Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Government is not a friend of organic consumers

Consumption of organic products has been steadily increasing at a rather large rate for a number of years now. For years, there were a number of private organizations, such as Oregon Tilth, responsible for setting standards and otherwise making sure that consumers who wanted organic products were indeed getting the real deal and were satisfied.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usUnfortunately, we have here yet another area of life where things have become complicated and perverted by the arrival of government to the scene to politicize things. The USDA initiated a National Organics Program a few years ago and has their own set of standards. Products that meet such standards have a "USDA Organic" label on them. Almost from the beginning there have been organic activists criticizing the USDA standards for not being strict enough. There have been concerns that industry lobbyists will be able to gain enough influence to have standards lowered further. None of this comes at a surprise to me.

The latest controversy involves body care products, where the USDA has been allowing certain body care products that contain ordinary tap water to be labeled as organic (read about it here). The USDA has now stepped up with a new policy stating that, as of October 21, 2005, companies cannot label certified organic body care products with the USDA Seal or represent that certified organic products comply with the National Organic Program. The problem as some see it is that companies that produce certifiably organic products will now be "punished" by not being able to associate themselves with the USDA program while those companies who mislabel their products will be protected.

This is the type of crap that can ensue from the politicization of a given issue. Why did the government have to even enter the realm of organic standards in the first place? Private organizations that have a real interest in maintaining the integrity of the organic market have been marginalized in favor of a political body that is inherently open to corruption by special interests, including those who wish to water down organic standards or otherwise taint the growing industry. The whole national organic program reeks of a corporate takeover stench that signals trouble for small time producers and those who care about organic integrity.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usIn addition to the USDA standards and labeling is The Organic Food Production Act, which makes it a federal offense to sell food as organic without first meeting federal standards. Getting their food inspected and approved by government approved agencies can be a costly endeavor that has likely persuaded some farmers to not go organic. Additionally, the government requires all sorts of paperwork and detailed records keeping that some farmers don't consider to be worth dealing with in order to get government certification. Localized alternatives have popped up, such as Mendocino Renegade, but I wonder if the government will one day attempt to thwart such efforts and fully cartelize the organic market in favor of politically favored agencies and corporate producers.

Despite the fact that the USDA involvement has apparently led to greater recognition and consumption of organic products, I see their involvement as being detrimental to the organic industry the longer it happens to continue. Nothing good ever comes from such nationalized standards, especially since it creates a potential for abuse that'll benefit some at the expense of others. Continued increases in organic sales will increasingly mean less if small scale producers are forced out of the market and corporatization brings with it watered down standards.

As someone who purchases some organic products, although not much due to their cost, I'm concerned about the growing politicization of the organic market and I don't like where things are seemingly headed. As someone who loathes government intervention and is aware of the damage that always seems to ensue, I want to see such shenanigans come to an end so that the organic market can grow organically with the help of people who truly care about organic integrity as opposed to politicians and bureaucrats.


Anonymous Sunni said...

Not being an organic shopper myself, I don't know a lot about all this; what little I do know comes from reading sources that you might consider "the opposition" -- ACSH being one I used to regularly visit as part of my FMN work. Searching through their archives should reveal a number of short pieces on how some organic industry big guns pushed for gov regulation, in order to push up prices. Actually, here's a piece at the Center for Consumer Freedom on the subject. I was over there the other day for other purposes, and came across that.

It looks a whole lot to me like what started as a move to healthier foods got co-opted fairly early on, and is now wholesale industry prostitution before Daddy State.

9:44 PM  
Blogger freeman said...

Yeah, the problem with such think tanks and "grassroots" groups is that they all have hidden agendas and are all funded by big guns whether they be anti-market activists looking to increase nannyism or corporate lackies looking to promote products of questionable value that need all the help they can get. In other words, the prostitution is in full swing on both sides, making that aspect of it moot in my opinion.

That leaves things up to individuals to figure out in terms of what to believe and what types of choices they want to make as consumers. I personally don't like the growing presence of genetically modified foods, foods that have not been adequately tested (despite PR nonsense to the contrary) and are almost entirely the result of government subsidies. Until such foods can be accurately called safe by means of having some actual substance behind such claims, I'd rather not be a guinea pig and choose to avoid such products as much as possible, which increasingly means choosing organic.

I have other reasons for choosing to buy organic when I can, such as environmental concerns. Rather than supporting the typical statist nonsense that environmentalists promote, I consider supporting organic farmers to be a way of supporting environmental values that I can live with. I also like supporting local organic producers rather than the typical corporate suspects that live off the government teat and have no concern for the environment. And, depending on the product, I find certain organic foods to be better tasting.

The high prices and the increased co-opting of organic and healthy foods movements by powerful interests is indeed unfortunate, but what's new? We live in the USSA, where everything gets co-opted by big government or big business interests and becomes tainted.

12:21 AM  
Anonymous Cat said...

As a matter of personal preference, I agree with Freeman. While I don't necessarily prefer "organic" foods, I dislike the idea of ingesting foods that have been genetically engineered or dairy products with growth hormones in them. Even the testing idea bugs me - I don't like the idea of testing on animals, and just because a rat doesn't react badly to something does not mean it won't have ill effects on an individual human. I'd pay a little extra for food that didn't require animal testing, like cosmetics.

Free markets serve to accomodate varying individual preferences, and from what I've read, a lot of the so-called "libertarian" literature on the subject can sound one-sided and even dogmatic in support of corporate interests. Same problem occurs on the side of activists in the organic food industry, against corporate interests.

A free market doesn't depend on consumers groups to push it around, IMO... it depends on meeting the needs and preferences of individual customers. Group think and reliance on corporate or governmental power structures to protect "us against them" or "them against us" as consumers, that's how I see the issue. Both sides seem all too eager to use science and statistics to support their arguments, and both sides seem to lose the importance of individual preference or choice as the essential mechanism underlying the adaptive force of the free market. I wanna buy what I wanna buy, and let everyone else alone to do the same...


11:29 PM  
Blogger freeman said...

I don't believe that I forgot to mention the dairy products with growth hormones. The awful health effects of such hormones on cows is well documented, and I don't like the idea of drinking milk containing such hormones, along with antibiotics and increased pus. I'm not real gung ho with regard to organic foods, but organic is a must for me when it comes to things like milk and butter.

Cat - Are you aware that the domain name for your website has expired? I hope you get the site up and running again soon.

3:23 AM  
Anonymous Sunni said...

"Yeah, the problem with such think tanks and 'grassroots' groups is that they all have hidden agendas and are all funded by big guns ..."
I used to work at a think tank (FMN was one, albeit of a rather unusual sort), and worked with loads of others, and in my experience the reality I saw is rather different than this. Perhaps that's an artifact of the at-least-somewhat pro-freedom nature of the think tanks.

Having worked in a university research setting too, I know that just because an entity is supporting an organization, it doesn't mean the data are being cooked the way it may want. It's good to be skeptical, but with too much distrust can come rejection of sound information, and ultimately paralysis. There's a lot more I could say on this, but I won't suck your bandwidth to do it. :)

You also wrote: "We live in the USSA, where everything gets co-opted by big government or big business interests and becomes tainted."
Very sadly, all too true.

And just to show some area of agreement with you, today's learning project with the snolfs is planning our garden. They also want to buy a farm so that we can have cows and goats of our own, to get whole, "unbusybodied" milk, but that'll take a little longer. :-)

7:19 AM  
Blogger freeman said...

I would consider FMN to be an exception since that group in itself is anti-political in the sense that such pro-freedom people essentially want the separation of state from everything. By contrast, a lot of the big think tanks that have lots of support from corporations or activist groups that have no problem with using political means to advance an agenda end up being little more than mouthpieces for such sponsors a lot of the time.

That is of course not to say that such think tanks should not be trusted, since each of them do provide some sound information. Tech Central Station comes to mind here there's no question that they promote a lot of nonsense while also providing some sound analysis of issues.

So I suppose it was likely a mistake of me to say that "they all have hidden agendas", but those that don't I would definitely consider to be a minority.

I'm envious of you and the snolfs getting a garden started. Not only do I not own any land, but my apartment setting pretty much prevents any sort of gardening, other than maybe growing some herbs in a window.

I'd love to find a source of "unbusybodied" milk, aka raw milk, but I think it's illegal to sell it in almost every state.

5:28 PM  
Anonymous Sunni said...

You're right, Freeman, FMN was fairly exceptional. It comes down to this: the question is always whom to trust, and which part of the message should one trust? Not always easy to tell ...

If you get decent sunlight, I do recommend doing at least a couple of herbs in a window. They're generally pretty easy to grow, and provide a lot of great flavor for a minimal investment. We have basil, cilantro, and chives going -- all are so much better fresh than dried. (And homemade pesto is easy and divine!) I think you're right about raw milk; the healthocrats killed its sale decades ago, with few exceptions. Tragic -- how can I make good cheese without it?

6:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow... Freeman, no I wasn't aware that my domain name had expired. It was a gift to begin with, (long story) - I never held it in my name and don't particularly want to for privacy reasons. Thanks for letting me know - now I don't have to worry about updating it, I guess, unless a friend wants to snag and hold it for me. I'm happy to cover costs, just don't like this "whois" lookup business.

As far as the food industry stuff goes, I've been thinking about that... if an organization's bent is to influence "public policy," rather than preserve individual rights, I think that says a lot right there.

>^v^< (Pardon the anonymous post - I won't link the domain for reasons you've just alerted me to.)

9:30 PM  

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