Section E: Beyond Organic?

Projected outcomes:

  1. Students will learn about new critiques of organic agriculture.
  2. Students will learn about agricultural production and marketing approaches that seek to improve sustainability beyond that provided by the organic standards.
  3. Students will learn how ideas about the ethics of the food system are changing.

Background /Lessons:


Organic agriculture has come a long way from a tiny, disorganized, idealistic fringe movement. Twenty-five years ago some may have thought it was a relic of the 1960s that was headed for the compost pile. Now most food stores carry some organic products, it is the fastest growing sector in the grocery business, and the giants in the food processing and retail business, from General Mills to Wal-Mart, want to cash in on the organic market. But rather than rejoicing at the success of the organic paradigm, some former organic supporters are asking “Can organic agriculture remain sustainable with these changes in the market?”

Organic agriculture has drawn criticism since its beginnings, primarily from people who strongly support conventional agriculture. See Claims and Myths about Organic Agriculture for a brief discussion of some of these criticisms. In recent years, however, a new set of critiques has emerged. In a nutshell, rather than saying that organic agriculture is foolish or unnecessary, the new critics say that it does not go far enough. Some of these critics are farmers (Arthur Harvey), some are academics (Julie Guthman, Patricia Allen), others are writers and activists (Michael Pollan).

What are they worried about?

Ecological concerns

As we saw in Section C, protection of the environment is a central focus of the organic standards, but there are two important environmental issues that the organic standards do not address at present: water use and energy use. Although many organic farmers strive to conserve water and reduce fossil fuel consumption, they do so without guidance from the organic rules. And some farmers rely quite heavily on energy-intensive practices such as flaming and intensive cultivation for weed control. Beyond the farm gate, organic foods are moved around the globe as much as conventional products. Imported fresh fruits and vegetables in winter can contribute to a healthy and interesting diet, but particularly when water-laden products such as grapes are moved by air this transport contributes to oil depletion and climate change. (University of Alberta study; Organic food miles article Independent

Economic and social issues

Organic standards do not address economic or social issues, but a number of critics contend that they should.

For many years the organic movement was dominated by small farms and businesses, and in most cases farmers received significant premiums for organic products. So in practice, organic agriculture contributed to the economic sustainability of farms and food businesses. Because these economic gains allowed small and medium-sized farms to thrive where similar businesses in conventional agriculture were struggling economically, organic agriculture also had social benefits for rural communities. Many organic supporters saw these benefits as equal in importance to the ecological benefits and central to the overall sustainability of organic agriculture.

In recent years, however, large traditional food processors and retailers have bought out most small independent organic processing, distribution, and retail businesses. Most large processing companies and retailers are committed to minimizing the price they pay for organic products and often prefer the ease of dealing with a few large suppliers rather than many small farms. Is the loss of social and economic benefits from organic agriculture an inevitable result of the movement’s mainstream success?

See Michael Pollan “Behind the Organic-Industrial Complex,” New York Times Magazine, May 13, 2001, accessed Feb 2008 at; Julie Guthman, “Agrarian Dreams,” accessed Feb 2008 at; Rich Ganis, “Is Industrial Scale Organic Farming Really Organic?” accessed March 2008 at; Business Week, “The Organic Myth: Pastoral ideals are getting trampled as organic food goes mass market” accessed March 2008 at

There is an opposite economic criticism of organic agriculture that is not new, but that still draws attention from organic critics both on the left and on the right. Since organic food tends to be more expensive is it elitist? Or put another way, if organic food is better, is it not socially unjust that only the wealthy are easily able to afford it?

Animal Welfare

Organic standards include animal welfare requirements, including a requirement to treat sick animals and language about “access to the outdoors, shade, shelter, exercise areas, fresh air, and direct sunlight” and “access to pasture for ruminants.” However, the rule allows for a lot of interpretation, and criticism has been leveled at several large organic farms for ignoring the spirit of the livestock handling requirements. High profile critics include food writer Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” and the Cornucopia Institute, a small Wisconsin NGO that follows organic and sustainable agriculture issues.

Activity 1: Find the Loopholes


The farmers, processors, and retailers who produced and delivered organic food in the 1970s and 1980s did so because they believed it was better for the environment and for society. Many of the new players in the organic market are there simply for the money, despite their green marketing rhetoric. Even in the “good old days” organic farmers and processors sometimes made mistakes and sometimes had to compromise for financial or practical reasons. The increasing importance of profits as the motivation for organic agriculture raises concerns that such compromises will become the rule rather than the exception and that the integrity of the organic market will be lost.

One area where this issue of integrity has received particular attention is the question of what should be allowed in the processing of organic foods. As the organic market has grown, the profile of organic foods has changed to include more processing. Prepared foods, snackfood, and sauces and condiments now account for more than 20% of organic food sales. When you add baked goods, cheese, yogurt, canned foods, and beverages, the share of processed organic foods rises to over half the market.

In the conventional food system, most of this processing would involve the use of a variety of additives. Organic standards restrict the substances that can be used in food processing, but some non-organic substances are allowed, such as salt and baking powder. (Since salt is a mineral, not a biological product, it cannot be an organic product.) The question is where do you draw the line on what additives should be allowed for what purposes?

Everything Else

Food and agriculture are central to our lives, but they are only one dimension of our impact on the earth. However, everything in our environment is connected in some way, so one could raise the question of where the boundaries of organic agriculture should be drawn. Should tractors in organic agriculture be required to run on biodiesel? How about the trucks that deliver organic food? Should organic shops and restaurants be heated by solar power and powered by wind? Should they be built according to sustainable building standards?

See “Going Out to Eat But Staying Green,” New York Times, February 13, 2008, and “Fulton Provision Co. Earns [Food Alliance] Certification for Sustainable Business Practices”

Internal reform

People in all sectors of organic food production are keenly aware of these critiques, and many are trying to address them in a variety of ways.

Through Discussion and Reform

Some organic leaders are beginning to explore the possibility of expanding organic standards to address energy and water use. Fred Kirschenmann, an organic farmer from North Dakota who also serves as Distinguished Fellow for the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, recently challenged the organic community to focus on these critical issues.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Britain’s premier organic certifying organization is considering a change that will begin to address energy and social and economic concerns. The debate over whether the energy costs and greenhouse gas emissions of imported organic products is justified by the economic benefits for farmers in developing nations prompted the Soil Association to announce that it would look into requiring air-freighted imports to meet fair trade guidelines as well as the current ecological standards to qualify for organic certification. See;; and

Through the Courts

In 2002, Arthur Harvey, an organic blueberry farmer from Maine, sued the US Department of Agriculture, claiming their regulations were not stringent enough to meet the provisions of the 1990 Organic Food Production Act. This suit and the subsequent appeals touched off heated debate within the organic community. Following a ruling of the appeals court in 2005 in favor of three of Harvey’s claims, Congress passed an amendment to the Organic Food Production Act, essentially bringing the act in line with current organic food production practices, rather than changing regulations and practices to reflect the language of the original act. Individuals and organizations sharply disagree over what impacts this amendment will have on organic food production. See Open Letter to the Organic Community; Harvey and the Soul of Organic; How the Media Missed the Organic Story and In the Words of Arthur Harvey

Within Businesses

Some organic business structures do address social and economic issues, even though that is not required by organic standards. For example, Wisconsin-based Organic Valley is organized as a producers’ cooperative, where every farmer who supplies the coop is also a voting member of the business. And their policy for paying farmers emphasizes economic sustainability for the farm rather than profit maximization for the processor.

In its educational materials, Organic Valley sees the USDA Organic Regulations as merely the starting point for an “organic food life” that also includes choosing locally grown whole foods and cooperative business structures.

Activity 2: Business Report: sustainability index

External solutions

The organic regulations are already complex enough. Rather than expanding the requirements of organic agriculture, another approach is to develop separate standards or criteria for other aspects of sustainability. These other criteria can be applied in addition to organic certification or entirely on their own.

Activity 3: Change the World, or Just Eat Lunch?

Fair Trade

Probably the best-known ethical food branding after organic is fair trade. In brief, fair trade labeled products generally have the following criteria:

  • Fair price for the farmers
  • Fair labor conditions for workers
  • Direct trade relationships between growers, processors, and retailers (no speculative intermediate buyers)
  • Democratic and transparent organization of grower organizations
  • Community development and investment
  • Environmental sustainability

The leading fair trade products in the US are coffee, tea, chocolate and cocoa, and bananas. Like organic certification, fair trade labeling is sometimes criticized for not being stringent enough. There are also concerns that fair trade provides “greenwashing” or public relations for companies that primarily engage in business as usual but offer a tiny product line that is fair trade certified. If a company advertises that it sells fair trade coffee it does not necessarily mean all the coffee it sells is fair trade! For more information on Fair Trade see,,, and Fair to the Last Drop.

Domestic Fair Trade

To date, fair trade labeling has focused on products imported from developing nations. However, some activists are beginning to work on domestic fair trade principles, since fair pay, transparent business practices, democracy, and environmental sustainability seem like good ideas for the US and other developed nations as well.

Food Alliance Eco-label

The Food Alliance is a non-profit organization dedicated to marketing sustainable agriculture. They have a certification program for farms that:

  • Provide Safe and Fair Working Conditions
  • Ensure the Health and Humane Treatment of Animals
  • Do Not Use Hormone or Antibiotic Supplements
  • Do Not Raise Genetically Modified Crops or Livestock (GMOs)
  • Reduce Pesticide Use and Toxicity
  • Protect Water Resources
  • Protect and Enhance Soil Resources
  • Provide Wildlife habitat
  • Continually Improve Practices

While their regulations on pesticide and fertilizer use are less stringent than organic standards, their economic and animal welfare requirements are more rigorous. See for more information.

Local Foods
For many ethically motivated shoppers, buying local foods is seen as a way to reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, as well as a way to provide economic benefits to local communities. See Time Magazine “Eating Better Than Organic”,9171,1595245,00.html.

Critics have pointed out that, depending on the details of their production and delivery, local foods do not necessarily use less energy. For example, raising tomatoes in heated greenhouses in a Wisconsin winter requires more energy than trucking field-grown tomatoes from Central America. Most local food consumers also look for other indicators of sustainability. As one writer commented, “I find the debate about whether local is better than organic tiresome because each represents such a small portion of the food supply. … Both are right for different reasons and can thrive simultaneously.”
(Samuel Fromartz, Organic, Inc.: Natural Foods and How They Grew, Harcourt Books, 2006, p. 252)

A lot of local food is marketed directly: at farmers’ markets, through CSAs, and on-farm. Direct marketing allows consumers and farmers to talk about their values, but it is more time-consuming than using conventional retail channels.


No system of food production can guarantee perfect sustainability. The organic standards have flaws and gaps, but there are a variety of efforts to address at least some of them. In addition, consumers, farmers, and processors can seek to buy and produce food with other ethical qualities, such as economic justice (fair trade) and local food.

As yet, they account for a small percentage of the food sold both in the US and around the world, but organic and other value-based foods are a rapidly growing part of the market. Questions about the environmental and social sustainability of our food supply are becoming mainstream. However, the complexity of the agroecosystem and food system make reform challenging. What kinds of ethical attributes consumers demand and growers and processors supply will continue to evolve.