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What Does “Organic” Mean?

Why Investigate the O Word
By Pia Hinckle & Chris Mittelstaedt

From their humble back-to-mother-earth roots, organics have moved solidly into the mainstream food business, now a growing multi-billion dollar industry. The good news is that there are now certifiable standards for what qualifies as “organic” and more people than ever are eating food grown with practices that are less harmful to the environment than conventional industrial agriculture. The bad news, or rather, the looming threat, is that as local organic production turns into Big O, small farms may end up feeling squeezed out. Big O is turning into Big Money, with products commanding premium prices at farmers markets and chain supermarkets alike.

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This month we offer three stories exploring what the word organic can mean today, and how it affects farms, food packaging, and even food handlers like The FruitGuys. In the first story, Charlene Oldham reports in “The O Word: Growing Organic Industry Forces Farms to Pay to Play,” some small farms that were at the forefront of the organic movement are opting out of the lengthy certification process for reasons ranging from practical (paperwork, resources, or cost) to political (national organics standards aren’t high enough, objections to pay-to-play, or First Amendment).

In “What’s in a Name? Labeling Claims Cause Confusion in ‘Natural’ Market,” Charlene explores how what’s inside may not necessarily correspond to the bright and shiny words outside and how truth in labeling claims are rarely addressed in our confusing food landscape.

And as Almanac Editor Miriam Wolf writes in “Handling Organics: Certification for a Fruit Seller,” The FruitGuys experience in gaining official USDA certification as an organic food handler sheds light on the pros and cons of the growth of a regulated system.

These stories all point to concerns that we have about food language, fairness, transparency, and even the First Amendment. In a world where small farmers who are not certified organic may actually be farming in a more “organic” fashion than larger certified organic farms, the question has to be asked:  What’s in a name? There appears to be an over-regulation of the use of the term “organic” and perhaps an under-regulation of the term “natural.” Is the meaning of the word “organic” watered down from what it once was? Is it being used for competitive advantage by those who can afford to pay to play? Has it been reduced to marketing spin? Or is it truly a standard that is necessary to follow and continually renew?

We tried to ask some of these critical questions here in The FruitGuys Almanac’s first investigative package. Both of us were writers or journalists before getting into the fruit business back in 1998. Our writing has grown from Chris’ one page box flyer to today’s network of experienced journalists and food and health writers. We will continue to challenge conventional wisdom in food and agriculture politics and policy.

Chris Mittelstaedt is the founder and CEO of The FruitGuys, a San Francisco-based, certified organic, produce provider to offices, homes, and schools nationwide. Pia Hinckle is publisher of The FruitGuys Almanac. They met while working at The San Francisco Bay Guardian alternative weekly in the mid-1990s. They are married and live in San Francisco with their 3 children. 

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