| Food & Diet

How Agribusiness Has Silently Taken Over Organic Food

By Christopher Walker

Organic foods are no longer the domain of health food stores. You can find food with USDA-certified organic labels in most supermarkets, in the same aisle as conventionally grown, pesticide-sprayed produce. This is because there is an increased demand for organic food.


  • Why Do People Want to Go Organic?
  • What Is Organic Food?
  • How Big Organic Is Deceiving U.S. Consumers
  • Pesticides and USDA Labels
  • Certified organic foods sold in 2017 totaled $49.4 billion dollars1. After many news articles, documentaries and exposes, organic is now mainstream. In an effort to keep themselves and their children healthier, shoppers are often choosing to fork over a few extra dollars for that organic head of lettuce or carton of strawberries. This mindset change is a positive step in the right direction, but it doesn’t account for the fact that the organic industry, as a whole, has changed too. Shopping for organic food is a mainstream activity, and it makes sense that the industry would follow. Rather than a niche industry of small family farms bringing their produce to market via horse and buggy, Big Organic is now a giant. The industry is supported by billions of dollars, just like villainized industries called Big Dairy or similar names, for the purpose of pitting large corporations against the individual.

    Why Do People Want to Go Organic?

    Consumers have proven that there is money in the organic industry. The money they outlay proves they are willing to pay in order to avoid pesticides and antibiotics. Many city-dwellers don’t have the time or the resources in order to grow their own vegetables, and even those who live in suburban or rural environments don’t have the time or the knowledge to do so. This is where the organic industry steps in to fill the void. While this is the case, it’s important not to over exaggerate the size of the organic industry. Out of all the land that is cultivated for agricultural purposes, “less than one percent of global agricultural land1” is certified organic. However, most people think that it’s worth it. Links to cancer, memory issues, obesity, sexual dysfunction and other issues are scary enough to make a switch to organic. Some people would go organic on the off chance that they are saving themselves from some pesticide exposure, but clear links have been established in multiple studies.

    What Is Organic Food?

    Initially, it’s important to establish what organic food actually is. There are categories that “organic” food can be lumped in, according to regulators — which includes USDA, the FDA and the EPA. Food that has a USDA seal can fit into one of two categories: either 100% organic or simply organic. One-hundred percent organic food is for one-ingredient items, which could be fruits or eggs for instance. If items have many ingredients, each individual one must be labeled organic2.

    USDA organic seal

     Courtesy: USDA

    What Does the “100% Organic” Label Mean?

    Foods that are just labeled “organic” are a little more complicated. According to the Mayo Clinic, an organic label may or may not have a USDA seal, but it means the following:

    “If a multi-ingredient food is labeled organic, at least 95 percent of the ingredients are certified organic, excluding salt and water. The nonorganic items must be from a USDA list of approved additional ingredients. These also may have a USDA seal2.”

    This approach means that the food labeled organic is still very pure, but the technicalities continue. The last two categories are “made with organic” and “organic ingredients.”

    organic labels explainedCourtesy: USDA

    What Does the “Made With Organic” Label Mean?

    “Made With Organic” must be composed of 70% certified organic ingredients. On the ingredients list, it must be clearly stated which individual components are organic and which are not. Foods that fall into this category aren’t allowed to carry a USDA seal.

    What Does the “Organic Ingredients” Label Mean?

    The “organic ingredients” label falls into a questionable category. Under 70% of the ingredients utilized are organic, and the list of ingredients may or may not indicate which specific elements are organic2. This approach can help define the choices you make at the supermarket. Latching onto the word “organic” and assuming that it’s 100% pure is a dangerous assumption. It’s one that may lead to you forking over money for food that has an organic ingredient or two, but isn’t that much better than a cheaper conventional option.

    How Big Organic Is Deceiving U.S. Consumers

    However, there are worse issues in the larger organic industry than tricky labeling.  The conventional agricultural industry has been villainized for using pesticides, covering up findings, and continuing to promote a narrative where pesticides aren’t harmful, which ignores the truth. However, the bigger organic industry is by no means the white hat in this story. The billions of dollars, thrown into the industry by American consumers, has allowed Big Organic to muscle into a loftier position. There are professional lobbyists and special interests that are more than capable of corrupting findings and altering processes in order to make money. When the scales are tipped by people and corporations with their own interests in mind, the consumer usually can and does suffer. This is definitely the case when it comes to the organic industry, too. Courtesy: The Cornucopia Institute

    Special Interest and Lobbying Efforts

    The issue is not always directly promoting the organic industry. Often, the approach is more insidious. By conducting a smear campaign on the conventional agricultural and genetically engineered foods industry, the natural and organic agriculture industries are naturally and publicly elevated to a place of moral superiority. However, in an article published by a division of the Hoover Institute Journal3, they discussed a study that was conducted by Jay Byrne. He examined the following:

    “IRS filings, annual reports, and other financial sources of companies, trade organizations, and NGOs involved in the effort to discredit modern agriculture … in 2011 the groups tracked by his company spent $2.5 billion campaigning against genetic engineering in North America alone …Ronnie Cummins, Director of the Organic Consumers Association, spelled out the industry’s agenda: “The burning question for us all then becomes how—and how quickly—can we move healthy, organic products from a 4.2% market niche, to the dominant force in American food and farming? The first step is to change our labeling laws.”

    This type of approach clearly indicates monetary motivations, rather than a crusade on behalf of the consumer. There is a reason for this.

    Big Organic Is Using Harmful Pesticides

    The issue with farms that span hundreds of acres in order to make a decent, organized living off the production of USDA-certified organic food, is that there are gross misconceptions revolving around how food is actually grown. Pesticides are used on USDA-certified organic foods, and most people don’t know that. For instance, not all chemicals are man-made. Some do occur naturally, and some are fair game for organic produce. Studies have been done on the disparity between people’s expectations and the truth, and consequently, many studies have been done on the health risks and ramifications of trusting these chemicals.

    RELATED READING: The FDA Doesn’t Want You to Know GMOs Are in 80 Percent of All Food

    A study4 conducted by Berkeley discusses options that are available for farmers. There are the usual tips to help with pest control. These options are easy on the environment, pose no risk to the consumer, and are simple enough to conduct in a tomato patch in the backyard. Choosing crops that are naturally disease- and pest-resistant and setting insect traps are all options. However, in some situations, farmers are desperate to salvage their crop. Some people know that synthetic chemicals, the type used on conventional farms, are common. 50% of those synthetic chemicals have been proven carcinogenic. However, 50% of natural chemicals have been proven carcinogenic as well.

    fruits, vegetables, and pesticides

     Courtesy: EconMom

    Pesticides and USDA Labels

    According to an article published in a myth-busting series by the Scientific American5, there are governmental and oversight issues with this as well. More than twenty chemicals are used in organic agricultural practices, and each one meets the organic standards set by the United States. However, in the case of conventional farms, the actual amount of pesticides used must be recorded by the government. Organic farms don’t have to report the amount of “organic pesticides” used on their land and crops to the government. This is especially concerning since studies have proved that organic pesticides must be used more intensely, because they are less effective than their conventional and synthetic counterparts. “According to the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy5, the top two organic fungicides, copper and sulfur, were used at a rate of 4 pounds per acre in 1971. In contrast, the synthetic fungicides only required a rate of 1.6 pounds per acre, less than half the amount of the organic alternatives.” Since the government doesn’t require reporting of these natural fungicides and pesticides, consumers are left in the dark as to what’s really on their plate.

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    Another misconception involving organic food is the amount of pesticides that are used. In order to be sold, there are strict, conservative levels of pesticides that can be found on foods and still be sold. This minimizes exposure and lowers health risks. There are usually pesticide levels detected on mainstream organic foods, too. However, even though the amount of pesticides on conventional foods are strictly regulated, it still doesn’t account for the fact that pesticides usually build up and accumulate over time, which is when health issues begin to flare up and occur, seemingly out of nowhere after a lifetime of exposure.

    what the USDA organic seal really means

     Courtesy: LetsGrowTogether

    However, natural pesticides can also accumulate in your system. Often, people point the finger at synthetic chemicals, rather than the natural ones. One example, Rotenone, illustrates the danger of this approach. According to the American Council of Science and Health6, Rotenone is a naturally occurring chemical that is Class II, which equals moderately hazardous. In the graph presented, it’s allowed to be used in organic farming. However, there is no decisive information on whether or not rotenone can cause cancer. In studies, it didn’t cause tumors in hamsters. However, large mammary tumors developed in albino rats. It is highly toxic to fish, and is toxic to humans in a dose of 2.8 grams. This study’s point is made by juxtaposing rotenone against sumithrin, which is the primary element in Raid. Sumithrin is less toxic on most counts than rotenone, which is allowed in the cultivation of organic produce. This type of information is what produces so much skepticism that revolves around the natural and organic agriculture industry.

    Is There Any Hope for the American Consumer?

    This type of information can be more paralyzing than actionable. If the conventional agricultural industry causes poisons to accumulate in your system, and mainstream organic industries aren’t much better in some cases, where can you buy your produce? Rather than wildly swinging to either extreme, it’s important to remember two things. Firstly, it’s impossible to avoid all toxins. No matter how carefully you curate your diet and your surroundings, we live in a world that’s full of potential dangers and toxins. The best we can do is to keep our exposure as low as possible through conscious choices that control the variables within your power as much as possible. Secondly, many studies state that Americans are more concerned with where their fruits and vegetables come from, rather than consuming enough. Most Americans don’t eat enough fruits or vegetables, and consciously upping your consumption will definitely give your health a boost. Experimenting with a wide variety of recipes, combinations, and preparation methods will help you glean the benefits of fruits and vegetables. However, that still leaves the problem of sourcing them.

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    Most of us know the typical solution — go find a farmer’s market, grow your own carrots, find a friend with a green thumb and get as close to the source of your food as possible. However, not all of us have the ability to go to a health food store, or the knowledge and resources to grow our own food. There are some mainstream brands that have been highly rated for quality. Some options are even vegetarian! Organic Valley and Organic Prairie, Amy’s Kitchen, Nature’s Path, and Bob’s Red Mill are all highly recommended brands7. These brands try to embody the spirit of organic foods, rather than following the letter of the law in order to make money off the organic trend. Taking steps to be conscious of the different ‘levels’ of organic labeling, washing your produce, and keeping an eye out for the brands listed above can help lower your toxins exposure, and improve your health at the same time.

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    Citations and Sources