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More backwards hype about “the soul of organic”

A recent post on GRIST ( starts with an attention-grabbing but purely hyperbolic “There is a battle going on in the White House for the very soul of the organic dairy movement—and possibly over the future of small family-operated dairy farms—and you don’t even know it.”  The author goes on to acknowledge that he’d “like to think that I’m overstating things but no. At issue is an obscure rule in the USDA Organic label that requires “access to pasture” for organic dairy cows.” Obscure rule?  This subject has been debated publicly and intensely ever since a proposed rule on access to pasture was published by USDA over a year ago.  The debate over this proposal prompted my post of December, 2008 – The battle royale is more than overstated, it is distorted and misleading, to put it mildly.  This is typical of the strategy used by the two groups that have sounded this alarm, the Organic Consumers Association and the Cornucopia Institute.  Both exemplify the wrong-headed approach I talk about in my post.  While the story is full of concerns about large-scale corporate owned operations seeking to “water down” organic standards, the opposite is far more likely and my experience with this particular issue backs that up.  The small dairy farmers I have talked to here in Vermont have expressed dismay and alarm over the strict, highly prescriptive pasture proposal, while the Aurora Dairy people have no problem with, among other provisions, the onerous dry matter record keeping requirements – their feed rations are all computer-controlled, and they can generate a full report for any cow at the click of a mouse. The story makes some innuendos about the political influence of the Aurora CEO, but does not give any facts about the input he offered in his meeting with OMB, or any indication that OMB intends to change the final rule sent over by USDA.  It even attacks one of the oldest family organic operations in California for collaborating with Aurora on the comment that they submitted (which is publicly available). Most people don’t understand the whole convoluted regulatory process, but it is irritating when those who claim to be knowledgeable deliberately mislead their followers. One of many ironies is that some of the same folks who are pressing to save the access to pasture rule from being eviscerated by OMB were more than willing to let OMB do its worst to the first organic proposed rule in 1997, and then blame USDA for getting it wrong – to the ongoing detriment of “organic integrity” and the real soul of organic. Another irony is that many organic leaders are concurrently mounting a campaign to express concern about pending food safety legislation, arguing correctly that “one size fits all” does not work, and that flexibility is needed to allow small farms to comply with the rules in a way that makes sense for their scale and conditions. Would that they could grasp the similarity. A complicating factor is the economic argument, and the effects of corporatization and consolidation in the food system are correctly identified as a major problem.  The mistake that some well-intentioned organic leaders make, however, is to look to tightening standards as a way of controlling supply and therefore keeping prices high.  This is not only ultimately self-destructive, but it will not work.  The economics of commodity agriculture (of which dairy is a part) are far more strongly influenced by bigger, deeply entrenched federal policies, and erecting unreasonable barriers to organic conversion will not solve those problems – quite the reverse, in my opinion. What all this outcry about the “battle for the soul of organic” does, however, is deepen public distrust of the organic label, and continue to force defensive action by the regulators, which in turn creates a vicious cycle.  Meanwhile, the soul of organic gets misrepresented and strangled by the actions ostensibly intended to defend it, and the public gets more and more confused about who they can trust to tell the truth – not, in my opinion, the self-appointed defenders of “organic integrity.”

The organic imperative held hostage

“We no longer have the luxury of prevention. Now we are in the dire situation of needing a cure, a reversal. We know that correcting agriculture is an answer to climate chaos, and that it hinges on human behavior. ….The future is underfoot. It’s all about healthy soil.” This statement from ‘Coach’ Mark Smallwood, Executive […] Read More..

Sad news for the organic vision

I wrote the passage that follows near the end of 2010, in the midst of working on a chapter about the early history of organic certification and my role in it. This experience came to mind when I heard about the abrupt dismissal of Mark Keating, a former National Organic Program (NOP) colleague who had […] Read More..

CONFLICTS OVER ORGANIC STANDARDS Part 3 – What is the future of organic?

Part 2 of this series left off in 2002 with full implementation of the NOP (National Organic Program) twelve years after enacting the OFPA (US organic law), following years of internal and external battles. The general message communicated by the activist community was that the new regulation was far from perfect, but acceptable, but that […] Read More..

CONFLICTS OVER ORGANIC STANDARDS Part 2: Organic standards become law

This is the second of three articles published by The Organic Standard (TOS), an international online publication aimed at public and private organic policy makers, certifiers and businesses.  This part appears in the September, 2010 issue (see Part 1 of this story left off in the late 1980s, as the stage was set for […] Read More..

CONFLICTS OVER ORGANIC STANDARDS– Part I, History of organic standard-setting and controversies

NOTE: This article was published in the August 2010 issue of The Organic Standard, an international on-line publication aimed at policy makers, certifiers and the organic trade, published by Grolink AB, a Swedish consulting company ( This is the first of a three-part series that The Organic Standard (TOS) will publish on the story of […] Read More..