“Organic” is a misleading label. Here’s how technology could create something better

But what does that really tell you?
But what does that really tell you?
Image: AP Photo/Elaine Thompson
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If you look around any American or European supermarket these days you’ll find that there’s regular food, and then there’s “organic” food, complete with a sparkling certificate and usually a few sketches of flowers, sunrises, and dancing cows. And if you’re like most consumers, you probably assume that this label guarantees that the food is healthier, more environmentally friendly, more socially just, and somehow sustainable (whatever that might mean).

This confusion starts at the top. The US Department of Agriculture’s first claim about organic producers is that they “preserve natural resources and biodiversity.” Other common definitions use words like “enhancing,” “ensuring,” and “harmonizing,” as if these were guarantees. Unfortunately, the USDA doesn’t measure anything to support these claims. In fact, organic certification tells you very little about what was done in the production of the food. It’s defined, instead, by what was not done: specifically, that synthetic chemical compounds were (more or less) not used in the production of the food. 

This blanket prohibition has the virtue of simplicity, but it often doesn’t make sense. Many of the synthetic compounds most widely used in agriculture are merely artificial versions of naturally occurring chemicals. Banning the synthetic forms doesn’t make the product any different or healthier, and in some cases it can have knock-on effects you might not expect.

For example, sodium nitrate synthesized from the atmosphere for fertilizer is banned in organic production, but chemically identical sodium nitrate mined in the Chilean desert is allowed. Many intensive organic growers have turned instead to animal-based nitrogen fertilizers, such as manure, feather meal, blood meal, bone meal, fish meal, and fish emulsion. So you might be vegetarian, but there’s a good chance that your organic lettuce is just one step away from the scrapings of a feedlot or slaughterhouse floor.

Why the organic label no longer serves…

This definition of organic began in a well-intentioned way. As books such as Rachel Carson’s 1962 classic Silent Spring awoke people to the dangers of industrial farming, a movement for transparency in agriculture was born, captured in the still-common maxim “know your farmer, know your food.”

At first this movement was limited primarily to farm stands, farmers’ markets, and independent local markets and cooperatives that retained an almost face-to-face connection between producers and consumers. But as demand grew, many of these alternative farmers began providing certification and a marketing label as a way to extend their reach. That certification was, of necessity, based on what farmers could measure in each other’s fields—the inputs used in production. Given the very real scares of the time, prohibiting synthetic chemicals was a reasonable place to start.

However, these well-intentioned farmers didn’t anticipate that their intentions wouldn’t scale, and that as the organic market grew, “know your farmer, know your food” would become, in effect, “know your label, and trust it to do the rest.” And as industrial agricultural firms have replaced these independent, impact-conscious farmers as the primary organic producers, it’s becoming clear that organic certification doesn’t guarantee your food will be healthier or more environmentally friendly, or farmed without exploiting workers.

… and how to move beyond it

The common response is to demand stricter organic certification prohibitions or naively trust other labeling schemes instead. But there’s a better way: Use modern technology to “know your farmer, know your food,” and then make your own decisions.

Transparency in agriculture is now common at a previously impossible scale and level of detail. Farmers are increasingly making management decisions based on information collected from satellite imagery, geo-prospecting technology, unmanned drones, plant root simulators, and sensors in plants themselves. This information is then often combined with detailed records of labor practices, equipment use, and management strategies to build comprehensive histories of individual fields. Processors and distributors make similar use of information to guide their decisions, and document such details as the point of origin, the distance traveled to market, and the means of transportation.

If these producers and suppliers have an incentive to supply this information, consumers will be able to look at the resources that went into producing their food in the same way they can now read the ingredients list and nutritional information. Imagine a label that says not only “low calorie” or “high fiber,” but also “low carbon footprint” or “high water-use efficiency.”

But it can go beyond mere stickers. Whole Foods and Walmart are already taking steps to give consumers more information about the broader impacts of food production. Soon, information services will allow shoppers to do such things as trace a product’s path from farm to shelf and give products and businesses a score based on their own personal values, not those of a marketing agency. 

This may sound optimistic, but it is not naïve. The hard part—the data collection—is already occurring. The next hardest part—interpreting the data and repackaging it for consumers—is being pioneered by companies such as HarvestMark and SupplyShift.

While consumer demand for this information is still patchy—most people don’t know they’re being misled by organic certification or that there are better alternatives—the supply of it is already daunting. Farmers and producers are increasingly turning to social media and other outlets to tell consumers about themselves or avoid misrepresentation. Many also see it as a way to overcome a slow-down in the growth of farmers’ markets and the shortcomings of “natural” food chains as middlemen. Chances are, if your food has a brand on it, that brand has a website and is trying to find you and tell you who they are. All this can be exhausting, which is why businesses such as Good Eggs are summarizing and streamlining this information to help consumers conveniently order from hundreds or thousands of individual producers.

The farmers who are offering such transparency are not just idealistic independents frustrated with the organic certification system; they’re also conservative ranchers tired of being vilified, and even one of the original “evil empires” of agri-business. Dole is the world’s largest supplier of fresh fruits and vegetables and it still carries the name of the family that started plantation agriculture in Hawaii and led the overthrow of the sovereign Hawaiian kingdom when it proved profitable. But this same Dole is now using its product-tracking technology to introduce you to the specific banana farm in Colombia and pineapple farm in Costa Rica that produced the bowl of fruit you’re eating in California. And if you’re skeptical of Dole’s transparency and McDonald’s “Our Food. Your Questions” campaign—good! These companies are inviting your skepticism and they are asking to be held accountable because, for the first time at this scale, it’s a good business strategy.

In short, technology is quickly making the misleading organic certification obsolete. And its benefits can include increased direct sales of uncertified products; certification programs based on practices, not prohibitions; documentation of the actual outcomes of production; and true customer loyalty, based on transparency. The future of food is one of increasing information and communication, and this future need not be dim if consumers learn to peel off the organic label to see the food and the farmer underneath.