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.



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7 thoughts on “USDA Organic: 20 years Later”

  1. This is why local is far more important than organic, though both is fantastic if you can get them.

    Opt out of the entire industrial food system and grow your own! Get a CSA share! Go to your farmer’s market!

  2. William,
    Local is fine, but extremely limited by weather or water for where most people live. Everyone who can should definitely garden, but that isn’t how you will supply your calorie and protein needs. CSAs are fine. Farmers markets are fine. If anyone honestly looks at their food supply, these sources don’t cover it. Organic is far too small to cover it. You are welcome to opt out of the “industrial” food system if you want. Go for it.

  3. Response from the Organic Trade Association

    Organic farming practices are not anti-science. In fact, organic farmers have tested out what works to build healthy soils. In general, organic farmers avoid the use of synthetic pesticides. Instead they use biological and cultural practices as their first line of defense against pests and resort to pesticides only in cases of extreme emergencies. Non-chemical techniques such as crop rotation, selecting resistant varieties, nutrient and water management, providing habitat for the natural enemies of pests, the release of beneficial organisms, and other practices are the principle methods used to protect crops from damage.

    Organic standards allow the use of only a small fraction of the hundreds of pesticides and thousands of formulations allowed in conventional agriculture. Synthetic substances must be evaluated by a Technical Advisory Panel for any effects on human health and the environment and be approved by the National Organic Standards Board to be allowed. Soap, copper, sulfur, and narrow-range oils are exempt from EPA tolerance because of their safety. The National List bans such toxic natural pesticides as nicotine, strychnine, and arsenates.

    Organic farmers use copper only for disease control under strict guidelines so they do not negatively affect soil quality or buildup copper in the soil. Copper ammonia base, copper ammonium carbonate, copper nitrate, and cuprous chloride are prohibited sources of copper for plant nutrients. In addition, copper products cannot be used as herbicides in organic agriculture. Conventional agriculture has no such limitations on copper use.

    Synthetic insecticides such as organophosphates, and carbamates are the most acutely toxic pesticides used in agriculture. Organic farmers don’t use them at all.

    It is inaccurate to say that organic crops have lower or less consistent yields. After the three-year transition from conventional to organic production, yields are often comparable. For instance, in side-by-side field trials conducted by The Rodale Institute for nearly 30 years, organically managed corn and soybeans have produced yields on average equal to those of conventionally raised crops, while building soil health and cutting energy use. In drought years, organic crops tend to have higher yields than their conventional counterparts.

    In addition, researchers at the University of Michigan have shown that on a global scale, organic farming in developing countries can yield up to three times as much food as conventional farming on the same amount of land.

    Other findings from The Rodale Institute show organically managed soils can store more than 1,000 pounds of carbon per acre, while non-organic systems can cause carbon loss. Surveys show that organic farms support many more species of birds, wild plants, insects and other wildlife than non-organic farms.

    Organic farmers are not anti-science. Instead, they respect the laws of science in their husbandry of the land.

    Barbara Haumann
    Senior Science Writer/Editor
    Organic Trade Association

  4. Response to OTA

    Barbara, Thanks for your response.

    My assertion was not that there is a science problem with the soil-building attention that has been a very positive aspect of Organic. The limitation to only “natural” materials is what lacks a sound scientific basis and goes back to “vitalist” principles. When you talk about organophosphates and carbamates you are talking about 50+ year old products and a great many of the pesticides used today are far safer than those old materials. Copper compounds are not used as herbicides by conventional farmers. I could give you a long list of modern pesticides that are as safe or safer than those allowed in Organic. This is certainly not what the OTA implied in its extremely misleading web video, “Store Wars.” You might say it was just use of humor, but it was irresponsible and also insulting to fellow farmers. The membership of the OTA includes many companies whose production is 95% or more conventional, but even that did not prevent OTA from implying that this part of the food supply is terribly dangerous. Organic marketing all-too-often relies on fear.

    If yields in Organic are actually the same or higher, why is there the Organic premium? Why is Organic still so small? You have not addressed those points. It is not as if Organic is about to become anything more than a niche even with a powerful brand and price premiums.

    The carbon sequestration described in the Rodale document (and the similar recent one that came from the Soil Association) depend on the massive addition of composts. Most people simply assume that composting is fully aerobic when in fact it is not. The methane emissions from that process more than cancel any carbon benefits by sequestration. I have corresponded with Rodale’s research director about this point and her response what that most Organic growers don’t use much compost. If that is true, then the carbon sequestration levels are not what was claimed. See:

    The desirable goal of increasing soil carbon can be better achieved through a combination of cover cropping (which many Organic farmers use), no-till and controlled wheel traffic (see my previous post:

  5. The problem with what you write is that you fail to question science. Biodynamics, by the way, doesn’t follow the old vitalist ideas. Science (as presently practiced) has limits and needs to be questioned, and in those places where this is done seriously, it fails to actually understand organic (life) processes. But the flaw that disables science from understanding the organic is not simple. If you want to know more than you assume you already do know, go to The Nature Institute website:
    Also see: Difficult Truths, at:
    Here is a paper of my own on mental health issues, but which briefly examines the general problem in the thinking of science that has led to a failure to gain real knowledge of organic processes:

  6. Joel,
    I’ve checked out the links you sent. Without getting into details (e.g. about design flaws in anti-GMO studies and misleading statements about agriculture and the history of agriculture) the question that arises for me is this: If this more “holistic” approach is actually a better way to understand things, what can you point to as a major contribution that it has made to humanity? Considering that this idea goes back at least as far as Steiner, what do you point to as a break-through?

    I agree with you that science is not perfect and that it must be questioned, but the questioning has always been inherently what makes the process “scientific.” So for instance the discovery that epigenetic factors make inheritance more complex than earlier understandings didn’t come from someone who said “science is not good enough” but rather from people doing good science.

    The point I was making in the post was that just because something is “natural” does not mean that it is safe or environmentally benign (consider aflatoxin in food or a red tide in the ocean). Conversely just because something is synthetic does not mean it is dangerous (consider the fungicide fludioxanil or the insecticide rynaxapyr). What is unscientific about Organic is that it makes those assumptions and what is unethical about organic marketing is that it exploits that widespread misunderstanding for profit.

  7. @Steve:

    There’s tons of resources and coverage on this very website for doing just that. That’s one of the things that brought me to subscribe to this blog in the first place. It’s great at suggesting ways to get more fresh, local, and sustainable food onto your plate, and less processed foods from a factory (or factory farm).

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