, whether that particular farm has complied with both the letter and the spirit of the law, Libby?
ROSENTHALWell, I think that's a big challenge so of course I'm saying, well, this is a problem. Well, what's the answer? I mean, for me, you can read more about labels, you can look a little -- you can Google online and see what the farm's about. But as your other guests said, there's a lot of storytelling in the industry now. You look at the packages and there are these beautiful pictures of -- you know, of what the farm looks like which really doesn't match the reality. So I think it's really difficult but it's important for consumers to ask questions.
REHMElisabeth Rothenal of the New York Times. Your calls when we come back.
REHMWelcome back. It's time to open the phones as we talk about organic foods, organic labeling, how what was a small-farm beginning has grown into a huge industrial operation. Let's go first to St. Louis, Mo. Good morning, Paul. You're on the air.
PAULYes, thank you, Diane. One of your guests touched earlier on the issue with China. And that's what I'd like to ask about. When I go to the store today and buy, for example, I think a good example is these frozen soybeans, the edamame that are so popular now and children seem to love them and all that. But they, you know, have a USDA-organic-certified label on it, but it'll be a product from China. And I'd love to hear your guests explain how a soybean from China gets a USDA label on it. As a consumer how am I supposed to believe that that label means anything if soybeans from China can be certified as organic? Are there actually inspectors or what's the process? I'd love to hear more about that.
REHMThanks for calling, Paul.
MCEVOYYeah, organic food products come in from many foreign countries. Coffee and bananas from Central America and chocolate from Africa and certainly organic food products come in from China, as well. We did a audit of the Chinese organic certification system, where we followed the product from the farm to the port for four different products. It was a month-long audit back in September of 2010. And though we found some minor areas that the certifier need to improve their process, we found that they're using the same rigorous process that's used other parts of the world.
MCEVOYSo it's the same process of organic system plans, inspection, sampling. There's a lot of residue testing that occurs in China as part of the Chinese certification system. And we audit those certifiers there on a regular basis to ensure that they're doing it correctly.
REHMMark Kastel, what's your reaction?
KASTELWell, past audits have found that the national organic standards, USDA standards hadn't even been translated into Mandarin and some of the other languages that are common in China, although the farmers and some of the suppliers were signing affidavits they were adhering to them. We saw one of the world's largest certifiers booted out of China. So although, we think they are improving over the Bush administration's abysmal oversight over organics in China, we still think there's a way to go.
KASTELAnd then the question is do we betray the organic ideals by importing food around the world? Well, I can't grow bananas here in Wisconsin. But for the first time we're seeing a loss in organic acreage and a loss by some farmers who are switching from organic soybean production in the Midwest, back to conventional because they can't compete with these imports. We're seeing some dairy farmers switching back to conventional because they can't compete with these factory farms. So we need to have rigorous, aggressive enforcement by the USDA to make sure there's a level playing field here for the farmers. And to make sure the interests of consumers are adequately protected.
REHMElisabeth Rosenthal, how important is this recent agreement that was signed by both the U.S. and the European Union on organic food standards?
ROSENTHALWell, I think it has, you know, it's a business agreement. It's a kind of free trade in organics agreement. I don't think it adds anything to our feeling that organic food truly meets our broader values in terms of being organic and sustainability. I mean, I can give you one example. There is in Scandinavia an organic certification program called KRAV.
ROSENTHALAnd they're very interested in sustainability, as well as narrow organic values. And they will say we're not gonna certify a dairy farm if it uses soy from the Amazon as feed. So they're thinking about organic in the broadest sense of the word, in terms of sustainability. They want food to be mostly local. So I think, you know, it's a business agreement. And in some ways it's more a sign that this is turning into a global industry. Organic food is a global industry. It's not about local consumption anymore.
REHMAll right. To Indianapolis, good morning, Kate.
KATEGood morning, Diane. I've listened to your show for years. I'm so pleased to be on it.
REHMI'm glad to have you.
KATEI am a very small grower, here in the metropolitan area. And I sell at two local farmers' markets. And I'm famous for my tomatoes, which I grow in my backyard, totally from seed. But I’m not officially organic. And I'm really glad that you're making the distinction between organic and organic and sustainable. I can't compete with tomatoes from California that are harvested by people who don't, I mean, who don't have the amenities of life that I expect. And the people who -- I do hire a few employees and I expect them to be able to have a living wage, as well.
KATEThe organic movement started out as an attempt to make it sustainable and responsible. And I'm glad that we're having this discussion, but I'm also wondering -- I’m not really hearing -- the egg thing really blew my mind. It's like, yeah, I know people who actually grow range-fed eggs and they can't compete with the prices for these others. And I'm wondering how they're going to help -- at this point is the USDA going to reach back in anyway and try to lift up the small grower again?
MCEVOYYeah, USDA is doing a lot of things for the local and regional markets. The administration is supporting this Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food efforts. And that involves many, many different projects to support food hubs, to support farmers markets. There's many more farmers markets around the country that are being supported. There's a farmers market promotion program, many different things.
MCEVOYThe National Organic Program is responsible for ensuring the integrity of organic products, whether or not they're traded internationally or sold in a local or regional market. So many of the complaints that we get are concerning organic claims made in local markets. And that’s important for us to make sure that those claims are truthful claims. We do an investigation and inspection and verify that those claims are truthful claims.
REHMBut surely you don't have enough inspectors to be at every local farmers market or on every small farm around the country.
MCEVOYRight. The National Organic Program is a very small program. We have 30 staff that are involved in standards development, accreditation and oversight of certifiers and enforcement. So when we're looking at the enforcement part of the program, we rely on state inspectors and certifiers to do the onsite inspections and verification.
REHMMark Kastel, give us some examples of what you call green washing.
KASTELWell, I think that -- let's go back to eggs there, as an example. And I appreciate your caller, but by the way there's only two things in this world money can't buy. And that's true love and home-grown tomatoes. And home-grown tomatoes don't come from Mexico or Florida or California during the growing season. They come from either your backyard or the farmers market.
KASTELSo in eggs, just like dairy, Cornucopia did a study and rated all the organic egg brands in the country so that that scorecard is available. And then you can compare the professional storytelling on their website to the data collection that we've done. And so when Mr. McEvoy talks about the investigations they did into the concerns about egg complaints, we can look at the photos on the Cornucopia Institute website, which they didn't do and the satellite imagery. And their USDA inspectors did not visit all these facilities. They depended on the certifiers that in some cases have acted in consort with these companies that are not letting their birds outside.
REHMElisabeth, did you find the same thing?
KASTELI'm sorry, I missed that.
REHMI was just asking Elisabeth Rosenthal whether she found the same problem.
ROSENTHALWell, I would say on the good side that the farms that were growing organic that I visited in Mexico were making certain kinds of efforts which were good. They were conscious of the need to try and conserve water better. They were trying to -- some of the Mexican growers were learning to grow without pesticides which was, you know, was admirable. But they were also over-taxing local resources. And they had been inspected on the ground, so I think that wasn't an issue. But, you know, the U.S. organics program is limited in how it can't be on every farm.
ROSENTHALAnd you have to use kind of proxies, like the Cornucopia website, their evaluation of organic eggs. When I look at organic eggs, you know, one thing I look at is, is the packaging recyclable? It makes me a little nuts to buy organic eggs in non-recyclable plastic packaging. That seems like a betrayal of my values.
REHMHere's a posting on Facebook from Betsy who says, "Please address the gigantic concern about contamination of previously assured organic food by the genetically-engineered and genetically-modified foods produced by companies, such as Monsanto." Miles McEvoy?
MCEVOYYeah, genetically-modified organisms, genetically-modified foods are explicitly prohibited under the organic regulations so they can't be used in terms of production or as any ingredient in any part of the organic system. So an organic farm that is in an area where a genetically-modified crops are being grown needs to put in place practices to ensure that -- to avoid contamination, to avoid the inadvertent presence of GMOs.
MCEVOYThe information that we have in terms of the presence of G.E. material in organic crops indicates that it's a very small problem, that for soy, for instance, there's very limited to no contamination of organic crops with G.E. material, for corn it's a little bit of a problem. But this is part of the process. This is the intense process that occurs as part of that organic-certification process to verify that genetically-modified organisms are not part of the production system. And are not contaminating or co-mingling with organic crops during processing and handling.
REHMAll right. To Long Island, N.Y., good morning, Rita.
RITAYes. Hi. Thank you for having me.
RITAI wanted to say that I actually started to sell organic produce in the '80s, where no one knew what it was and they don't understand what organic really means. They think that there's more vitamins in the product. And now I notice, too, that people don't really understand it. They just know that it's somehow better for them. So I think we have to go through education with the public, but we also have to learn to do organic farming as a part of life now.
RITAWhen you have apples that may have like 18 different pesticides on them, it's obvious that we need to change our ways of farming. So to make a negative tone to it and make people turn away from organic is not the right thing to do. We need to change our ways. And I think the reason why we're having a problem now is because it's becoming more profitable for Walmart to sell it. And now you're gonna have problems with people trying to do shortcuts.
REHMAll right. Thanks for your call. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Mark Kastel, a comment?
KASTELWell, we're all fighting, all of us stakeholders in organics, to make sure it continues to have meaning. And there really isn't a better alternative to making sure you don't have GMOs in your diet. And we're doing a good job in that area. But likewise, the reason those homegrown tomatoes taste so good is the same reason that independent testing by the USDA and Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports verifies that there's a higher nutrient level.
KASTELThose nutrients are consistent with the flavor profile. So we don’t wanna have what we call, agriculture by substitution. You had a very intelligent caller there, Diane, that we don't wanna strictly get rid of the agrochemicals and put organic inputs in. We want to truly feed the fertility of the soil. And we'll end up with more nutritious food and more flavorful food. And that exemplary quality is what's going to bring people back to organics time and time again.
REHMLibby Rosenthal, you're also a medical doctor. What have you found in terms of the health factor as far as organic foods are concerned?
ROSENTHALWell, I am a medical doctor, but I'm more concerned with the taste. And I think organic foods -- backyard grown, the kind of organic tomatoes, backyard-grown tomatoes, local farm-grown tomatoes, yes, they're better nutritionally, but they just taste so much better. So the idea of buying a tomato from far away that's maybe grown, you know, with intensive irrigation, just because it's labeled organic -- well, in my experience, now that I've bought them and I know about their history, they're not as nutritious and they don't taste as good. I mean, to me the issue is they just don't taste the way a summer tomato tastes.
ROSENTHALSo I think consumers should be thinking about it. And consumers should be asking more.
REHMAll right. Finally, to Leah in Cedar Grove, N.C. Good morning, you're on the air.
LEAHGood morning, Diane. Thank you for taking my call.
LEAHI just wanted to mention that my husband and I are small farmers in the central part of North Carolina. We raise cut flowers, strawberries and produce. And we sell 90 percent of our product at our wonderful area farmers market. And what I haven't heard is your panelists encouraging listeners, consumers to visit their area farmers market.
REHMMark Kastel, do you wanna chime in?
KASTELLet me do that. This is where -- forget about those tomatoes, how long they travel. Whether they're conventional or organic, these large industrial growers are also choosing cultivars that can be harvested before they're ripe and they never come into full flavor. The caller, undoubtedly, is going to pick the varieties of tomatoes based on that flavor that we're all looking for and then harvest them at the peak of ripeness. These are handcrafted food items. Delicately transport them to the market. These would never jiggle around in a semi-truck for eight hours. They'd all be tomato sauce by the time you bought them.
KASTELAnd then you can serve them on your table that night and eat something that's truly a wonder from nature.
REHMAll right. And...
KASTELThanks for reminding us all.
REHM...we are going to have to leave it right there. The message being populate your local farm market and beware as you grocery shop for labels that claim to be organic. Mark Kastel, Elisabeth Rosenthal, Miles McEvoy, thank you all so much. Thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
Most Recent Shows
Diane talks to The Economist's Vijay Vaitheeswaran about the impact of coronavirus on the U.S. economy.
Diane talks to Edward Luce of the Financial Times about the week that transformed the Democratic primary into a two man race.
POLITICO's Dan Diamond tells Diane about the faulty tests, slow response time and political infighting that have marked the government's reaction to COVID-19.