Tuesday, September 21, 2010

It's Organic....?

A lot of people want to see an “organic” label on a product, often without knowing what that really means. It makes them feel secure, confident of the natural quality… safe. You could argue that it frees the consumer from having to think. From a manufacturer’s or seller’s viewpoint, the “organic” tag is one excellent way to boost sales and gives permission to charge a premium price.

The “organic” tag actually means very little, while the “certified organic” tag is exceptionally difficult for a manufacturer to attain, and also varies from country to country in what it means.

The simplest, most general explanation of the certified organic criteria for food is, as one might expect, to be found in wiki:

All fresh and processed foods must follow national organic production standards and be certified by a USDA-accredited inspection agency. Only approved materials can be used in the production. No material can be used that harms the life of animals, people, or soil.

Specifically, organic farmers can't use antibiotics and growth hormones, fresh manure, genetically engineered materials and seeds, irradiation, sewage sludge, and toxic synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Neither can they confine animals. So, for example, hens must be cage free.

A farm management plan must be in place. Detailed records must be kept. The USDA accredited inspection agency must carry out yearly inspections.

The devil is always in the detail: the farm management plan requires that there be a specified area of land as a buffer zone anywhere aerial or power spraying is used, and that area can be up to 100m or more depending on the geography. Special drainage needs to be in place to ensure any run-off water isn’t contaminated by pesticides used on neighboring properties. Water supply needs to be certified to ensure it is not contaminating plants.

In Asia, particularly due to small land-holdings, monsoonal flooding and the inability of the law to control the activities of one’s neighbors, certified organic status is virtually impossible to obtain. Those few people who have it are, almost by definition, the big, rich landholders. Doesn’t seem to bother a lot of people though, who still happily slap “organic” on everything to boost sales.

But that’s about to change.

Whole Foods Market in the USA, the largest chain of “natural” stores anywhere, recently made sweeping changes to their policy about “organic” body and personal care products. As of June 2011, they require any product claiming to be “organic” to be certified to the equivalent of USDA standards. They estimate 80% of the body care products currently labeled and sold in their store as “organic”, isn’t, and they require those manufacturers to re-label or to withdraw products from their stores.


Will it affect Arun Thai Natural? Not at all. We have never claimed to be “organic” and have resisted the temptation and requests of various customers to put pretty little “organic” stickers on our products. Our stickers tell it like it is: 100% natural. Our herbs don’t need pesticides or fertilizers, since they grow easily and naturally in their indigenous habitat. But our farmers do use animal manure and no, we can’t control that the manure came from an organically fed pig. And we have monsoonal rain that washes things into the canals used to irrigate farms. And our Thai farmers are gracious and honorable about their tolerance in allowing other people the right to do what they want on their own land, but in practice this means their neighbors might spray and use chemicals, even if they don’t.

So we don’t and can’t claim to be organic. Unlike the vast majority of “natural” body care producers.

Ironically Arun Thai Natural products could happily line up with the best of them at Whole Foods Market, because we don’t claim to be something we’re not. Most of what is labeled as “organic” isn’t, because if it really was they’d be “certified organic” and flaunting it. Buying “certified organic” almost by definition means you are buying from the richest and most privileged of land-holders. And it does little to redress the balance of power in global farming, which rewards the few that have education, lots of land and money.

Next time you’re out to buy natural products, please think about these issues. Don’t buy into the slick “organic” marketing hype and realize that it, too, shall mostly pass away as people like Whole Foods Market start insisting on integrity from their suppliers. Support the honest little guys who don’t lie to you. Think for yourself. Make that most political act (shopping) count not only for yourself and for your health, but for global equity and the farmers fighting to feed their families across the developing world.

1 comment:

  1. Good post!
    It's indeed a problem that only big companies can afford organic or fair-trade like labels as the certification process costs up to a few thousand dollars. Good business only for the certifying company and not for the farmers...