Saturday, July 4, 2009

Organics and the Government

The Washington Post published an article yesterday about the "USDA Organic" certification. The Inspector General is looking into the fact that it doesn't mean anything. (For instance, you can make organic beer from non-organic hops.) Really, you can't trust that certification. Some good products have it, but they also have another more reliable certification as well. "100% Organic" is a better certification, but it's also under the control of government bureaucrats, and susceptible to lobbying. Non-governmental organizations frequently do a better job.
This is a well-known problem. Michael Pollan blew the lid off it in The Omnivore's Dilemma, and in magazine articles. The word "organic" is a powerful sales tool. The USDA's job is to promote agriculture, so they have no interest in excluding anything from their certification. Products certified "organic" can cost twice as much as their regular equivalents, which brings us to the real issue here: price.
It's true that organic food costs more to produce, so it's perfectly fair for the store to charge more, right? Not so fast. According to the Undercover Economist, the farmer sees very little of the price you pay. You can ask farmers, too. They'll tell you, for as long as you care to listen, that the brokers and shippers make all the money. If they were able to get 10% or 25% more for their crop, that should only change your price at the store by a couple of pennies. But look around at the supermarket. Compare the prices of organic and non-organic foods. It's not easy -- the experts who design stores never put them next to each other. Organic foods are frequently on their own aisle. Why? Because they don't want you to see that they're using the "organic" label to jack up prices by 30-100%. Not everybody does this, of course, and not on all products, but caveat emptor.

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