Trust the Organic Label

With Kathleen Merrigan

The organic ecosystem is as varied and complex as the U.S landscape. The industry faces a number of challenges including consumer confusion around what organic means, input and product shortages in organic supply chains, competition from new environmental labels, and the concern that some NOP rules are limiting further growth and innovation that has been achieved in other markets.

In this episode, I’m joined by Kathleen Merrigan, Executive Director and Professor at the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems Arizona State University and the Former Deputy Secretary of USDA, to talk about the complexity of organic and the potential for its future.

Join us as we discuss:

  • The definition and standards of organic,
  • How does sustainable agriculture and vertical farming fit in
  • Acceptance of biotechnology and genome technology in organic agriculture


Guest: Kathleen Merrigan, Executive Director and Professor at Arizona State University & Former Deputy Secretary of USDA

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Trust the Organic Label
w/ Kathleen Merrigan

The organic ecosystem is as varied and complex as the U.S landscape. The industry faces numerous challenges: consumer confusion around what organic means, input and product shortages in organic supply chains, competition from new environmental labels, and concern that some NOP rules are preventing the growth and innovation seen in other markets.

In a recent episode of Fresh Takes on Tech, Kathleen Merrigan, Executive Director and Professor at the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems Arizona State University and the Former Deputy Secretary of USDA, spoke about the complexity of organic and the potential for its future.

Kathleen covered:

  • The definition and standards for organic
  • The acceptance of biotechnology and genome technology in organic agriculture
  • How sustainable agriculture and vertical farming fit in

Organic defined

While most expect— and would understandably love — a simple, one-sentence definition to encompass the entire practice of organic agriculture, unfortunately, this can get complicated quickly.

This is a problem because, historically, pinning down the definition of “organic” has posed major challenges for the industry — and the relevant regulatory bodies.

Organic is… what it’s not?
If you were to ask several people to define organic agricultural practices, chances are, the majority will define organic by what it isn’t.

They may respond that organic doesn’t use pesticides or genetic engineering — perhaps that it doesn’t use synthetic fertilizers, ionizing radiation or added hormones.

In short, many would give you a definition filled with absence claims.

This absence-based view of organic is common amongst consumers and a persistent feature in the messaging from both the industry and advocacy groups, precisely because it resonates with people.

For example, when Organic Voices, a leader in the organic field (if you’ll forgive the pun), tried to pin down what messaging resonated most with people with regards to organic, they found people overwhelmingly responded to the lack of pesticides.

A positive view of organic
Kathleen prefers to view organic through a lens of its active practices, rather than the things it doesn’t do.

She points to the many important components to organic agriculture that don’t command as much space in the headlines.

Practices like:

  • Crop rotation (the cornerstone of organic production)
  • The need for buffers when budding a stream
  • The need to ensure that production maintains biodiversity
  • Allowing ruminants access to pastures
  • The use of manure and the rules regulating its use

This view of organic is built upon the activities organic production engages in — and the rules governing how to perform these activities responsibly.

The regulatory component
Whether you are defining it by what is absent from its practices or what it actively does, organic production comes with a lot of rules.

And while many industries bemoan government regulations, when it comes to organic, most producers, consumers and advocacy groups are actually begging for consistent regulations for the industry.

The organic industry is begging to be regulated. They want these tough rules because they know their consumers want them to follow these tough rules.”
— Kathleen Merrigan

Still, if pinning down a simple definition for organic is so challenging, it should probably come as no surprise that regulatory bodies have had a notoriously difficult time when codifying rules defining it from a legal perspective.

Currently, the Organic Trade Organization — a citizen advisory board recommending standards to the secretary of agriculture — may be the leading authority on what should legally define organic.

While some of what they have argued for has made it into the law books, many of their recommendations have been left on a proverbial shelf, still awaiting action from the USDA.

Ultimately, there is no universal government standard for organic, which means the industry is left to define itself. It’s why, currently, the community-generated organic label is still the gold star for consumers wishing to buy organic produce.

The role of modern biotechnology

While complexity may cause issues, simple definitions for organic allow very little room for exceptions, which can make the journey from theory to practice a rocky one.

The natural question
For instance, organic agriculture is often defined as an all-natural, synthetic-free practice. While this is certainly usually true (and in line with the philosophical spirit) of organic, in practice, such a black-and-white view rarely survives contact with conditions on the ground.

Take the common organic practice of deterring insects from crops with pheromones rather than insecticides: In theory, the industry could gather enough insects that the miniscule amount of pheromones each produces could be used en masse… but, in practice, that would be prohibitively expensive, excessively difficult and, one imagines, a horrible experience for the insects involved.

Instead — and it may come as a shock to some organic enthusiasts — an artificial pheromone is manufactured and deployed, which is one of the few accepted uses of synthetics in the industry.

Likewise, on the other side, things like arsenic may be all-natural, but widespread use would wreak havoc on the environment (and has in the past).

Luckily, this is something recognized by regulatory bodies. For example: the National Organic Standards Board — an advisory board responsible for recommending a list of which materials should be approved or denied — retains the ability to make common-sense exceptions to the prohibition on synthetics.

Organic pioneers
Another issue posed by inflexible rules is that it may unintentionally paint organic as lacking innovation or even being a type of neo-Luddite movement.

But this couldn’t be further from the truth.

With so many self-imposed constraints, organic farmers have to find creative and innovative ways to continue to produce yields that will satisfy the ever-increasing demand for organic.

And this creativity doesn’t just benefit the organic sector — it’s a boon for agriculture as a whole.

"Organic farmers have had to be very creative research pioneers — and it has benefited all of American agriculture.”
— Kathleen Merrigan


One example Kathleen points to is the practice of rotational grazing. This was originally pioneered by organic farmers, but it eventually became the standard nationwide because it was demonstrably more effective than the status quo.

Some other exciting organic innovations include the practice of herding cattle with drones and the development of a biofilm to delay fruit ripening and minimize food waste.

Organic farming benefits everyone.

Genome technology
One area of biotech that organic standards have, historically, rigidly opposed is genetic engineering.

Yet, Kathleen concedes that there are promising opportunities offered by genome technology. She points to the organic community’s love for innovations like the Impossible Burger — made possible by genetic engineering — as an indication that the tide may be turning in this area.

The sustainability question

Ultimately, the organic community thrives because people — in ever-increasing numbers — are concerned about their contribution to the negative impacts their consumption has on the environment.

This rising eco-consciousness in consumers has led to a high demand for sustainability in agriculture and plenty of innovative solutions being proposed to help mitigate environmental threats like climate change.

One solution Kathleen says shows promise in this area is the practice of vertical farming, which offers a chance to transform urban areas into agricultural production centers. And while this may not yield enough produce to feed the entire population, it may offset some of the issues created by increasing urbanization and a decrease in available land — and likely improve economics and equity in agriculture.

After all, these are vital components to sustainability — or, as Kathleen so eloquently puts it:

“The three E's: environment, economics and equity — sustainability is a three-legged stool and each leg needs to be equally long if the stool is going to be stable.”
— Kathleen Merrigan


Wrapping up

While organic may mean different things to consumers, producers, advocates and government bodies, there are certain core philosophies to the movement that most can agree on.

Organic is about feeding our population in a more responsible way, offsetting the negative impact our species has on the planet. It’s about finding creative and innovative methods for achieving this to ensure that everyone has safe access to food for generations to come.

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