Should ingredients grown with chemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides and fungicides be allowed in food that bears the "USDA organic" seal? Judging from the sales of organic food last year in the United States, that's about a $15.5 billion question.
What does "organic" mean, exactly? That question has been at the center of a growing debate about the requirements for packaged, boxed, bagged and canned organic foods. Many purists maintain that the discussion is largely meaningless; once a food is processed, it loses many of the nutritional qualities that health-conscious consumers sought in the first place. But the argument has become increasingly relevant, as a growing number of Americans want food that's both chemical-free and convenient.
Take one organic product just starting to make its way into the mainstream: beer.
When the National Organic Program, which is housed within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, released its list of 38 non-organic ingredients that could be used in food that bears the USDA Organic seal this summer, the inclusion of conventionally grown hops drew some of the heaviest criticism. (Hops are a small but crucial component of beer.) Organizations such as the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) asserted that the exception for conventionally grown hops was a giveaway to the beer industry.
Indeed, Anheuser-Busch had petitioned the government to include hops on the exceptions list, arguing that organic hops were not available in sufficient quantities for commercial production.
Following grassroots pressure, Anheuser-Busch pledged to use only organic hops in its beer bearing the organic label. There is nothing to legally bind the company to its promise, however, and conventionally grown hops remain on the list of ingredients permitted in "organic" products even though they are raised with chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers.
Doug Muhleman, Anheuser-Busch's group vice president for brewing operations and technology, says everything seemed to be going well in sourcing organic ingredients for the company's "Wild Hops" beer.
"Then we started looking at hops, and then we started to hit the wall," Muhleman says, explaining that the company couldn't find enough organic hops to meet its demand.
The opposition caught Anheuser-Busch off guard.
"We decided we can't be held hostage by this thing, let's just go 100 percent organic, and if we run out of hops, we run out of hops, even though our projections told us we could sell more beer," Muhleman says.
But it wasn't just a big player that petitioned for the hops exemption. Smaller breweries, such as Peak Brewing of Portland, Maine, also chimed in with the USDA.
Peak founder Jon Cadoux explains that "it will take hops a long, long time to get the quantity and variety" necessary to make a large variety and quantity of beer using only organic hops.
The reason has a lot to do with the nature of the crop itself. Hops are notoriously difficult to grow, as they are especially prone to fungus, mold and insects.
And like all other crops being transitioned to organic from conventional petrochemical practices, farmers must follow organic standards for three years (or be able to certify that the soil has not been treated with conventional pesticides or fertilizers during that time) before they can be certified organic. That means three years of higher costs while their crops still command the lower, conventionally produced sales price. It's a huge financial outlay and risk, and farmers need to know there is going to be a market on the other side.
Cadoux says that's where the synergy with other beer components comes in. Growers of grains -- the principal components of beer -- are in the same predicament when it comes to transitioning to organic.
It's a bit of a Catch-22: If Anheuser-Busch and Peak Brewing are not making organic beer because they cannot find enough organic hops -- which comprises just a tiny fraction of the final product -- they are not likely to seek out organic grain, which in turn means less grain field will be converted to organic.
The only way to grow the market for organic grain, according to Cadoux and Muhleman, is to use some conventional hops.
"You can't just kind of flip a switch and have hops show up," Cadoux says.
Mark Kastel of the Cornucopia Institute says, "It's a good argument, but other people are doing it." The exemption, he says, is a "penalty to the people who are actually using organic hops."
"What comes first: the chicken or the egg?" Kastel asks. "If you satisfy the demand with conventional, there will never be enough organics."
The discussion is hardly theoretical. In addition to hops, also on the "commercially unavailable" list are sausage casings from organically raised animals, which means that meat producers can use intestines from factory-farmed animals raised with hormones and antibiotics and fed pesticide-laden foods as casings for sausages labeled organic.
Lemongrass, beet juice, whey protein concentrate and rice starch are also listed as "commercially unavailable," meaning they can be included in food labeled organic, so long as the non-organic ingredients total less than 5 percent of the product.
If a company can't source enough organic ingredients to reach 95 percent of the total product, the National Organic Program offers another designation, "made with organic ingredients," which indicates that at least 70 percent of the ingredients were organic.
Cadoux points out that it's become "sexy" for knowledgeable consumers and grassroots activists to bash the organic label as not going far enough, especially with what he believes has been misleading reporting about the exceptions list.
"It's actually stricter now," he says of the organic label, as now companies can substitute only ingredients on the exceptions list. Previously, there was no such restriction.
Cadoux wants to see half of the farming in the United States be organic within his generation, something he doesn't see happening "if we get too fanatical about it."
At the same time, he says the exceptions list needs to be continually slimmed down and scrutinized.
"If you want it to be a tiny, tiny niche little thing, where everything is 100 percent, that's fine, but your kids aren't going to live in a world where the majority of farms are organic," Cadoux says.