Is Organic Food Over?

Lisa Elaine Held wrote . . . . . . . . .

One morning in 2015, instead of heading into the fields, a group of about 50 farmers gathered in a parking lot in Vermont — a handful on tractors. They arrived to protest outside a meeting of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB); on a mountain of decomposing kale stalks, onion peels, and tomato stems, they objected to a proposal that would allow producers of hydroponic vegetables to put a USDA-certified organic label on berries and greens grown without soil.

The demonstration was the start of a movement called Keep Soil in Organic, and it’s one small example of the many big ways people are arguing about what “organic” really means now.

Unlike vague food label terms like “natural” and “humane,” the USDA-certified organic label has long been seen as a reliable stamp: It signals that a food was produced according to set standards that prohibit the use of most synthetic pesticides and includes other requirements related to conserving biodiversity and animal welfare. It means the farm and any processing facilities involved in producing that food have been evaluated by a third-party certifier to verify the standards are being followed.

Those who believe in organic as a solution to negative effects of “conventional” food production assumed the word would evolve into shorthand for “healthy” — but it was never going to be that simple. Talk to farmers like the ones at the protest, and “organic” is a lifestyle that involves a philosophical understanding of the relationship farmers (and all people) have to the earth; talk to a Whole Foods supplier and “organic” is a value-add that means a higher price on the shelf. Talk to a consumer, and organic is now simply confusing.

A big reason for that is that those within the industry — not to mention the institutions that use and govern the term — don’t agree on several contentious issues. First, animal welfare standards: Advocates say factory farm operations that use organic feed but confine thousands of chickens or cows into cramped indoor spaces do not meet the standard, but those farms are continually approved for certification. Second, the aforementioned soil: Should hydroponic vegetables be certified organic?

Farmers like those at the protest see these issues as related to an influx of corporations trying to cash in on the term. Organic product sales reached nearly $50 billion in 2017 and demand still vastly outstrips supply, sometimes leading to outright fraud. A Washington Post investigation last year, for example, revealed that in the rush to satisfy demand, millions of pounds of soybeans and corn from Turkey were sold into the U.S. market as organic but had been grown using conventional farming practices.

At a time when more eaters than ever say they care about where their food comes from, can “organic” weather the storms to settle on a clear definition and resell consumers on its promise? “There’s no question organic is at a very critical juncture right now,” says Max Goldberg, founder of Organic Insider. “It has become very big business, and everyone wants a piece of it.”

The history of organic

To understand the organic standard, it helps to know the history. Chemical pesticides began to transform American agriculture after World War II. With war-torn countries desperate for food, the global call was to produce as much food as possible, quickly.

Chemical companies had the answer. During the war, the insecticide DDT was credited with saving thousands of lives thanks to how effective it was at eliminating disease-carrying insects. Plus, companies like I.G. Farben — which had produced chemical weapons and gas chamber poisons like Zyklon B and participated in the operation of concentration camps — needed new markets. (The company was broken up into smaller entities after a postwar trial. Two of those entities, BASF and Bayer, are still among the biggest manufacturers of agricultural chemicals today. Bayer also purchased Monsanto earlier this year.)

With these suddenly available tools that made commodity agriculture easier, many farmers heeded the call to scale up using chemical inputs, including synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. And that call got louder in subsequent decades, when famed secretary of agriculture Earl Butz repeatedly told farmers to “get big or get out.”

However, a different idea about how to feed the world was also taking root. The American version of An Agricultural Testament, a book that sparked interest in organic agriculture, was published in 1943, and J.I. Rodale founded the pioneering research organization the Soil and Health Foundation (now the Rodale Institute) in 1947. In 1962, conservationist Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, a popular book that sounded an alarm about the damaging environmental (and to a lesser extent, health) effects of pesticides. In response, part of the anti-establishment awakening of the ’60s and ’70s became the back-to-the-land movement.

“It was part of a counterculture movement… moving back to the land, eating whole foods, and growing this fruit without a lot of chemical pesticides or fertilizers, right?” says Dave Chapman, an organic tomato farmer and one of the leaders of the aforementioned Vermont protest. “In the process… we learned a lot of very good reasons to do it that way.” For these pioneers, it was about more than just not using pesticides; it was about environmental stewardship, family health, and living in line with the principles of nature. And their original customers were local eaters with the same principles, who purchased food from them directly.

Over the years, as more organic food was produced and sales shifted to bigger grocery stores, a movement for an organic certification emerged. The movement was concerned with establishing a set standard for the term so that shoppers could easily identify organic food and so that the term could not be co-opted by farmers not following agreed-upon practices. In 1973, Oregon passed the first state law regulating organic, and other states followed. To create a uniform federal standard, Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act in 1990. Even then, disagreement pervaded the industry. After a few failed attempts, a final rule establishing the USDA organic standards went into effect February 2001.

Chapman was in the first group of farmers to be certified by Vermont’s state program and then later by the USDA. “As the whole system became less intensely local, certification became something that was more important to the participants — both the farmers and to the consumers,” he says. “We had to figure out how to find each other. How do we identify each other in the marketplace when we don’t know each other, and be honest? As far as I was concerned, the whole thing was working pretty well.” For a while, in most ways, it was.

“Cheating” and disagreements in organic

While the vast majority of organic farmers are sticking to the standards the label established, many say that lax USDA enforcement means some are now getting away with “cheating” as they try to cash in on the growing market for organic food. “It’s a failure in the system,” says Cornucopia Institute co-founder Mark Kastel. “Now you have to look for this label and do your homework.”

Cornucopia released its first-ever Organic Dairy Brand Scorecard earlier this year because the association was alarmed by the rise of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in organic dairy, Kastel said. Many conventional dairy cows are kept indoors in large, factory-like settings (although small dairy farms that are not organic do exist). In contrast, the organic standard requires that cows have access to pasture at least 120 days per year. Investigations have revealed, however, that some of the bigger organic dairy brands are not meeting that requirement.

Kastel’s team set out to help consumers separate what he calls “the organic wheat from the organic chaff.” In fact, almost everyone in the industry agrees that the animal welfare requirements in the USDA standard are not in line with what consumers imagine when they choose organic (i.e., happy cows grazing on tall grass). During the Obama administration, a set of rules called the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices (OLPP) were finalized to correct that discrepancy. The rules focused on further codifying what provisions in the standard related to things like “outdoor space” really meant, so that things like small covered porches outside cramped chicken barns would no longer be seen as sufficient “outdoor access.”

The implementation was delayed, however, until President Donald Trump took office, and in March 2018, the USDA announced it was withdrawing the rules. The leading voice in the industry, the Organic Trade Association (OTA), is now suing the USDA “over the agency’s failure to put into effect new organic livestock standards.” It’s also leading a task force to prevent fraudulent food imports like the aforementioned shipments of “organic” soybeans and corn from Turkey.

“Cheating” isn’t the only issue. Organic farmers and food producers also don’t agree on how to treat companies that are getting into organic food but still primarily produce conventional food within the industry, or on which practices do and don’t belong in organic.

In July of this year, the Nature’s Path cereal and grain brand made a loud exit from the Organic Trade Organization with a press release, citing (among other issues) the association allowing controversial members to join. Those members included BASF, one of the world’s largest producers of pesticides, and Cargill, a company that dominates the market for livestock feed (GMO grain) used in CAFOs. Goldberg of Organic Insider broke the story with an impassioned post outlining how misaligned the interests of the two companies are with the organic mission. (OTA CEO and executive director Laura Batcha said that while the companies do have other interests, the OTA only represents their interests in organic.)

Nature’s Path also cited the OTA’s support for allowing hydroponics in organic as a major factor in its decision, which illustrates how contentious arguments in the organic community can center around distinctions that, to outsiders, may seem small. Hydroponic farming — growing food in water with added nutrients and no soil, usually indoors — has grown in the public consciousness as companies like Square Roots and Gotham Greens have expanded, and many argue that even if those farms are not using any of the substances outlawed by the organic standard — like synthetic pesticides or GMOs — they should not be eligible for organic certification.

“Hydroponics is a complete violation of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, which says that you have to have a management plan that fosters soil fertility,” Goldberg says, emphasizing that he’s not against hydroponic farming; he just doesn’t think it qualifies as organic. Calling hydroponically farmed greens organic is “creating an unequal playing field for these soil-based farmers who can’t compete fairly,” Goldberg says.

At the end of 2017, the NOSB voted to allow hydroponic vegetables to be certified organic. Supporters of that decision see it as a sign of progress and growth, since it will mean many more fruits and vegetables will be eligible for organic certification. But it didn’t end there.

Are new certifications the answer?

Chapman’s group of protesting farmers decided to forge its own path. A coalition of farmers and industry leaders established the Real Organic Project (ROP), a certification that will function as an “add-on” to the USDA organic label. In other words, it requires farms to be USDA certified but then checks that they’re meeting additional standards — like soil fertility and animal welfare requirements — that the organization feels the USDA is failing to enforce. ROP has lined up 50 farms across the country to launch the certification, and has already inspected about half of them.

Meanwhile, the Regenerative Organic Alliance is trying to raise the bar even higher with a new certification called Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC). Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario — who also helms Patagonia Provisions, maker of packaged foods like smoked salmon and breakfast grains — said the idea came out of an observation: Many forward-thinking food producers began calling their practices “regenerative” to signify they were going beyond organic. “They were saying ‘[Organic] is not going far enough, or you know, it’s too big of a hurdle, or it’s a political lightning rod,” she says.

Marcario and collaborators like Dr. Bronner’s CEO David Bronner didn’t want the term “regenerative” to cannibalize what they saw as its foundation — organic — or to be tossed around in a way that would lose meaning. (While Dr. Bronner’s is known for its soap, it now makes food products too, like coconut oil for kitchen use.) “We thought, well, what’s the harm in putting together the highest bar certification that encompasses those three pillars: soil health, animal welfare, and social fairness?” Marcario says. “The idea is that we’re going to regenerate soil over time, sequester more carbon, and give the customer the peace of mind that the animal welfare standard is the highest level of certification and that we’re providing economic stability and fairness to farmers, ranchers, and workers.”

Twenty-one farms and brands (of 80 that applied) — including Patagonia Provisions and Dr. Bronner’s — are now part of the 2018 pilot program. Marcario expects the ROC certification label to appear on the grocery shelf in early 2019. “We believe in USDA Organic as a baseline,” Marcario says, “but we do think that these additive practices are more important for the actual transformation of agriculture.”

But will an already confused grocery shopper faced with cereals labeled USDA organic, ROP, ROC, non-GMO, and who knows what other acronym really be able to make informed choices? Advocates say certifications, no matter how imperfect, are still the best tool for quickly conveying value to a consumer and leveling the playing field for honest farmers — especially when selling not at a local farmers market, but into a growing global market.

“There’s money to be made; there are fortunes to be made,” Chapman says, “and, you know, we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

Source: EATER

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Few U.S. Teens Get Enough Fiber

Lisa Rapaport wrote . . . . . . . . .

Most teens eat far less fiber than recommended, and this nutritional deficit may lead to a higher risk of diabetes and high blood pressure in the future, a U.S. study suggests.

Researchers questioned 754 teens from Augusta, Georgia, about their eating habits on at least four separate occasions. Researchers also tested participants’ blood pressure and blood sugar levels and looked for insulin resistance, which happens when the body is less effective at using the hormone insulin to convert sugars in the blood into energy for cells.

Only two teens in the study consumed the minimum amount of daily recommended fiber – 38 grams for males and 25 grams for females – researchers report in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Overall, participants consumed an average of 10.9 grams daily.

“Our adolescents had very low intakes of soluble and insoluble fiber,” said senior study author Haidong Zhu of the Medical College of Georgia and Augusta University.

“Both lower soluble and insoluble fiber intakes were associated with higher insulin levels; furthermore, lower soluble fiber intake was associated with higher systolic and diastolic blood pressure,” Zhu said by email.

Dietary fiber can be found in a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds. It can help people feel fuller when they eat, aiding with weight management, and it has also been linked to a lower risk of heart disease and diabetes, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Most Americans eat far less fiber than recommended, however.

For the study, researchers looked at total fiber as well as each of the two types of fiber people need in their diet. Insoluble fiber, often called roughage, can be found in grains, nuts, fruits and veggies and helps prevent constipation. Soluble fiber in beans, oats, barley and avocados helps soften stool and also helps slow down the amount of sugar absorbed in the blood.

Males in the study had average total daily fiber intake of 12 grams, the study found. Increasing this to the recommended daily minimum of 38 grams could lead to decreases in blood pressure, blood sugar and insulin resistance, the study team estimated.

Teen boys who increased their fiber intake to the daily recommended amount, for example, could see their systolic blood pressure – the top number that shows what happens when the heart beats — drop by an average of 6.3 mmHg (millimeters of mercury). They could also see their diastolic blood pressure – the bottom number that shows what happens when the heart rests between beats – drop by an average of 5.2 mmHg.

Adolescent girls who increased their fiber intake to the recommended 25 grams a day could see their systolic blood pressure drop by an average of 3.7 mmHg and their diastolic pressure decline by 3.0 mmHg on average.

While these teens didn’t have high blood pressure, reductions of that magnitude might be enough for some adults with elevated blood pressure to reduce it back to a healthy range.

The study wasn’t a controlled experiment designed to prove whether or how fiber intake might directly impact blood pressure or risk factors for diabetes, and it also wasn’t designed to show how teen eating habits or lab results might lead to specific health outcomes in adulthood.

“It is really likely the entire lifestyle that is operating here – physical activity and dietary choices,” said Dr. Margo Denke, a former professor of medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in Dallas who wasn’t involved in the study.

“This paper reiterates key elements of the theoretical relationship between dietary intake and metabolic syndrome,” a cluster of risk factors for heart disease and diabetes, Denke said by email.

Teens are likely missing a lot of fiber in their diets because they consume too much processed food and not enough whole grains, fruits, and veggies, Denke added.

Source: Reuters

Our Ancestors Were Enjoying Cocoa Over 5,000 Years Ago

Maria Cohut wrote . . . . . . . . .

According to recent evidence, our ancestors might have started domesticating cacao trees, the beans of which we ground into cocoa, as many as 1,500 years earlier than we had previously thought.

It’s safe to say that most of us enjoy chocolate in at least one of its many forms.

This treat is made from cacao (or cocoa) beans, the seeds of Theobroma cacao, or the cacao tree.

Chocolate, however, isn’t just a guilty pleasure. In fact, many studies indicate that in its purest form, it can actually benefit our health.

As we have reported on Medical News Today, dark chocolate can enhance our brain health, help us see better, and protect our hearts.

Ancient Mesoamerican peoples — such as the Olmecs, the Maya, and the Aztecs — who lived as early as 3,900 years ago, reportedly used cacao beans to brew sacred drinks and sometimes trade as currency.

So, for a long time, researchers believed that we first domesticated Theobroma cacao trees about that time in Central American regions.

However, a new study — the findings of which appear in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution — presents evidence that we found and cultivated the cacao tree much earlier, and in a different region of the Americas.

Cocoa used much earlier than we thought

The researchers who conducted this new study — hailing from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, as well as many other academic institutions — analyzed the genomes of numerous cacao trees looking for markers of diversification that would suggest early domestication.

This analysis led them to believe that the domestication of Theobroma cacao may actually have originated in equatorial South America, rather than in Central America. Moreover, this likely happened over 1,000 years earlier than experts had thought.


“This new study shows us that people in the upper reaches of the Amazon basin, extending up into the foothills of the Andes in southeastern Ecuador, were harvesting and consuming cacao that appears to be a close relative of the type of cacao later used in Mexico — and they were doing this 1,500 years earlier.”

– Study co-author Prof. Michael Blake, University of British Columbia


The authors explain that traces of cacao on ancient pottery from South American regions provided them with further clues about when these ancient civilizations might have started cultivating the plant, and how it later found its way to Central America.

“They were also doing so,” explains Prof. Blake, “using elaborate pottery that predates the pottery found in Central America and Mexico.”

Source: Medical News Today

Video: A Brief History of Cheese

Before empires and royalty, before pottery and writing, before metal tools and weapons – there was cheese.

As early as 8000 BCE, Neolithic farmers began a legacy of cheesemaking almost as old as civilization.

Today, the world produces roughly 22 billion kilograms of cheese a year, shipped and consumed around the globe.

Paul Kindstedt shares the history of one of our oldest and most beloved foods.

Watch video at You Tube (5:33 minutes) . . . . .

Kidney Disease More Deadly for Men

Chronic kidney disease is more likely to progress to kidney failure and death in men than in women, a new study reveals.

“We found that women had 17 percent lower risk of experiencing [kidney failure] and the risk of death was 31 percent lower in women than in men,” said study author Dr. Ana Ricardo. She’s an associate professor of medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

More than 26 million people in the United States have chronic kidney disease, which causes a gradual loss of kidney function. In some patients, it can lead to kidney failure and the need for dialysis or a kidney transplant.

The study included nearly 4,000 chronic kidney disease patients. After a median follow-up of seven years, the rate of kidney failure was 3.8 per 100 people in men and 3.1 per 100 in women. Rates of death were 3.6 and 2.6, respectively.

“We’ve known for a long time that women are more likely to be diagnosed with chronic kidney disease, but there has been conflicting research on chronic kidney disease outcomes by sex,” Ricardo said in a university news release.

“The results of this study suggest that biology and psychosocial factors may be the driver of the sex-related disparity observed in patients with chronic kidney disease,” Ricardo suggested.

She added that she hopes the report might boost awareness among patients and their care providers of the higher risk of kidney failure and related deaths among men.

The study was published in the December issue of the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology.

Source: HealthDay


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