Organic and Local: Still the Gold Standard

2014 1013 org fwLa Montanita Co-op Produce Manager checks wheatgrass in the fresh produce section at the La Montanita Co-op Valley Store, a socially responsible, locally owned food cooperative that supports a stable market for local farmers and producers of sustainable and organic regional/local agriculture in Albuquerque, NM. (Photo: USDA)

In 2011, we wrote an article exposing the then-popular trend in food marketing—promoting “local” foods as “sustainable,” “healthy” or “natural,” even when they weren’t.

As we wrote at the time, “local” often means nothing more than food that has been sourced from within a prescribed geographic area. (According to Walmart and Big Food, “local” refers to anything produced within a 400-mile radius). But because a growing number of conscientious consumers actively seek out the “local” label—and are willing to pay a premium for it—corporations routinely co-opt the term so they can sell more product, at higher prices, in order to increase profit margins by promising (but not actually delivering) added value.

Fast forward a couple of years, and we see that sales of “local” food are still on the rise, as are sales of “natural” and more recently, “Non-GMO” foods. And today, just as they were a few years ago, consumers are still being duped by corporations that use these labels to pass off products as something they aren’t.

The fact is, none of these labels—local, natural or non-GMO—on its own provide a guarantee that the food behind the label is either healthy, sustainable or natural. There is only one food label that provides that guarantee: USDA Organic. And because organic food sourced locally is not only healthy, sustainable and natural, but also supports small farmers and contributes to strong communities, today’s Gold Standard for the health-conscious and environmentally and socially concerned consumer is USDA organic and local.

Local, but is it better?

Sales of local food grew from about $1 billion in 2005 to nearly $7 billion in 2013, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Consumer demand is the primary driver of local food sales. But what’s driving consumer preference?

In its new report, “Organic & Natural 2014,” The Hartman Group claims that the “authenticity halo around organic and natural has begun to fade, and local foods and beverages are poised to surpass them as a symbol of trust and transparency.”

If organic’s halo is fading, it’s not by accident. Over the past few years, the corporate food and biotech industries have stepped up their attacks on the organic label, largely in response to consumer concerns about genetically engineered foods. Industry has a vested interest in tarnishing organics. After all, the organic label guarantees a food product is GMO-free. And with nearly 80 percent of all processed foods containing GMOs (genetically modified organisms), Big Food has good reason to steer consumers away from organic.

Assuming some consumers have grown skeptical of the organic label, what leads them to put their trust instead in “local” food?

Citing The Hartman Group report again:

People believe in the integrity of local producers and small farmers, seeing them as deeply invested in the quality of their products. Their trust is bolstered by the close proximity of local food sources, which translates into shorter distances traveled—and thus a perception of greater freshness. They like keeping their money in the community and the idea that they are eating food that’s in season.

Supporting local farmers. Keeping money in the community. Eating fresher, in-season food. These are all good reasons to buy local.

But absent any definition of “local” other than specifying the distance food is allowed to travel between farm to supermarket or farmers market or restaurant, what’s the basis for consumer trust in local producers and farmers? Or the quality of their products?

Despite the increasing popularity of the eat-local movement, many people don’t understand that “local” doesn’t necessarily mean that food is organic or even safe. Chemically grown foods produced locally may be cheaper than organic. They may aid the local economy. They may be fresh.

But no matter how local the food you purchase is, if it isn’t organic, the process used to grow that food polluted ground water, degraded the soil food web, diminished the soil’s capacity to sequester climate-destabilizing greenhouse gases, spread pesticides into the air, poisoned farmworkers, and added to the buildup of toxic residues in your own body.

Naturally genetically engineered

Consumer Reports released this week (October 7, 2014) the results of tests conducted on more than 80 different processed foods containing corn or soy. The tests revealed that those products labeled “organic” or “non-GMO” were in fact GMO-free.

But almost all of the products that were labeled “natural” contained substantial amounts of GMOs.

The non-profit testing group said it found GMOs in breakfast cereals, potato chips and infant formula—all of them sold to consumers under the “natural” label.

Slapping the word “natural” on products that are anything but, is one of the most brilliant—and profitable—food marketing scams of all time. According to the “United States Organic Food Market Forecast & Opportunities, 2018,” sales of so-called “natural” foods, including nutritional supplements, topped $70 billion in 2013.

Compare that figure with same-year sales of certified organic foods: $35 billion. Organics represent the fastest-growing segment of the food industry. Sales are projected to reach $40 billion by the end of this year. According to the Hartman Group, 73 percent of consumers now buy organics, and more than a third use them at least monthly.

Those are strong numbers. But a survey published by the Consumer Reports National Research Center suggests there is still a lot of confusion among consumers as to the difference between organic and “natural.” According the survey, nearly 60 percent of people said they look for the term “natural” on food labels when they shop. And approximately two-thirds of consumers surveyed said they believe the term “natural” means that a processed food has no artificial ingredients, pesticides or genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The U.S. Food & Drug Administration has so far refused to establish a comprehensive definition of “natural.” As a result, just as an example, “natural” livestock products are routinely produced using conventional factory farm or CAFO (Confined Animal Feeding Operations) methods, including intensive confinement, daily doses of antibiotics, growth hormones, GMO feed, and slaughterhouse waste. Blood, wrapper-covered candy, chicken feathers and excrement, sawdust and many other so-called feed ingredients can be fed to livestock, and the meat from that livestock can still be deceptively labeled or marketed as “natural.”

Consumers who seek out the “natural” label believing they’re buying a product equal in quality to—or even better than—organic are being duped. Not unlike the consumer who believes “local” is synonymous with healthy and sustainable.

GMO-Free junk food?

Citizen-led state ballot initiatives demanding mandatory labeling of GMOs have sparked widespread interest and concern among consumers about the presence of GMOs in the foods they buy and feed their families.

Those initiatives, in in California (2101), Washington State (2013) and Oregon and Colorado (2014), also launched the newest, and fastest-growing labeling trend: Non-GMO.

According to a report In the Rock River Times, 80 percent of shoppers seeking out non-GMO products and 56 percent say non-GMO is key to brand buying. To date, more than 22,000 products have been Non-GMO Project Verified, with annual sales of these products topping $7 billion.

Food Navigator-USA reports that U.S. retail sales of non-GMO foods are projected to grow 12.9 percent over the next five years, and account for 30 percent of food and beverage sales by 2017. Demand for the Non-GMO Project label was spurred by the announcement in 2012 by Whole Foods Market that the nation’s largest retailer of organic foods will label all foods, including meat, dairy, eggs and deli or take-out items containing GMOs by 2018.

As with local, non-GMO is a good thing. But non-GMO alone doesn’t guarantee healthy and sustainable. Because corporations want a piece of the non-GMO pie, products labeled non-GMO, but containing all manner of artificial and chemical ingredients, and grown using pesticides and chemical fertilizers, are now showing up on grocery shelves, side-by-side with organic products. A perfect examples is New York-based Murray’s Chicken, which promotes its “Better for You” Non-GMO Chicken without the Organic Chicken Price Tag!

Marketing strategies like the one used by Murray’s Chicken are creating even more confusion in the marketplace about which foods are genuinely healthy, sustainable and natural— and which aren’t. According to the 2014 Market LOHAS (Lifestyle of Health and Sustainability) survey, 80 percent of consumers seek the Non-GMO label, and 56 percent say non-GMO trumps organic (52 percent) when shopping for food.

Consumers since the late 1960s have trusted organic as an alternative to energy and chemical intensive foods. Organic represents food raised without chemical fertilizers, fungicides, herbicides and pesticides, and for livestock access to the outdoors as well as no growth hormones and antibiotics. But beyond what “isn’t” allowed in organic, the organic label means much more. Food certified organic has been grown in harmony with nature, by farmers committed to building soil health, increasing organic matter and protecting ground water and pollinator and wildlife habitat.

So, if you’re shopping for healthy, sustainable, natural food, go ahead and look for local, Non-GMO Project certified food—as long as it’s also certified organic (although certified organic is by definition always non-GMO). But you can skip the “natural” label.