No more Farm Bill predictions; trust me, it’s coming. It could be as early as next week, but more likely early January. But take heart, it’s coming.
Today I’m a bit cranked up over another really silly move by the organized organic gang in its grudge match against the rest of the food chain.
Back in 1990s – before the National Organic Program (NOP) was in place – when organic farmers were mostly hold-outs from the 1960s who liked to lace everything with rose hips and ginseng, I attended a meeting in Washington, DC, between representatives of organic farming and “conventional” agriculture. The purpose of the meeting was a proposal by the organic crowd that ag support – or at least not oppose – a request to USDA to allow organic producers to label their foods as healthier and more humane than conventional foods, two “descriptors” not allowed on federally regulated food labels.
The national ag groups, including farmers, ranchers and feed companies, listened, asked questions, provided a couple of reality checks for the organic folks, then politely declined the request. This prompted one member of the organic delegation – a West Coast food broker, as I recall – to exclaim, “Then how the heck do we justify the price?”
What struck me at that meeting was the organic producers’ collective and automatic assumption organic production practices, and hence organic production, were automatically “healthier and more humane.” I remember warning the organic folks back in 1990 when the Farm Bill first carried authority to USDA to set a national definition of “organic,” to be careful what they wished for. Up to that point the industry was emerging, the domain of individual, dedicated producers; today, the list of organic industry players includes several national and multinational corporations, with a dwindling number of small, independent farmers and ranchers.
This stroll down memory lane was prompted by a piece I read this week in Agri-Pulse in which Ronnie Cummins, director of the Organic Consumers Assn. (OCA), rationalizes the recent loss of the Washington State ballot initiative on labeling genetically modified (GM) foods and a similar failed 2012 labeling initiative in California. He contends the anti-GM campaign messages were too soft, and that an all-out biotech is “dangerous to human health, animals and the environment” message expanded from processed foods to all foods, including meat, poultry and dairy – whether eaten at home or in restaurants – would have carried the day.
Sorry, Mr. Cummins, you lost because the voters were smarter than you assumed, they saw through the propaganda and apparently don’t scare as easily as you’d hoped. At the same time, voters tend to vote their pocketbooks, so anything that’s going to increase food costs generally loses, Prop 2 in California notwithstanding. Oh, and let us not forget, you were outspent; the outcome was predictable.
“We need to take on this issue head-on, not evade it” is now OCA’s way of saying it’s not satisfied to campaign against just GM ingredients and foods, but “against industrial food and agriculture in general.” Yup, OCA, in alliance with its “partners,” thinks it needs to “broaden our consumer-right-to-know campaign to include not only GMOs, but also meat and animal products coming from factory farms…where animals are routinely caged or intensively confined, reared on GE grains and slaughterhouse waste, and dosed with antibiotics, hormones and growth promoters.” A “factory farmed” label is what OCA wants.
This last statement must make Wayne Pacelle and the Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS) giddy. After all, it reads like a page out of the HSUS campaign handbook. It will likely also position OCA to take advantage of the cost-sharing ability a “partnership” with HSUS brings to the game.
Organic is a growing albeit niche market in the food industry; it’s most prominent player, I guess, is Whole Foods, a particular favorite of those with sufficient disposable income to pay two or three times the cost of a conventional food item. I don’t know if paying so much more for the food you eat makes you feel “better,” assuages guilt imposed by activists or is just trendy. It could be all three; I know it doesn’t make sense to me.
This war between organic and conventional is a waste of time and energy and serves only to allow groups like OCA to sell subscriptions and memberships and Whole Foods to ring up profits. The best sales tool is to tell consumers honestly why you’re the better mousetrap, not demonize and lie about your competition.
If I were a cynical, self-serving person – and speaking of the consumers’ “right to know” – I’d set up a website listing all of the FDA and USDA food safety recalls involving organic foods in the last few years. There’d be a section for the mounting science showing organic production – depending on the location, species and varieties – can be more environmentally “challenging” than conventional production. I’ll also be sure and include the ever-growing library of third party, objective science demonstrating little or no health or safety advantage in consuming organic foods. Lastly, there will be a price comparison app – how much does conventional save over organic? – available to all smart phone owners. I could make some serious dough.