Like many folks, I am concerned that the explosion of “certified” label claims creates more confusion than clarity among a high percentage of shoppers.
Organic continues to be the gold standard for natural food label claims, but shoppers today can select non-GMO, gluten free, whole grain, and a ton of other certified monikers.
Yet, the marketplace needs yet one more label claim: Certified Transitional.
It’s hardly a secret that the supply of U.S. produced organic crops and livestock lags far behind the demand for food produced with those ingredients. In a report issued last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service noted, “Despite the strong interest in organic food in the United States, overall adoption of organic corn, soybeans and wheat remains low, standing at less than 1 percent of the total acreage of each crop.”
Organic livestock producers today import a high percentage of feed grains and oilseeds. Food manufacturers regularly say that the lack of organic supply is inhibiting their ability to bring new organic food to the marketplace.
Organic production is more complex and labor intensive than conventional farming. The price premiums for organic commodities certainly provide financial compensation for those who make the effort. Organic corn producers are receiving around $7.72 per bushel, while their conventional neighbors are receiving about $4.05 per bushel. Similarly, organic soybeans today are worth about $17.50 per bushel, while conventional soybeans are selling for $11.20 per bushel.
So, why isn’t supply keeping pace with demand? Simply put, there’s a three-year barrier to entry for farmers wanting to become certified organic.
Under the federal regulations, any food or commodity marketed as organic must come from land that has been farmed in accordance with the organic regulations for at least three years. There is good reason for that rule: The land needs to be cleansed from the residue of synthetic pesticides, fertilizers and GMOs before those crops can legally be considered organic.
For the grower, it means three years of receiving conventional commodity prices while incurring the expenses and complexities of organic farming. And, land that is farmed with chemicals generally experiences the kind of withdrawal shock of an opioid addict who goes cold turkey. It takes months—and even years—for the soil to start to regain its natural biological health once the chemicals are withdrawn. In the meantime, crop yields plummet until the organic matter, earthworms, micro-organisms and beneficial bugs start to provide natural fertility and pest control. All that time, the farmer likely has to invest in different types of tillage equipment to farm organically.
Now, the Organic Trade Association, several certification agencies, food companies and farmers have developed a proposal for a new USDA Process Verified program to allow labeling of food as Certified Transitional. The expectation is that food companies will pay a bit of a premium on certified transitional crops because those commodities are non-GMO and pesticide free.
Here’s the challenge. The front label can’t really say “Certified Transitional to what…”
The word organic on any front label is reserved for products that contain at least 70 percent certified organic ingredients. Food manufacturers, the OTA and farmers are going to have to engage in an aggressive informational campaign.
So, we have a new label coming into an already crowded field, and a label that will require a lot of consumer education. I think it’s worth the effort.
Will the Certified Transitional label help grow organic, or confuse consumers?