The American public, the government, corporations and foodies alike must decide what really matters when it comes to organic food. Do we care more about how we feel about our food, or about the way the food is grown? It turns out that the debate over how the United States grows its organic products isn’t primarily about growing methods, sustainable practices, and better nutrition after all. If it were, someone would eventually win the argument. The problem is not who owns the food companies or what time of year they plant their seeds per se—it’s the idea of organic being sold to the American public without the organic practices to match. Ask yourself, is that mac-n-cheese in your cabinet really organic?

As the debate surrounding organic food rages on, the real reason behind the argument was defined for us almost a decade ago. In 1995, the USDA officially described organic agriculture as a system focused on natural processes and harmony. Then, in a later amendment, this definition was tweaked to include the integration of “cultural” practices (see end of post). Oddly enough, the word ‘nutrition’ still doesn’t enter the equation. This difference, while subtle, is what lies at the heart of the entire organics debate. It was the addition of that tiny, but critical, word that has redefined the perception of organic foods to the American public and the warm, fuzzy feelings of down-home American culture and all that it implies.

So-called ”organic” products have exploded in the American consumer’s refrigerators, pantries, medicine cabinets, and even closets since 1995. The result? Gluttony over the magic o-word. This is where the ever-so-powerful word, cultural, comes into play. It’s a beautiful marketing ploy implemented by 30 of the major food processors in North America: use lighter, less saturated colors on your packaging, a bucolic farm image, use of the o-word and voila—higher sales! By 2009, the 30 major food companies across the continent had systematically bought up more than 40 new companies. Pepsi bought Naked Juice. Coca-Cola bought Honest Tea. General Mills swallowed Cascadian Farms. Imagine Rice Milk and TofuTown by Heinz. These food conglomerates are just doing their job—buying and selling capital to make higher profits. No harm in that, right? It’s not like Coca-Cola is pouring a little of its highly sugared products into Naked Juice, they just own the name—right? Wrong. These companies have capitalized on and profited from the American public’s desire for an improved food system without actually changing the system. Hijacking these trusted brand names and using suggestive terminology like ‘natural’ or ‘organic processes’ created a profitable illusion and has consumers convinced that what they are eating is healthy.

The USDA’s subsequent modification of how it defines organics reflected the desire for a new food system, but the regulations weren’t strong enough to support the concept and allowed corporations, and not farmers, to take advantage. To correct this inadvertent policy failure, tighter restrictions should be enacted to more specifically constrain the agriculture methods that match the consumer’s expectations when they choose to buy organic. For example, most consumers are unaware of the fact that originally all certified products were completely organic. After enough industry pressure and the weight of powerful corporations, now all certified organic products are permitted to contain up to 5% of synthetic additives. To begin with, this allowance should be removed and a restriction on corporate influence over future additions must be written into the policy. Actual inspections of facilities following the organic guidelines should also be required to determine continued compliance as well as consistency in labeling. In other words, no more use of the word ‘natural’ on sugared snacks simply because it contains ‘real’ strawberry flavoring. In addition, subsidy programs must be completely shifted to actually benefit the farmers producing fresh fruits and vegetables and other healthy products instead of single-handedly financing the excesses of the corn and soybean markets. We can all have our (organic) cake and eat it, too if we can only remove the sentimental strings of organic “culture” and see the system for what it really has become.

America’s food fight can be described as a tangled mess of fragmented interest groups: hunger advocates, food elitists, environmentalists, farmers, average everyday consumers, corporate food Goliaths–the list goes on and on. But when it comes right down to it, everyone falls into two main categories—those committed to the USDA’s first definition of organic or those content with the second. Consumers either want to buy mac-n-cheese that is called organic or a mac-n-cheese that is actually organic. Organic food policy should ensure that buying organic means choosing both. Until this argument is sorted out, the average everyday consumer will be caught in the middle.

National Organics Standard Boards Definition, 1995:

“Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony.”

Later amendment to the CFR Regulatory Text, 7 CFR Part 205, Subpart A — Definitions. § 205.2:

“A production system that is managed in accordance with the Act and regulations in this part to respond to site-specific conditions by integrating cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.”