organic standards

what does organic really mean?

One would have to have been in a cave chanting for the past 10 years not to have noticed the explosion of organic foods that have become available from grass roots co-ops to Whole Foods to Safeway, and now even Wal-Mart and 7-Eleven! While the variety and availability of organic foods has never been greater, so are the complexities of the organic food industry and the impacts of our buying decisions.

The basic thing to understand about any product carrying the USDA Organic Symbol is that it must contain at least 95% certified-organic ingredients grown without any synthetic pesticides or fertilizers.

The European Union has its own organic standards and Canada will as well in 2007.

Products that are certified as fair trade, such as chocolate or tea, insures that fair wages were paid to the farmers and laborers who produced them, while also giving back to local community projects such as health clinics or schools.

“Buying agricultural raw materials from organic and fair trade certified-sources has tremendous  potential to ensure socially fair conditions and encourages empowering rural communities,” says Gero Leson of Dr. Bronner’s, one of the many companies in the U.S. that utilizes organic and fair trade ingredients in the production of its products.

Munching Grass vs Industrial-Scale Feedlots

A recent Business Week magazine cover story stated the crux of the current issue and some of the controversy surrounding the proliferation of organic food: “As food companies scramble to find enough organically grown ingredients, they are inevitably forsaking the pastoral ethos that has defined the organic lifestyle. For some companies, it means keeping thousands of organic cows on industrial-scale feedlots.”

It is believed that these industrial-scale feedlots are killing their dairy cows at such a rapid rate due to poor animal care practices that they need to constantly supplement their herd by importing conventional replacement cattle. Some of these young cows have been injected with antibiotics, fed genetically modified feed and rendered animal byproducts ”” all of which are prohibited in organic production.

“Besides their interest in the healthful properties of organic milk, consumers have been willing to pay a premium for organic dairy products because they feel they are supporting a different kind of environmental ethic, a more humane animal husbandry and social justice for farmers,” said Mark Kastel, co-founder of the Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute. “When they find out that some major brands produced milk on factory farms with as many as 10,000 heads of cattle, they feel deceived.”

The Cornucopia Institute’s national survey of organic products, Maintaining the Integrity of Organic Milk (, confirms that over 90% of the organic milk brands maintain high ethical standards and give their cows access to pasture( i.e. “grass-fed”). Such brands include Organic Valley, Organic Pasture, Straus Family Creamery, Stoneyfield Yogurt and Whole Foods’ 365-private label brand, among many others.

“What does organic really mean?” is now being hotly debated by everyone, from corporate boardrooms fighting for billion dollar markets, to farmers’ kitchen tables, discussing how they fit into this emerging global supply chain to long-time organic advocates who are thrilled to see organics go beyond their wildest dreams, yet question what happens to the foundational ideals that spawned the revolution.

The Vegetable- Industrial Complex

Michael Pollan’s NY Times best selling book  The Omnivore’s Dilemma is raising the level of awareness of how we think about eating. He stated that, “The way we farm and the way we process our food, both of which have been industrialized and centralized over the last few decades, is endangering our health.” The recent E. coli bacteria spinach debacle might well have been caused by these industrial-style  feedlots. The California Department of Health Services says it found genetic evidence that E. coli bacteria found in manure from the ranch next to the spinach fields had the same characteristics as the strain of E. coli blamed for the contamination of the spinach.

Pollan added, “But if industrial farming gave us this [E. coli] bug, it is industrial eating that has spread it far and wide.” Contrast this to a local farmers’ market where consumers are buying direct from the farmer who picked the lettuce the day before. In Ojai, Ca., long-time organic farmer Steve Sprinkle is a partner in the all-organic cafe Farmer and the Cook, where the salad bar lettuce might have just come off his fields that day. Buying local reduces the distance food travels, reducing pollution and our reliance on imported oil. 

Championing Native Super Foods

Americans consume well over 90% of their food crops from just 11 crops: corn, soy, wheat, oat, rice, potato, tomato, lettuce, bananas, coffee and sugar. With hundreds of thousands of edible plants to choose from, food  entreprenuers are championing foods enjoyed by indigenous cultures, yet forgotten or demonized by Western society. For instance, the anti-oxidant rich Acai berry, sustainably harvested from the Amazon, is one of the true success stories.

Hemp is another up-and-coming superfood. The Chinese cultivated this non-drug crop more than 6000 years ago from a wild plant. Hemp is rich in two vital Omega-3 fatty acids known to counter inflammation, cardiovascular  diseases and GLA fatty acids, and contains all eight essential amino acid proteins, offering high levels of magnesium and zinc.

Hemp foods are legal to consume in the U.S. after the hemp industry’s historic 2004 court victory with the federal government. As U.S. farmers are prevented from growing this crop, hempseed is imported from Canada. Look for hemp-based bars, breads, cereal, protein powders, oils and even milk.

Other rather obscure superfoods are mesquite pods from the Sonora and Peruvian desert and ramon nuts from Guatemala. Mesquite contains 12-14% protein and slow-acting sugars, making it ideal for diabetics. Mesquite is gluten-free, raw and requires no watering or fertilizing. The ramon nut is a traditional food of the Mayan culture, and provides a delicious mocha flavor. It is extremely high in protein, fiber, minerials and vitamins A, B and C. Foods in the U.S. containing ramon nut include Teeccino’s latest herbal coffee and Nutiva Chocolate HempShake protein powder drink mix.


Denmark is experimenting by adding a second barcode to products allowing the shopper to scan the item at a kiosk and see pictures of the farm or processing plant where the food was produced. Organic Valley is leading the way in the U.S. by offering people the chance to trace products via its website.

Transparency is a great ally for conscious consumerism that is helping keep family farms productive and profitable, while allowing newly discovered ancient foods to have a warm welcome at dinner tables across the planet.

Let’s have an organic fair trade drink to that.



John W Roulac is founder and CEO of Nutiva, the world’s leading hemp foods brand, and author of four books on hemp & composting. Nutiva donates 1% of sales to sustainable agriculture projects. To learn more visit