Why Can't Food Be Genetically Engineered and Organic?

Author:Miller, Henry I.

The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 directed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop national standards for the production of "organic foods." The legislation came about because of consumer demand for food that was supposedly more healthful and produced with more sustainable farming methods than regular commercial farming.

However, the national standards that were ultimately adopted in 2000 do not improve food safety, quality, or nutrition--nor were they intended to. When the final National Organic Standards were issued in 2000, then-agriculture secretary Dan Glickman said: "Let me be clear about one thing: the organic label is a marketing tool. It is not a statement about food safety, nor is 'organic' a value judgment about nutrition or quality." One of his successors, John Block, observed in 2014, "Yet USDA's own research shows consumers buy higher-priced organic products because they mistakenly believe them safer and more nutritious."

False labeling / Despite the nonexistent health, safety, or environmental benefits and the higher prices consumers pay for these foods, those consumers often don't even get the products they've been promised.

In a pair of articles last year, the Washington Post's Peter Whoriskey reported on the apparent false-labeling of supposedly organic foods. In one article, he tracked a few milk producers to see whether they followed the USDA's strict but weakly enforced guidelines for organic certification. Organic milk can cost twice as much as conventional milk and, as Whoriskey observed, "If organic farms violate organic rules, consumers are being misled and overcharged."

The Post surveilled Aurora Organic Dairy--a major milk supplier for house organic brands sold by retailers such as Walmart and Costco--and found that the company appeared to violate rules about how often their cows are grass-fed, a key differential between conventional and organic milk production. The Post had several organic milk samples tested to measure for two fats that are more prevalent in organic milk (although in amounts inconsequential to human health), and most fell short.

Whoriskey reported that the integrity of the organic label rests on "an unusual system of inspections" that the head of the USDA's organic program calls "fairly unique." Organic producers pay a private inspector, approved by the USDA, to certify their products as organic; the agency checks in on those inspectors every few years. The USDA has only 82 certified inspection firms to supervise a massive organic supply chain of more than 31,000 farms and businesses worldwide. This leaves plenty of room for error and outright...

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