Organic foods thrive on regs


By Jill Richardson

OtherWords

Strangely enough, sometimes industries want regulation.

Obviously, this is not true of all (or perhaps even many) industries, and it’s certainly not true of all regulations. However, the organic food industry thrives on regulation – and for good reason.

Organic producers can charge a premium for their products. The reason why consumers are willing to pay higher prices for ostensibly the exact same products they could get for cheaper is because they have confidence that organic food is, in some way, better.

Organic foods are produced without chemical fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically engineered seeds, antibiotics, and synthetic pesticides.

For farmers, becoming organic is purely optional. Yes, the government regulates organic standards, but no farmers are required to become organic.

Those who become certified organic do so for a reason. Maybe they believe organic agriculture is the best way to grow food, or maybe they simply see it as a clever business strategy. Either way, becoming an organic producer opens the door to getting paid higher prices for your products.

For consumers, it’s only worth paying extra for organic food if you believe you’re getting something extra. Does that organic label mean anything? Or is organic food basically the same as the nonorganic food that costs less?

That’s where the regulations come into play. The rules for organic agriculture must be strict enough to convince consumers that they’re getting a product worth paying extra for, but not so strict that no farmers can ever achieve them.

Yet the Trump administration is pulling the plug on regulations that the organic agriculture industry wants.

One proposed rule they’ve withdrawn was a requirement that organic hens had to have access to an outdoor space with soil, and not just an enclosed porch with concrete floor.

The proposed rule speaks to a long-standing difficulty in organic agriculture: It’s difficult to profitably raise livestock, particularly in a large operation, while providing the animals with living conditions that organic consumers may wish for.

Access to an outdoor area with soil doesn’t go far enough for many organic consumers, who would no doubt prefer the hens also have access to grass. Chickens enjoy eating grass, and they especially love scratching in the dirt for tasty bugs. The chickens’ diet affects the flavor and nutrition of the eggs, too.

For a farmer, the problem is scale. If you put too many chickens in too small a space, they’ll eat every blade of grass in no time at all. Given the tiny profit margins on each egg laid and the enormous number of laying hens required for a farm to turn a profit, it’s hard to imagine any large egg operation having enough space to allow hens access to grass.

Allowing chickens outdoor access to soil, on the other hand, is more doable. This is one of several proposed organic rules that the industry actually wants, but the Trump administration has canceled.

If you ask me, the deregulatory zeal of the Trump administration has gone too far.

The entire value of the organic label is in the stringency of organic standards. Without regulations, the organic label would become worthless. Consumers would lose their reason to pay more for organic food.

OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is the author of “Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It.” Distributed by OtherWords.org.

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