Over the last 50 years, more than 70,000 different chemicals have been introduced to earth's ecosphere, at the rate of about 1,500 per year. Most are found in industrial processes that lead to products we buy and use daily, but many are also found in food and food packaging.
This chemical overburden is so serious that once-limited neurological and immune diseases like ADHD and diabetes are skyrocketing in the developed world. People can do little to avoid this chemical pollution in their environment. They can't build organic car seats, shower curtains, computers, or food and beverage containers, but they can choose the foods they eat, and a growing awareness of chemical overload has led to a food revolution.
In the last decade, from about 1997 to 2006, sales of organic food have grown by approximately 80 percent, to $17.7 billion.
Organic food, according to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, or USDA, is any fruit, vegetable, nut or seed not genetically modified (GM) and grown without the use of conventional pesticides, artificial fertilizers or sewage sludge. Meat and milk products must be produced without hormones or the use of routine antibiotics, and the animals and products from them must not be fed GM food or irradiated.
The USDA actually certifies organic food, based on a number of strict criteria established by the Organic Food Production Act of 1990 (it took effect April 21, 2001) and enforced through the National Organic Program. Prepackaged organic food must consist of at least 95 percent organic ingredients. Before a product can receive the "organic" certification, a government-appointed certifier has to inspect the field, or farm, or manufacturing facility, to make sure each is following all the rules laid down by law.
Other countries also have organic certification programs. In Australia, it's the NASAA Organic Standards. In Japan, JAS Standards apply. In 2007, the EU finalized standards for organic food, and foods - once qualified under two categories (a gold standard and emphasized labeling) - which must now meet a single set of rules as set by Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), under the aegis of the Advisory Committee on Organic Standards (ACOS). Unfortunately, this new standard allows a modest amount of GM food to enter the organic market - a move which has angered organic food activists, growers and consumers.
This - the loosening of standards, or failure to enforce them - is the glitch behind the promise of organic food. In the UK, your organic cornmeal may contain 3 percent GM corn. In the U.S., your organic steak may have escaped USDA oversight, as in the case of beef from Promiseland Livestock, LLC, a Missouri producer which runs about 13,000 head of cattle.
The Cornucopia Institute - an organic industry watchdog located in Cornucopia, Wisconsin - started the furor by filing a series of legal complaints against huge industrial diaries, one of which was Aurora Organic Dairy. Promiseland came under the USDA's microscope because it had sold more than 13,000 head of cattle to Aurora between 2004 and 2006. When, in 2008, Promiseland refused to provide records to substantiate its organic claims (as required by law), and then turned away USDA inspectors who arrived for a surprise inspection, the USDA filed a formal administrative complaint.
Promiseland's owner, Anthony J. Zeman, has 20 calendar days to respond to the complaint, dated June 11th. According to the Associated Press, Promiseland's headquarters in Bassett, Neb. is not answering its phone, and several numbers listed under Zeman's name have been disconnected.
Aurora Organic Dairy, of Boulder, Colo., was put under the same microscope as early as 2005, when complaints led to a determination that its milk cows didn't have enough access to pasture to be deemed organic (which implies free range, or the ability to graze). The company then agreed to amend the farm plan at its Platteville, Colo. location, and the USDA dropped the pending charges.
The Cornucopia Institute and others responded by charging the USDA and Aurora of engineering a "sweetheart deal" for the dairy producer, whose owners and founders also started the phenomenally successful Horizon Organic Dairy, subsequently sold to Dean Foods for $216 million.
Mark Kastel, co-director of Cornucopia, has often stated that large, corporate farms like Promiseland and Aurora can't really produce organic food. They also create surpluses which drive down profits for smaller, truly organic farmers. Cornucopia maintains a listing and scorecard on its web site to help consumers choose ethically produced milk and meat products.
Aiding the efforts of the USDA and other food-certification agencies, Spanish scientists have come up with a way to determine if artificial fertilizers are being used in designated organic fields. Called "nitrogen isotopic discrimination", the science can pinpoint non-organic fertilizers by identifying nitrogen isotopes in the plants themselves. Unfortunately, the method is likely to be too expensive for broad screening, and will probably only be used when violations are suspected.
Because neither the USDA nor watchdog groups like Cornucopia can be everywhere, these violations of organic regulations are likely to continue. On occasion, states themselves impede progress toward truly organic food. In California, regulators plan to pasteurize all almonds - a move aimed at preventing further outbreaks of salmonella like the ones which occurred in both 2001 and 2004. Salmonella in food crops is a huge concern, especially after the recent salmonella outbreak in U.S.-grown tomatoes.
Salmonella is not native to vegetable, fruit or nut crops, and arrives only via contamination of irrigation water by animal feces, or contaminated feces used as fertilizer. In fact, salmonella is not native to animals per se, but enters the environment only when crowding, underfeeding and antibiotic use reach epidemic proportions. When Salmonella does enter the environment, through human or animal excretion, it normally doesn't multiply to any extent, unless conditions (like those mentioned above) favor its multiplication. Nothing spreads salmonella quite as rapidly as hundreds of warm-blooded animals packed in a small space and walking in each other's urine and feces after continued doses of antibiotics have weakened their immune systems.
This is why truly organic food is not factory-farmed, and the best way to obtain it remains regional farmer's markets (where one knows the grower), or growing the food oneself - a move toward "home-grown" that may be significantly enhanced by rapidly rising gas prices, and is surely the only silver lining to this economic catastrophe.