The many meanings of ‘organic’

Special to The Times

Shoppers swarm around the farmers market stall. After the rainy California winter, strawberries, peas and fava beans, those heralds of spring, are hot sellers. Some customers move in for the kill, brandishing their trophy produce in one hand and exact change in the other. Others hold back, trying to remember what looked good at the last stall. Weren’t those favas a little smaller? But these favas say “pesticide-free.” And the guy at the other end of the market might have organic ones. Are they any better?

More and more people seem to think so: One-quarter of all Americans now eat fresh organic produce at least once a week, according to the Hartman Group, a consumer research firm — and the market continues to grow by 20% a year.

For many consumers, the “organic” label is a passport to a place where safer food, better flavor and a healthier environment all intersect. By buying from farms that have been certified organic, they imagine that they’re getting the best-tasting produce while helping the environment, supporting small producers and safeguarding their health.


But it’s not as simple as that. Some of the farmers most respected by chefs for the quality of their produce are eschewing organic farming. At the same time, mainstream supermarkets overflow with organic fruits and vegetables from huge agribusiness conglomerates. And the jury is still out on whether organic produce is healthier or tastier, although some studies point in that direction.

So what does organic really mean? Government standards are arbitrary and incomplete, critics say, and, ironically, the standards support big producers over smaller ones. And higher prices charged for certified organic produce don’t guarantee that you’re getting better food.

Nationwide, organic farming standards are set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The USDA rules are administered through non-governmental agencies — certifiers — who do annual inspections and charge a fee for the process.

The cost of certification is surprisingly modest. California Certified Organic Farmers, or CCOF, the largest of California’s 11 certifiers, charges fees on a sliding scale, and other certifiers are competitive. The real hurdle for farmers, after they complete a three-year “transitional” period during which they must farm organically, but aren’t allowed to label their produce “organic,” is the paperwork.

“It’s amazing how much paperwork we have to do. We have to keep track of everything,” says administrative director Matthew Logan of Fairview Gardens in Santa Barbara, a chefs’ favorite (they sell at the Wednesday Santa Monica, several Santa Barbara and the San Francisco Ferry Building farmers markets). Logan says Fairview’s paperwork quadrupled when it started certifying under the USDA’s National Organic Program, or NOP, which was instituted in 2002.

Santa Monica farmers markets manager Laura Avery estimates that as many as 100 farmers at her markets who are not certified do not spray pesticides. For the most part, these farmers say that they have not sought organic certification because they have no problem selling their produce without going through that hassle.


Even if they don’t seek certification, many of California’s smaller conventional farms employ a variety of organic practices, such as cover cropping and composting. And not every conscientious farmer agrees that all pesticide use is a bad idea.

Fitz Kelly, well known for the superb stone fruit he grows on 35 acres in Reedley (Fitzgerald’s Premium Ripe Tree Fruit is at the Wednesday Santa Monica and the San Francisco Ferry Plaza farmers markets in season), says that judicious use of synthetic pesticides means he can spray less than organic farmers, who have to rely on a small list of approved substances. And that, along with other careful farming practices, makes his farm environmentally friendly.

“We’ve even had damage to the fruit from ladybugs, we have so many of them,” he says.

Demand for certified organic produce remains strong, and market managers all over the state confirm the statistics showing growth in sales. But some market managers think consumers are fixating too much on the label, at the expense of small farmers who haven’t certified. “As soon as you get a label for something, people get stupid about it,” Avery complained about the USDA regulations. “They stop educating themselves.”

Of course, without certification, you have to take the farmer’s word for it. Hand-lettered signs reading “no pesticides” are almost as common as “certified organic” signs in some markets. Certified farmers are understandably suspicious of their competitors’ claims.

“When they walk into a farmers market, consumers assume all kinds of things,” says Warren Weber, who founded Star Route Farms in Bolinas, California’s oldest certified farm, in 1974, and sells at the Ferry Plaza and Marin County farmers markets. “It’s kind of medieval, like going to a bazaar. You get the feeling that people say whatever to sell their product sometimes. And that’s unfortunate.”

Organic goes big time

Farmers markets are no longer the only places where you’ll find large selections of organic produce and products. Mainstream supermarkets are plentifully stocked with organic products from publicly traded behemoths such as Dean Foods and General Mills.

Once seen as the province of wild-eyed hippies and dedicated idealists, organic farming was domesticated in 2002 when the USDA began setting the standards through the National Organic Program. With predictable rules and regulations, organic farming was suddenly safe for big business.

But some organic activists have questioned whether the big boys are really delivering the organic goods. Several news organizations reported in February that a Wisconsin nonprofit, the Cornucopia Institute, complained to the USDA that three certified organic dairies selling milk to Horizon Organic were actually factory farms that violated NOP rules.

From the start, the USDA rules were controversial. Reviewing the NOP, activist and former Columbia University nutrition professor Joan Dye Gussow wrote in Organic Gardening magazine, “This isn’t what we meant. When we said organic, we meant local. We meant healthful. We meant being true to the ecology of regions.”

The USDA pays lip service to these ideas by defining organic farming as a system designed to “foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.” But there is no enforcement mechanism for these abstractions.

The regulations “focus too much on the materials and not on the biological processes of farming,” says UC Santa Cruz Community Studies professor Julie Guthman, author of “Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California.” For example, fallowing and on-farm composting, key components of the theory of organic farming since J.I. Rodale started “Organic Farming and Gardening” magazine in 1942, are not required by the USDA.

The heart of the USDA program is the “National List,” a document developed by the USDA after years of public comment and controversy about everything from irradiation to chicken feed. It lists approved and forbidden fertilizers, pesticides, soil amendments and other agricultural inputs. These substances are judged not only by toxicity, but also by “naturalness,” a quality that is not easy to define.


Nor does the relative degree of “naturalness” necessarily correspond to a product’s effect on human and environmental health. For example, Chilean nitrate is allowed (with restrictions) because it is mined from a natural source, even though its environmental effects are similar to synthetic fertilizers.

“And the definition of allowable materials is highly politicized,” Guthman says.

On Chilean nitrate and other points, the USDA differs from the European standard. “Ninety-five percent of the time we agree, but then we get to a single material” that causes problems, says Jake Lewin, director of marketing and international programs at CCOF, which offers a different certification for farmers who export to Europe.

Despite these limitations, the current guidelines at least prevent the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides — from the relatively benign Roundup to Category I poisons such as methyl bromide — on California’s 170,000 acres of organic-certified land (around 1.5% of the state total).

For its defenders, numbers such as these outweigh the NOP’s flaws. “USDA has not watered down the standards,” says department spokeswoman Joan Shaffer.

Jim Riddle has been an organic farmer in Minnesota for 25 years and a certifier for 18. As the chairman of the National Organic Standards Board, an advisory body with which the USDA consults, he’s had some run-ins with the USDA, but he vehemently defends the National Organic Program.

“It’s one thing to make accusations, but I’d like to see proof. We do need continual vigilance to protect the standards, but they’re not weaker” than before the USDA got involved.


“Organic has never been the whole answer to sustainability, but even at its worst, it’s a very important form of damage control,” says Monica Moore of the Pesticide Action Network, a nonprofit organization that tracks pesticide use.

And there’s no other government-sponsored program that assesses farmers’ practices to help consumers make informed decisions. Certification requires annual third-party verification of compliance, with a clear standard. It’s not just a marketing ploy for vendors seeking to cash in on the latest craze. With the three-year transition period and the paperwork and inspection hurdles, it requires a serious commitment to earn that “certified organic” label.

But all those standards, demanding as they are for farmers, have nothing to say about the final product — the food. Is it healthier? Does it taste better? The USDA isn’t making any such claims.

Although the National List prohibits the use of synthetic pesticides, organic certifiers do not routinely test produce for pesticide residues. An “organic” label does not mean that your produce is free of pesticides, only that the farmer hasn’t applied any. Residues from neighboring fields or contaminants acquired between field and market are always possible. Even though it was banned in 1973, DDT is still routinely detected in soil samples. Still, scientific studies do show much lower levels of pesticide residue on organic produce. (These same studies also show that pesticides in conventional produce are within the EPA’s maximum residue limits.)

“Health concerns” are the most important reason consumers say they buy organic food, according to the Hartman Group. So if the health concern is pesticide exposure, they’re getting what they pay for. But many people also think that organic produce has more vitamins and minerals than conventional produce, and that is not true. Scientific studies consistently fail to find any difference in the vitamin content of organic and conventional food.

In a well-designed study that has not yet been published, Dr. Alyson Mitchell’s UC Davis lab found higher concentrations of antioxidants in organically grown tomatoes than in conventionally grown tomatoes. A French study published last September found similar results in tomatoes. But the link to better health was not clear: Study participants who ate the organic tomatoes for three weeks had the same blood level of the antioxidant lycopene as those who ate conventional tomatoes.


Overall, 13 of 15 studies recently reviewed by the Organic Center, a nonprofit research institute, found higher levels of antioxidants in organic produce, but none could explain why. “I don’t think that research is even in its infancy yet,” says Bob Scowcroft of the Organic Farming Research Foundation, a Santa Cruz nonprofit.

It comes down to flavor

What about flavor? Scientific tests so far cannot distinguish between the flavors of organic and conventional food. But many chefs tout their use of organic produce on menus and agree with Alice Waters, who says, “The finest food is produced and grown in ways that are ecologically sound.”

How produce is handled and marketed profoundly affects its flavor. Food that suffers the indignities of the commodity supply chain on its way to the supermarket is picked earlier, and processed more, than what farmers can sell direct to the consumer. Farmers who sell direct also have the freedom to experiment with varieties bred for flavor, instead of the commercial cultivars developed to survive the journey to the supermarket.

“I’d rather buy the commercial broccoli grown down the street than the organic that was shipped halfway around the world,” says Michael Ableman. It’s a startling sentiment coming from a pioneering organic farmer (he’s Fairview Gardens’ farm manager). “People are starting to get it,” he says. “They go down to the farmers market and the food just tastes different — it’s fresher.”

Nationwide, roughly 4% of certified organic produce is purchased directly from farmers, at farm stands and farmers markets. That may not sound like much, but the number for conventional produce is 0.4%, according to the USDA’s agricultural census. And the percentages are higher for California, which grows 50% of the country’s fruits and vegetables. Some of the flavor edge people attribute to organic produce may simply be a result of freshness.

This is especially true at restaurants, many of which establish direct relationships with local suppliers. For decades, Chez Panisse had a dedicated forager, whose job was to track down produce that met the restaurant’s high standards. Today, the restaurant has so many sources of consistently high-quality produce, the chefs do the foraging themselves. Chef Cal Peternell says that part of his job is pretty easy these days. And it’s easier for the rest of us too.


“You might get lucky at the grocery store once in a while, but the farmers market is the place where you’re going to get the quality that we have,” he says.

“Freshness is really the key,” agrees Jeff Jackson, executive chef of A.R. Valentien at the Lodge at Torrey Pines in La Jolla. “Just because something’s organic doesn’t necessarily mean it tastes great. Mother Nature throws curveballs too.”

But for the most part, Jackson loves the organic produce he gets from the local and Santa Monica farmers markets, and he applauds the farmers who grow it for him.

“It is really, really hard to grow food organically,” says Jackson. “I can’t have enough respect for what these guys do.”