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Consumers are willing to pay a premium for organic products, but the realities can mean you get little more than a psychological boost for your buck. Supermarkets in North America and Europe are overflowing with organic-labelled fruit, vegetables, eggs, and meats. More than 80 countries have organic standards and products carry one or more of 200 seals, logos, and certification claims. But are consumers able to make informed choices? What is the real ethical impact of ‘buying organic’? The answers are murkier than you might think. Ecolabels represent an ecological, ethical ingredient or sustainability claim. The US, Canada, the European Union, and Japan have comprehensive organic standards overseen by governments. Many nations have a ‘100% organic’ label. But the devil is in the detail, and the details can be devilish indeed. In the US, the Department of Agriculture label has numerous levels—headed by the 100% designation USDA Organic seal. The US government also allows the word ‘organic’ on products that contain 95% organic ingredients. But they could contain monosodium glutamate, a flavour-enhancing natural ingredient, or carrageenan, a seaweed substance that thickens food. Both ingredients are an anathema to organicfavouring foodies, who believe that they pose health dangers even though government scientists have cleared them as perfectly harmless. So, how reliable are organic labels? For one thing, conventional and genetically modified seeds are known to occasionally mix with organic supplies. But in-depth field testing to ensure compliance on this is a rarity. Typically, certification requires only that operations must have a system plan and compliance records. Some organic labels are more rigorous than others. To earn the EU’s new organic label, farmers and processors must follow a strict set of standards, including the requirement that 95% of the product’s agricultural ingredients have been organically produced and certified as such. Some member countries have their own organic labels in addition to the EU-wide regime. The organic industry in North America and Europe is now estimated to be worth a combined €40 billion a year. According to the European commission, those regions comprise 90% of global organic consumption. Of course, with success comes temptation; the organic industry is no different from any other. In 2009, for example, American retailer Target was nabbed for falsely advertising soymilk as organic. Two years earlier the USDA considered pulling the organic certification from Target’s dairy supplier—and the US’s largest—Aurora Dairy, which supplies mega-organic company Horizon, for selling non-organic milk marketed as organic for more than four years. In early 2013, German authorities said they had identified more than 200 farms suspected of selling premium priced eggs as organic free range that actually were laid by hens kept in pens. While strict rules exist in many countries for meat, egg, and dairy farms claiming to be organic, unresolved issues about the ethical treatment of animals remain contentious. Italy has emerged as fraud central. In April 2013, in an operation dubbed Green War, prosecutors in Pesaro identified 23 suspected members of a counterfeiting ring. The fraudsters apparently set up a dozen shell companies across Europe, issuing fake organic certificates for conventional foodstuffs. In previous fraud cases, conventional goods were brought into the EU and then relabelled. Now, say prosecutors, products are stamped ‘organic’ in the Ukraine or Moldova and fraudulently certified on site. China has emerged as a nettlesome challenge. It has moved aggressively into the organic market, exporting canned tomatoes, milk, and dried fruit and tea. But its certifying system is less than reliable. Banned toxic pesticides and other chemicals have shown up on several occasions. Next to issues of labelling and auditing, there remain some inherent trade-offs with organic food. Although organic farming may be environmentally benign when producing small quantities for regional markets, it is precarious on a large scale. In 2008, the USDA conducted the Organic Production Survey, the largest ever study of organic farming yields. In line with previous research, the survey found that it takes one-and-a-half to two times as much land in the US to grow food organically as it does to grow food by conventional methods. This production shortfall puts pressure on global farmers to grow more to make up the difference. In the developing world, that can mean burning down forests to turn the land into farmland, a process that emits a tremendous amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and harms the water cycle and species that live in forests. In other words, although organic farming might require the use of fewer manufactured pesticides, its broader impact can be environmentally problematic.


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