The Challenges of Organic: Scott Updike of the USDA National Organic Program Speaks

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By Marlena White

Scott Updike is an Agricultural Marketing Specialist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture‘s National Organic Program Standards Division and recently spoke to the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future about organic standards for meat production and processing. He also touched on how meat production fits into the organic model and just what organic means in the first place.

Scott Updike of the USDA’s National Organic Program spoke about organic standards for livestock production. (Image credit: USDA)

“There are a lot of misperceptions about what organic is and is not” Updike says. The organic label, he explains, is strictly about the process, and does not refer to its health, nutritional, or taste qualities. When meat is certified organic, it means that methods and standards have been followed from the raising and feeding of the animal, to the processing, packaging, and transport of the final product.

When questioned why the organic standards do not focus more on the environment, Updike points out that the organic standards are a broad based set of regulations that encompass maintaining or improving natural resources, animal health and living conditions, minimal use of synthetic substances, and not using excluded methods (like genetic modifications). The organic community is very involved in the development of organic standards, but what organic means differs from person to person.

These differences in opinion, Updike explains, are often due to the various motivations people have for embracing organic. For example, Updike referenced a former National Organics Standards Board (NOSB) member who was a self described “chemophobe” wanting artificial chemicals out of the food supply. Other consumers want to support more environmentally sustainable production, while for some, it is most important to avoid GMOs (genetically modified organisms). In addition, when the legislation authorizing the National Organic Program was written, organic crop production was more understood than organic livestock production, leading to less clear management requirements for organic livestock.

Despite the lack of consensus on organic standards, Updike explains the importance of striking a balance—standards must be strict enough to ensure that organics are still reaching many of the goals expected of them, but not so rigid that most producers are unable to participate in the program, limiting the amount of organic products available to consumers. Demand for organic products is on the rise, in part because consumers know that they are held to higher standards. Not everyone may agree on what these exact standards should be, but according to Updike, lacking complete consensus does not need to be a barrier to moving forward.

Marlena White is a research intern with Nourishing the Planet.

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