A Verifiable Label
Today, food labeled as organic is verified by a third-party every step from seed
to mouth and subjected to a multitude of requirements, standards and oversight
at every level. As such, it’s arguably one of the strongest agricultural process
claims in the history of the USDA.
As more eco-labels appear in the marketplace, it is the ‘organic’ label that can
be held up as standing for verifiable practices. As OTA staffers Barbara Haumann
and Holly Givens note in their contribution to Sustainability in the Food Industry
(Blackwell Publishing), the organic label is the “gold standard” as it is the only
Weaknesses: Consumer Confusion, Lack of Regulation in Emerging Categories • Threats: Competing Labels •
Opportunities: Consumer Education
tended for use in certified organic production, handling and processing. On
the organic cotton forefront, Organic
Exchange offers research and support.
Internationally, the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) is working to bring
together the global organic industry.
Weaknesses: Limited Agricultural Data
Opportunities: New Farm Bill
Strong Scientific Research
Lending additional strength to the organic industry is a growing body of peer-reviewed scientific research that helps connect organic agricultural practices and
the healthfulness of organic food.
Research is mounting that shows increased levels of nutrients, including antioxidants, in many organic fruits and vegetables. Most recently, for example, researchers at USDA and Rutgers University found that organically cultivated
blueberries had about 33 percent higher Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) values than conventional blueberries, making them better at preventing
chemical oxidation that leads to cellular damage. Research also indicates a link between organic practices
and higher levels of beneficial conjugated linoleic fatty
acids in dairy products. In addition, health-promoting
flavonoids present in organic tomatoes was nearly double that of their conventional equivalents.
To help communicate these benefits, The Organic
Center plays an important role by preparing “State of
the Science” reports to summarize findings from peer-reviewed articles about organic research.
Favorable research is also emerging concerning the relationship between organic agricultural practices and the environment. A study published in the July
2007 issue of Agricultural Research demonstrated that organic farming practices are
more effective in building soil organic matter than conventional, no-till farming
practices. More recently, the Rodale Institute published a paper showing that organic farming systems sequester carbon in the soil and significantly reverse the effects of global warming.
Opportunities: New Farm Bill, Consumer Education
While organic has many strengths,
it’s important to realize that the NOP,
at only six years old, is still young and
thus still has room for improvement.
When asked what were the biggest
weaknesses (or areas to improve) interviewees offered several suggestions
ranging from regulatory issues to challenges with the consumer’s understanding of organic.
In addition to the Organic Center, several other organizations have supported
the efforts of organic since the early days. The Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF) serves an important role in research initiatives for organic agriculture. OFRF, along with OTA were also key in pushing the new Farm Bill through
to provide funding for organic research, marketing and domestic supply. OTA has
been pivotal in organic standards and market development, and has also established How ToGoOrganic.com to encourage further domestic supply. In addition,
the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) provides organic certifiers, growers, manufacturers and suppliers with an independent review of products in-
As a 2006 Hartman Group survey of
consumer attitudes and behavior
points out, “Awareness does not necessarily translate into understanding.”
While 27 percent of respondents
thought that the label was reserved for
“totally organic products,” 43 percent
admitted that they didn’t know the
label’s meaning. Even among core organic consumers, only 24 percent
knew the correct meaning of the
“USDA Organic” label.
The Hartman Group’s “Organic
2008: Topline Insights” study found little progress on this front. In this study,
consumers identified “pesticide-free”
and “hormone-free” among their top
considerations in buying products.
(Table 1) Given that U.S. organic
products are, by definition, produced
without the use of toxic and persistent
pesticides and synthetic hormones,
one would think the term “organic”
would be considered equally as important. However, only 15 percent of
those surveyed identified organic as
important to their purchasing decisions, suggesting a disconnect in con-