USDA Organic: 20 years Later

The USDA Organic Logo displayed at a store


We are coming up on the 20th anniversary  of the The Organic Food Production Act of 1990 (7 U.S.C.A. § 6501-22, November 28, 1990) in which Congress commissioned the USDA to develop a comprehensive national rule for what could be marketed as “Organic.”  It took until October of 2002 for the “Final Rule” to become law.  The reason the process was so long and contentious was the fundamental philosophical divide between the key parties involved in the public debate about the definition of “Organic.”  Congress had acted because so many people were frightened (unnecessarily as it turned out) by the Alar Issue raised on a “60 Minutes” segment. There wasn’t anyone against safety.  The conflict was over how to determine what is safe. 

USDA scientists wanted to have a more scientific basis for the rules while the existing Organic consumer-base and early Organic farmers were adamant that the rules reflect the historical definition of Organic that goes back to its origins.  They wanted only “natural” materials to be used and they eventually prevailed.  Actually the basic shape of the Organic rules was obvious long before the final rule and the mainstreaming of Organic started in the 90s.

Origins of the Organic Movement

Organic farming originated in the early 20th century among a community of “vitalists” who believed that chemicals that arise in nature have a “vital force” or a “noble spirit” that is absent in synthetic chemicals.  This group rejected the science which had been dis-proving this idea since the 1880s.  When the USDA Organic rules were finally put in place, they effectively put the government’s endorsement behind this antiquated, anti-science philosophy. Most consumers today are probably not actual ‘vitalists’, but simply have naive ideas about the superiority of anything “natural” and the inherent danger of anything “synthetic.” Today, the hard core ‘vitalists’ are mainly restricted to the devotees of “Bio-Dynamic” farming with its various superstitious beliefs.

So, 20 years into the USDA era of Organic, what has happened?

The Development of the Organic “Super-Brand”

Decades of advocacy and billions of dollars of marketing have convinced a great many people that “Organic” represents a system that is purely good and safe and that everything else is not.  Of course the reality is much more complex and there are features of Organic production that are problematic from an environmental point of view.  There are also farming methods that are better for the environment than Organic, but the “Organic Brand” is so strong that few consumers will ever believe this.  Instead, there are people at every step of the value chain collecting a price premium which consumers pay believing that they are doing a better thing for their families and the environment. Organic has become a normative part of American consumer culture.

Organic Remains a Niche

For 30 years we have heard the claim that “Organic is the fastest growing segment of the food supply.” OK, So why is it still well under 1% of US Cropland after all this “rapid growth?”  The “Natural” limitation makes it too hard and expensive for mass adoption by farmers. The pesticides allowed for organic (yes, Organic crops are typically sprayed with pesticides) are mostly less effective and more difficult to use than synthetic pesticides (timing, frequency of application…I know, I spent 7 years working for a company that developed this sort of pesticide).  It is also very hard to deliver the nutrients to crops at the time they need them using only natural fertilizers.   Thus, yields in Organic crops tend to be lower and/or less consistent.  Organic also frequently involves expensive hand labor for weeding.  The “Organic Premium” paid to Organic farmers is justified by these limitations.  Oh, and by the way, the Organic pesticides are not all safer or better for the environment than synthetic alternatives – particularly not the sulfur and copper-based fungicides. 

“Industrial Organic”

A significant part of the image of Organic projected as part of the Super-brand is that Organic food is not produced on “Factory Farms” but rather on “small family farms.”  That may have been the case in the 1970s, but the growth that has occurred since then has mainly been on larger farms (see graph below). 


The size of farms that sell organic

Particularly in the case of fruits and vegetables, the vast majority of Organic is produced by exactly the same large, professional grower/shippers who grow most of the produce on the West Coast.  They just have a small percent of their production as Organic (you should actually visit these farms – I have no issues with eating anything they grow).  Old time organic growers refer to this as “compliance-only Organic” because it lacks the community connection and philosophical enthusiasm they had in the early days.  They also refer to Whole Foods as “Whore Foods” because even though that retailer makes it seem like they are supporting small growers, they actually source most of their Organic produce from the big players.  There are a lot of small farms in the US and the smallest category has been growing (now 1.3MM), but that is not where most Organic food is grown. The marketing of Organic is also now mainly through the same consolidated retail system as all other food.

Imported Organic

One of the reasons that Organic feels bigger than the 0.7% of US cropland is that it represents is because there is more and more of imported Organic food.  China is an increasing source of those inputs, and because the certification system depends mainly on paper work and single annual visits with no actual residue testing, many people are concerned about the integrity of the system.  Some imports are for off-season supply of fresh produce, but the imported ingredients that go into processed and packaged Organic foods are something much less transparent.  There are farmer groups that are vocally alleging fraud in this area.  

Absurd Organic

The “natural” limitation of Organic means that there are no practical herbicides available to those growers.  In certain settings weeds can be controlled with mulches, but on many kinds of Organic farms, weeds must be controlled with hand hoeing, erosion generating and fuel intensive tillage, or pollution-belching string weeders.  In many Organic cropping settings the recommended means of weed control is “propane flame weeding” (I’m not making this up!).  The other day I was reading a UC Davis “cost study” and found that a typical Organic almond grower uses 49.5 gallons of propane/acre/year for weed control.  That means the equivalent carbon emissions of driving a passenger car 675 miles! A conventional Almond grower would use a couple of pints of a herbicide that is less toxic than table salt and which breaks down in the soil in 2 days.  As for the propane, I guess it is “natural” gas…. But I don’t even want to think about how much propane is used to flame defoliate Organic cotton!


So, 20 years after Congress acted we have an Organic industry that has a potent, but misleading brand image; which is still very small; which is produced and marketed by mainstream consumer marketing companies; which increasingly comes from questionable sources; and which torches weeds with lots of propane.  Lots of people make money off of this system and companies like Qualcom greenwash their image by advertising on NPR that they serve Organic in their cafeteria.  

I actually find this a bit sad.  For all its questionable origins and subsequent commercial exploitation, Organic has always had a very positive focus on maintaining soil health.  I first learned about that from my grandfather in the 1960s (He was an avid reader of Organic Gardening magazine and a Victory Gardener since WW2).  There are other ways than being restricted to “vitalist” principles to foster soil health, but there is a big overlap (e.g. the use of cover crops).  

Did USDA involvement in Organic over the last 20 years really help?  Yes from a commercial marketing point of view. Not really from an environmental/scientific point of view.

You are welcome to comment on this site or to email me at

USDA Organic logo image from Tim Psych’s photostream.  Graph of USDA data created by me, Steve Savage.



Written by sdsavage

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