The Rise of “Big Organic” Has Blurred the Line Between Organic and Sustainable

When grocery shoppers choose shelf-stable “boxes” of organic almond milk over refrigerated plastic jugs of conventionally-produced cow milk, they believe they’re doing something good, not only for their own health, but the environment. But the sobering truth is that if shoppers happen to be in a chain supermarket, a “USDA Certified Organic” label on a box of almond milk doesn’t mean what it used to. In fact, some organic farmers now consider the label so meaningless, they refuse to use it on their products.

Organic food production is no longer limited to small, privately owned farms. Consumer demand for organic foods rose sharply over the last decade and a half, from U.S. sales of $6.1 billion in 2000 to $35 billion in 2013.  Not surprisingly, this trend resulted in a dramatic change in the organic agricultural landscape. Multinational corporations including Coca-Cola, Cargill, ConAgra, General Mills, Kraft, and M&M Mars have taken over what has become an increasingly consolidated — and profitable — sector of the food industry.

What do all these words mean?

Organic. Local. Seasonal. Sustainable. Many use these words interchangeably, or assume–without any real basis for doing so–if one is true, the others necessarily follow. Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at NYU, defines these terms as follows:

  • “Organic” means crops grown without artificial pesticides, fertilizers, GMOs, irradiation, or sewage sludge, and animals raised without hormones or antibiotics. Certified Organic methods follow specific rules established by USDA.
  • “Local” means foods grown or raised within a given radius that can range from a few to hundreds of miles (you have to ask).
  • “Seasonal” refers to food plants eaten when they are ripe (and not preserved or transported from where they were grown).
  • “Sustainable” means — at least by some definitions — that the nutrients removed from the soil by growing plants are replenished without artificial inputs.

Environmental and health writer Jennifer Chait explains the difference this way. “USDA Certified Organic is a real certification. Sustainable is not. While there is no certified label or official policy that describes sustainable, most people consider sustainability a philosophy that describes planet protective actions that can be continued indefinitely, without causing damage to the environment.” However, Chait goes on to explain that

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