Because my passion is sustainable agriculture and gardening, organic certification is an issue I have strong opinions on, but I want to set those aside to focus instead on what organic means in various kinds of foods you by.
The first thing you need to understand about organics is that the United States Government heavily regulates this certification in the form of the USDA. This is true for either USDA or FDA food producing facilities.
Organics was started by a group of concerned farmers and citizens who wanted to move away from the post WWII industrial model and back towards a less chemically intensive food system with a greater sense of environmentalism. In its earlier form, there was less emphasis on rules and laws, and more a hope to find shared rejection of the move towards the chemical advancements that came primarily in the forms of chemical fertilizers and killing agents.
In the 1970’s and 1980’s this was diffuse and handled locally or at the state level, which lead to extremely unequal distribution of organic networks (California was like a nation unto itself under this framework). That system ended upon passage of the Organic Food Production Act of 1990. The use of bioengineering to alter genetic material has only intensified this move away from the advances of the ultra modern food production system towards the smaller scale and traditional.
I started working in agriculture in the year 2000, and by then a sense of loss was pervasive. For anyone who has spent time in rural agricultural communities, the resistance to government regulation is palpable, even for those who are otherwise not political. In the organic movement, I always detected a sense that the government facilitated a theft of the power and decency of the organic concept and handed it over to the enemy in the form of large, destructive corporations.
At the same time, there were serious concerns about how viable the organic concept was. Whole Foods and Wild Oats were popping up in major cities, but it wasn’t clear that organics would become anything other than a boutique or novel attraction for the wealthy and obsessive. From that perspective, organics has overcome all concerns about whether people desire healthier foods, and at the same time, the idea of organics has had to be reduced to a lowest common denominator to get there.
To further complicate an understanding of organics from a big picture perspective is that almost all of the companies that produce organically certified foods are owned by the very same large corporations that organic advocates have been trying to avoid.
To understand why this is the case, you have to understand that very large corporations do not as a rule invest heavily in developing new concepts. They do modify and update their existing brands, but to devote large amounts of resources into untested ideas is antithetical to the short term profits-driven model of corporate capitalism. Instead, those very large entities watch small start ups that invest heavily in new and novel ideas in the marketplace and those that succeed are purchased (a move that often increases stock prices for the corporation), and the brand is then part of the constellation of brands owned by the purchaser.
For the record, I do not find it wrong or inappropriate for organic companies not to be independent, and there is a good argument to be made that the organic movement would not have succeeded at all without the backing of nominally unfriendly forces, but it does reduce much of the benefit of intentionally buying into an ideological idea, only to find that as a consumer, you are being sucked into padding the profits of companies that are the worst offenders of ecological destructive practices and poor labor standards.
So enough of the philosophy and history, we next need to get into the grocery store and look at what organic means.