Here's How to Boycott Organic Imposters
By Katherine Paul and Ronnie Cummins
A recent series of articles by a Washington Post reporter could have some consumers questioning the value of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) organic seal. But are a few bad eggs representative of an entire industry?
Consumers are all for cracking down on the fraudulent few who, with the help of Big Food, big retail chains and questionable certifiers give organics a bad name. But they also want stronger standards, and better enforcement—not a plan to weaken standards to accommodate "Factory Farm Organic."
The Washington Post exposed a couple of companies, certified organic, that don't strictly adhere to organic standards. The Post and others also recently reported on what one lawmaker, who serves on a key USDA committee, called "uncertainty and dysfunction" at the National Organic Standards Board.
All these reports are troubling on multiple levels, especially to consumers who rely on the USDA organic seal to help them avoid pesticides, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), synthetic ingredients, and foods produced using methods that degenerate soil health and pollute the environment. (It's important to note that none of these reports address the biggest marketing and labeling fraud of them all—products sold as "natural," "all natural" and "100% natural," a $90-billion industry that eclipses the $50-billion certified organic industry).
What can consumers do to ensure that the certified organic products they buy meet existing organic standards? And how do we, as consumers, fight back against efforts to weaken those standards?
The short answers: One, there are about 25,000 honest organic local and regional producers, vs. a handful of big brands, mostly national, who flout the rules. (Most "Factory Farm Organic" companies sell their products, and provide private-label products, for big retail chains like Costco, Walmart, Safeway, Albertson's, Kroger's and others).
Two, if consumers want stronger, not weaker organic standards, we need to demand them.
Bad Actors Hurt Consumers and Legitimate Organic Producers
Over the past several months, the Washington Post has reported the following:
- Eggland's Best eggs, marketed as certified organic by Herbruck's Poultry Ranch, come from hens that never go outside. (Even before the Post's expose, the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) had called for a boycott of Eggland's Best eggs).
- Aurora Organic Dairy, which supplies organic milk to Walmart, Costco and other major retailers, doesn't adhere to organic standards that require cows to be outdoors daily during the growing season. (OCA, Cornucopia Institute and other groups have been demanding better policing of Aurora Dairy for more than a decade).
- Some "organic" soy and corn imports aren't actually organic.
- Some "organic" foods contain a synthetic oil brewed in industrial vats of algae.
Stories like these erode consumer confidence in the organic seal. When consumers give up on organic, legitimate organic farmers and producers lose sales, too.
But that's only the part of the problem. By cutting corners on organic standards, big producers can sell at lower prices—that puts the smaller, local and regional organic producers who don't have big contracts with big retailers, and who must charge more because they actually follow organic standards to letter, at a competitive disadvantage in the market.
In some cases, it puts them out of business.
The Washington Post's Peter Whoriskey recently interviewed Amish organic dairy farmers who are struggling to compete against companies like Aurora, which the farmers say, don't deserve the organic label. The Post reported:
Over the past year, the price of wholesale organic milk sold by Kalona [Iowa] farms has dropped by more than 33 percent. Some of their milk—as much as 15 percent of it—is being sold at the same price as regular milk or just dumped onto the ground, according to a local processor. Organic milk from other small farmers across the United States is also being dumped at similar rates, according to industry figures.
After the Washington Post ran its April 30 exposé on Aurora, Liz Bawden, an organic dairy farmer in New York and president of the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance and member of the Northeast Organic Farmers Association board wrote:
A consumer reads "Why Your Organic Milk May Not Be Organic" on the front page of their newspaper. That might be the end consumer for the milk from my farm. And that person is sitting in front of a bowl of cornflakes wondering if she has been scammed all this time. Just a little doubt that the organic seal may not mean what she thought it meant. That is real damage to my farm and family income.
Boycott the Organic Imposters
Consumers choose organic for many reasons. At the top of the list health. Consumers believe food that doesn't contain pesticides, genetically modified organisms and synthetic/artificial ingredients, all of which are largely prohibited under USDA organic standards, is better for their own health.
That said, many consumers have an expanded list of reasons for buying organic, which include concern about the environment, animal welfare, fair trade and the desire to support local farms, and farmers committed to building healthy, rich soil capable of drawing down and sequestering carbon.
It's naturally discouraging to read articles that sow doubt about whether a certified organic product meets your expectations. Fortunately, there are things you can do to minimize the chances of ending up with an organic carton of milk or eggs produced by an "organic imposter."
- Boycott large, national brands. As demand grows for organics, Big Food is scooping up smaller organic brands. In most cases, nothing good comes this for consumers, as large corporations apply the "economies of scale" theory and ultimately skimp wherever they can on quality and production. As a general rule of thumb, the big players—like Aurora Dairy and Herbruck's Farm (Eggland's Best)—don't play by the rules.
- Steer clear of private-label organics. It's easy to identify the bad actors when they market products under their own names. But when it comes to private-label organics (think Safeway's O' Organic, Costco's Kirkland, Walmart's Great Value), it's not readily apparent who is producing those products for big retail chains. We know that Aurora, which doesn't market any milk under its own name, supplies organic milk to Walmart, Costco and Safeway. But in general, lack of transparency in the organic private label arena is a "huge problem," one industry consultant told us. Most big retailers are complicit in organic fraud. The best strategy is avoidance.
- Check the codes on your milk carton. In her response to the Post's story on Aurora, Bawden told consumers how to avoid milk produced by Aurora Dairy by checking the code on the carton. If you find the number 08-29, you'll know that the milk comes from a plant that processes milk from Aurora Dairy. You can look up all the milk carton codes on the "Where is my milk from?" website.
- Do your homework. It would be great if you could rely entirely on the USDA organic seal. But given what we know about the weak links in that otherwise valuable chain, it pays to research. Googling brand names is one way to find information—but don't rely on company websites, which are often loaded with false claims. Visit the Cornucopia Institute's website, where you'll find organic dairy, eggs and other products "scored" according to various criteria.
- Pay attention to who certified your milk or eggs as organic. In addition to the USDA organic seal, certified organic products must list, on package, the name of the independent body that certified the product to organic standards. There's an argument to be made that certifiers should be held accountable for certifying products that don't adhere to organic standards. Until that happens, avoid certifiers like Quality Assurance International and the Colorado Department of Agriculture, which certify Aurora Dairy. Some of the more reliable certifiers include Oregon Tilth, Pennsylvania Certified Organic and California Certified Organic Farmers. For a complete list of organic certifiers, consult this list.
- Buy local. There's a lot to be said for getting to know, and for supporting, your local organic farmers. They are more likely to follow organic standards, partly out of dedication, and partly to protect their own reputation within their communities. Here's some advice for identifying local authentic and ethical farmers.
- Report suspected fraud. If you think a brand is violating organic standards, or falsely advertising/labeling a product "natural," "all natural" or "100% natural," email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Consumers Will Have to Help Protect Organic Standards
Organic Consumers Association was founded, in 1998, when the USDA was writing the very first set of organic standards, as required under the Organic Foods Production Act. The policy writers wanted irradiation to be allowed in organic. And sewage sludge. And GMOs. We fought successfully to keep them out.
Since then we've had to go to battle with every administration since over the integrity and enforcement of organic standards. The Clinton administration tried to get GMOs into organic. The Bush administration made it easier to get synthetics into organic. The Obama administration made it harder to get synthetics out of organic.
It didn't help any that in 2005, Congress passed a law that made it a lot easier for the largest food companies to create "organic" versions of their factory farm and processed foods.
Now those companies are stepping up their game, threatening to make changes to the Organic Foods Production Act and the National Organic Standards Board. that could weaken organic standards beyond recognition. Why now? Two reasons.
One, as consumer demand for organic products grows, Big Food is buying up organic brands. This gives them a seat at the organic policymaking table, where, naturally, they are hard at work to lower standards in order to raise profit margins.
And two, they smell opportunity. The Trump administration has made its position on regulations clear: more industry involvement, more concern for corporate profits, and less concern for consumer rights, public health, the environment.
Congress needs to hear from consumers—often, and in large numbers—that we want stronger, not weaker organic standards. Standards that support small, authentic producers.
Putting it in Perspective
Organic isn't perfect. The standards aren't perfect. The enforcement process isn't perfect. And some of the players are downright crooked.
That said, consumers can by and large trust all organic produce. And if they're willing to do a little homework, they can identify the producers in the organic processed food arena who abide by the rules.
To put things in perspective, compare the $50-billion organic industry with the $90-billion "natural" industry. No standards. No ethics. And the clear intention to increase sales by falsely claiming that products that contain all manner of "unnatural" substances, including pesticides, synthetic ingredients—even drugs—are the "healthy choice."
So let's keep policing the organic industry, exposing the fraud, working for stronger standards and better enforcement of those standards.
But let's be just as vigilant about exposing the "Myth of Natural" and cracking down on what is arguably the biggest food marketing scam in the history of advertising.
Katherine Paul is associate director of the Organic Consumers Association. Ronnie Cummins is international director of the Organic Consumers Association.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Heather Houser
Compost. Fly less. Reduce your meat consumption. Say no to plastic. These imperatives are familiar ones in the repertoire of individual actions to reduce a person's environmental impact. Don't have kids, or maybe just one. This climate action appears less frequently in that repertoire, but it's gaining currency as climate catastrophes mount. One study has shown that the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from having one fewer child in the United States is 20 times higher—yes 2000% greater—than the impact of lifestyle changes like those listed above.
The Stickiness of Population<p>Only five years ago, there was minimal coverage of the child-free for climate movement. AOC is just one of many reasons it's lighting up now. New scientific analyses, scholarly debates, and social media conversations have shined a light on reproduction and climate. The influential <a href="https://www.drawdown.org/" target="_blank">Project Drawdown</a> framework for climate mitigation includes a list of solutions ranked by their potential impact, two of which—educating girls and providing access to family planning—they project will have <a href="https://www.drawdown.org/solutions/table-of-solutions" target="_blank">a greater combined impact</a> on reducing greenhouse gas emissions than almost all other climate solutions because of their effect on fertility rates.</p><p>In January 2020, <a href="https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/article/70/1/8/5610806" target="_blank">11,000 scientists signed onto a study that warned</a> about the unfolding climate emergency. The authors prescribe steps in six sectors that can prevent irreversible planetary collapse, including that "the world population must be stabilized—and, ideally, gradually reduced—within a framework that ensures social integrity." The framework they propose includes universal access to family planning as well as education and equity for young women. (Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1410465111" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">scientific takes</a> on population-based climate actions are more skeptical about their immediate impact given the scale of fertility reductions needed to balance out longer lifespans.)</p><p>Even before 2020, a new movement was afoot to address climate by forgoing reproduction. Blythe Pepino, a British musician in her 30s, formed BirthStrike in 2018 to build a community of people—typically women-identified—who have opted not to reproduce in response to the ecological and social crises that climate change is creating. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests this summer, the group recognized the need to acknowledge the oppression that colors conversations about reproduction as it relates to climate and so reformed itself into a support group for those grieving parenthood. Their new stated goal is to channel that loss into action on climate justice.</p><p>Organizations such as <a href="https://conceivablefuture.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Conceivable Future</a>, however, continue to keep reproduction at the fore. Led by climate activists Meghan Kallman and Josephine Ferorelli, Conceivable Future is raising awareness about how the climate crisis affects "<a href="https://conceivablefuture.org/about" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">intimate choices</a>" like reproduction. The Conceivable Future and now-defunct BirthStrike campaigns share ideological terrain with "<a href="https://www.npr.org/2016/08/18/479349760/should-we-be-having-kids-in-the-age-of-climate-change" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">population engineers</a>," a group of bioethicists who <a href="https://doi.org/10.5840/soctheorpract201642430" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">forward policies for</a> limiting the size of the global population through positive incentives like family planning classes and negative ones such as taxes on wealthy procreators. </p><p>In proposing specific policies rather than individual action, population engineers acknowledge the structures within which reproductive choices occur, everything from media influence to the tax code. Even with this shift to the structural, however, the racist, sexist, colonialist, and nativist legacies of the population question within environmentalism still plague child-free for climate. As do the historical and social injustices that constrain so-called choices.</p>
Racism and Xenophobia in Environmentalism<p>This summer and fall, the climate crisis and its correlated catastrophes—<a href="https://www.cbsnews.com/news/heat-wave-western-united-states/" target="_blank">extreme heat</a>, <a href="https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/07/14/a-third-of-bangladesh-underwater-after-heavy-rains-floods/" target="_blank">flooding</a>, <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/world/wildfires" target="_blank">wildfires</a>—are intensifying alongside Black Lives Matter uprisings and the <a href="http://www.yesmagazine.org/health-happiness/2020/06/09/coronavirus-public-health-social-justice/" target="_blank">coronavirus health disparities</a> among Black, Indigenous, and Latinx populations. This confluence has brought overdue attention to racism in environmentalism, as evidenced by the Audubon Society's recent <a href="http://audubon.org/magazine/fall-2020/revealing-past-create-future" target="_blank">reckoning</a> with racial injustices in its past and present, including <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/the-myth-john-james-audubon" target="_blank">publicizing</a> that its famed founder was a White supremacist and a slaveholder. The intersections of <a href="https://www.yesmagazine.org/opinion/2020/09/23/election-black-voters-climate/" target="_blank">climate justice and racial justice</a> have also come to the fore through <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/05/climate/heat-minority-school-performance.html" target="_blank">studies of how Black communities are greatly harmed by hotter temperatures</a> and through the popular <a href="https://www.intersectionalenvironmentalist.com/" target="_blank">intersectional environmentalist</a> platform created by Leah Thomas, a young Black activist and "<a href="https://www.greengirlleah.com/about-1" target="_blank">eco-communicator</a>." To these reckonings we need to add the racism and xenophobia that have long characterized environmentally motivated population controls.</p><p>The New York Times recently exposed these sins in <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/14/us/anti-immigration-cordelia-scaife-may.html/" target="_blank">a profile of Cordelia Scaife May</a>, showing how this heir to the Mellon fortune converted a love of birding into a network of anti-immigration, pro-population-control organizations that still influence politics today. In the 1960s May linked threatened birdlife to the rapidly expanding human population. May wasn't wrong to see and worry over this link: A host of human activities—from <a href="https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/popular-pesticides-linked-drops-bird-population-180951971/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">toxic agriculture and industry</a> to <a href="https://journals.plos.org/plosbiology/article?id=10.1371/journal.pbio.0050157" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">sprawling settlements</a> and <a href="https://www.npr.org/2017/10/05/555949789/light-pollution-can-impact-noctural-bird-migration" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">light</a> and <a href="https://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/animals/blogs/birds-live-near-human-noise-sing-louder-shorter-songs" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">noise pollution</a>—decimate avian habitats and habits. May's anti-immigration approach, however, indicates how readily environmentalism can mutate into racist and xenophobic actions.</p><p>The Times investigators show that "protecting natural habitats and helping women prevent unplanned pregnancies merged over time into a single goal of preserving the environment by discouraging offspring altogether." Taken on its own, this goal resonates with Conceivable Future's and population engineers' aims. To be clear, this does not mean that today's child-free climate advocates are racist nativists. However, it does indicate how readily the affiliation arises because of the ugly history of forced population control.</p>
Contemporary Examples<p>And this history is hardly past. For example, race and class conflicts erupted around a population platform within the Sierra Club only 15 years ago. In 2004, a faction of club members took a page from May and argued that more people living in the U.S. meant more encroachment on less developed land and water. As with May's effort, this anti-immigration push amounted to "the greening of hate," according to the Southern Poverty Law Center and Anti-Defamation League, who entered the dispute when they found White supremacists lobbying for anti-immigration Sierra Club board candidates. A 2010 <a href="https://www.splcenter.org/20100630/greenwash-nativists-environmentalism-and-hypocrisy-hate" target="_blank">SPLC report</a> firms up the connection between environmentalist intentions and racist agendas by explaining why White nationalist John Tanton infiltrated the club: "Using an organization perceived by the public as part of the liberal left would insulate nativists from charges of racism—charges that … would likely otherwise stick."</p><p>Charges of racism ultimately did stick to Tanton and his anti-immigration, pro-population-control allies. And they continue to stick in analyses of the child-free for climate movement today. Earlier this year, climate journalist Meehan Crist <a href="https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v42/n05/meehan-crist/is-it-ok-to-have-a-child" target="_blank">took up</a> AOC's question of whether it's OK to have a child. In arriving at an answer (for her, yes), she affiliates child-free positions with "anti-feminist, racist and anti-human" values and with bad science. "Darker visions" proceed from this analysis, she writes, visions of those who believe "racial purity will save the planet. Closed borders. . . . Ecofascist death squads." The dark visions Crist spins from the child-free for climate question underscore how readily calls for reproductive limits touch the third rails of modern environmentalism: racism, eugenics, xenophobia, even death-dealing.</p><p>We get even closer to these third rails when we consider that the question of whether to reproduce is, for some people, no choice at all. Modern efforts to limit fertility, which ramped up after World War II, have targeted poor women in the Global South, and Black, Indigenous, and people of color in the U.S. using coercion and force. BIPOC reproductive justice advocates such as Loretta Ross have condemned dichotomous pro-abortion-rights versus anti-abortion politics for producing "<a href="https://www.google.com/books/edition/Radical_Reproductive_Justice/hN-4DgAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=loretta%20ross%20radical%20reproductive&pg=PT8&printsec=frontcover&bsq=anemic" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">anemic political analyses</a>" that ignore the reality of forced sterilizations in prisons and the appallingly high maternal mortality rate for Black women in the U.S. These are all forms of what medical historian and ethicist Harriet Washington calls "<a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J8WCS1Rs8K8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">medical apartheid</a>."</p>
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By Sharon Guynup
At this time of year, in Russia's far north Laptev Sea, the sun hovers near the horizon during the day, generating little warmth, as the region heads towards months of polar night. By late September or early October, the sea's shallow waters should be a vast, frozen expanse.
Comparison of autumn sea ice formation for the first half of October 2012 (the record year for Arctic sea ice extent loss) and in 2020 (second place for sea ice extent loss). The satellite record goes back to 1979. @Icy_Samuel, data provided by NSIDC
Arctic sea ice extent on Oct. 25, 2020 was at a record low 5.613 million square kilometers for this date, surpassing the record set in 2019 of 6.174 million square kilometers. ChArctic NSIDC
The Arctic appears to be changing into an entirely new climate state due to rapid warming. The extent of sea ice in the late summer, when it reaches its minimum each year, has already entered a statistically different climate, with surface air temperatures and the number of days with rain instead of snow also beginning to transition. Simmi Sinha, ©UCAR
A polar bear prowls the Arctic shoreline. VisualHunt.com
A fire burning through northern forest in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, in July 2020. Greenpeace International
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By Peter A. Kloess
Picture Antarctica today and what comes to mind? Large ice floes bobbing in the Southern Ocean? Maybe a remote outpost populated with scientists from around the world? Or perhaps colonies of penguins puttering amid vast open tracts of snow?
Giants of the Sky<p>As their name suggests, these ancient birds had sharp, bony spikes protruding from sawlike jaws. Resembling teeth, these spikes would have helped them catch squid or fish. We also studied another remarkable feature of the pelagornithids – their imposing size.</p><p>The largest flying bird alive today is the <a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/birds/group/albatrosses/" target="_blank">wandering albatross</a>, which has a wingspan that reaches 11 ½ feet. The Antarctic pelagornithids fossils we studied have a wingspan nearly double that – about 21 feet across. If you tipped a two-story building on its side, that's about 20 feet.</p><p>Across Earth's history, very few groups of vertebrates have achieved powered flight – and only two reached truly giant sizes: birds and a group of <a href="https://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/pterosaurs-flight-in-the-age-of-dinosaurs/what-is-a-pterosaur" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reptiles called pterosaurs</a>.</p>
Full-size model of a Quetzalcoatlus on display at JuraPark in Baltow, Poland. Aneta Leszkiewicz / Wikimedia<p>Pterosaurs ruled the skies during the Mesozoic Era (252 million to 66 million years ago), the same period that dinosaurs roamed the planet, and they reached hard-to-believe dimensions. <a href="https://www.wired.com/2013/11/absurd-creature-of-the-week-quetz/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Quetzalcoatlus</a> stood 16 feet tall and had a colossal 33-foot wingspan.</p>
Birds Get Their Opportunity<p>Birds originated while dinosaurs and pterosaurs were still roaming the planet. But when an <a href="https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/dinosaur-killing-asteroid-impact-chicxulub-crater-timeline-destruction-180973075/" target="_blank">asteroid struck the Yucatan Peninsula 66 million years ago</a>, dinosaurs and pterosaurs both perished. Some <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/how-birds-survived-asteroid-impact-wiped-out-dinosaurs" target="_blank">select birds survived</a>, though. These survivors diversified into the thousands of bird species alive today. Pelagornithids evolved in the period right after dinosaur and pterosaur extinction, when competition for food was lessened.</p><p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/spp2.1284" target="_blank">The earliest pelagornithid remains</a>, recovered from 62-million-year-old sediments in New Zealand, were about the size of modern gulls. The first giant pelagornithids, the ones in our study, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-75248-6" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">took flight over Antarctica about 10 million years later</a>, in a period called the Eocene Epoch (56 million to 33.9 million years ago). In addition to these specimens, fossilized remains from other pelagornithids have been found on every continent.</p><p>Pelagornithids lasted for about 60 million years before going extinct just before the Pleistocene Epoch (2.5 million to 11,700 years ago). No one knows exactly why, though, because few fossil records have been recovered from the period at the end of their reign. Some paleontologists cite <a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/02724634.2011.562268" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">climate change as a possible factor</a>.</p>
Piecing it Together<p>The fossils we studied are fragments of whole bones collected by paleontologists from the University of California at Riverside in the 1980s. In 2003, the specimens were transferred to Berkeley, where they now reside in the <a href="https://ucmp.berkeley.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">University of California Museum of Paleontology</a>.</p><p>There isn't enough material from Antarctica to rebuild an entire skeleton, but by comparing the fossil fragments with similar elements from more complete individuals, we were able to assess their size.</p>
In life, the pelagornithid would have had numerous 'teeth,' making it a formidable predator. Peter Kloess, CC BY-NC-SA
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