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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 organic standards in the USA. The series will cover the earliest developments right up to the current situation, and it will examine the conflicts that have been always present in how ‘organic’ is understood to mean.

The story is told by Grace Gershuny, and is deliberately expressed from her perspective. Grace presents herself as ‘an early pioneer of organic certification and a leader at the national level, organising among grassroots organic farm groups in the US, then joining the NOP staff to help write the regulations that were so vehemently opposed by my former colleagues. For the past ten years I have worked as a policy consultant, teacher and organic inspector for various companies and organisations.’

When writing this series, which has been largely based on her own experience, Grace´s intention was not to present an ’objective’ report, but as a call to the organic community to reexamine their assumptions about the purpose and limits of organic standard-setting as a means of realising the larger organic principles.

Background and scope of this article

The organic community in North America has long been divided along philosophical and ideological lines. While the organic pioneers have mainly been identified with the ‘counterculture’ and its associated political and social movements, increasing mainstream acceptance has resulted in the engagement of more pragmatic and business-oriented players. Tension between the ‘grassroots’ (small-scale, locally focused organic farming advocates), and the ‘suits’ (middlemen, manufacturers and distributors seeking to profit from the rapidly growing organic sector) has been a continual factor in drawing battle lines over organic standards and requirements, especially with the onset of the Federal regulation.

Regulation of the organic label by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is now nearly universally recognised as a positive achievement with respect to stimulating growth of the market. Its introduction has pulled with it increased organic production along with increased investment in research and public recognition of the benefits of organic agriculture. However, there are those who regard government regulation of the organic movement with suspicion and even hostility, always ready to assume the worst and often finding their suspicions justified. This suspicion has been widely and repeatedly communicated within the progressive social activist community, which has long held as a given (not without justification) that the USDA is a captive of corporate industrial agribusiness interests. This suspicion has created a form of self-fulfilling prophecy, and is now threatening to undermine public confidence in the credibility of the organic label

Though the current economic recession has depressed the growth of the organic market, it is still expanding, growing by about 5% last year, while in comparison conventional food sales were flat or shrinking. However, while organic food (and non-food products) now comprises about 3.5% of the food system in the US, at less than 1% it still accounts for a tiny fraction of domestic agricultural production.

Many young activists, amplified by popular writers such as Michael Pollan, and his book ‘The Omnivore´s Dilemma’ and by films such as ‘Food, Inc.’, regard the USDA organic label as compromised at best, and possibly meaningless. There is also an increasing proliferation of – and confusion about – terms and eco-labels such as ‘natural’, ‘sustainable’, ‘green’, ‘fair trade’, ‘humane’ and ‘local.’ Some of these labels include transparent standards and third party verification, but most do not; many claim to be ‘beyond organic’. A long time administrator of a respected organic farming organisation recently confided that ‘it’s almost embarrassing to refer to ourselves as organic’.

This three-part article will explore the history of organic standard setting in the US, focusing on the role of social activist groups advocating for various forms of ‘alternative agriculture’, including family farm, environmental and consumer protection agendas. How has this activity affected the development of the USDA National Organic Program (NOP)? To what extent do misconceptions and misleading information circulated by self-appointed ‘watchdogs of organic integrity’ contradict the organic vision and work against the interests of small-scale organic farmers?

The first part focuses on the early years of organic certification in the US.

Organic Standards before the OFPA (US organic law)

Organic certification in the US began in the early 1970s, initiated through groups of like-minded farmers and would-be farmers in those regions, primarily on the West coast and a bit later in the Northeast, where the organic movement was seeking to define itself. Administration, inspection and decision-making were volunteer based, with the certified farmers approving standards and conducting peer reviews. Standards and certification procedures were borrowed freely from other organisations, and all had a local or regional focus.

Although there were some grain producers, particularly in Midwestern states such as Minnesota, the majority of certification in both western and eastern regions was for fresh produce. Initially there was little awareness of post-harvest or handling concerns, or involvement by middlemen or processors. Very little attention was given to livestock or dairy standards, though the importance of including some livestock as part of the farming system was considered key from the start.

Although the rationale for involvement in certification included market development and consumer assurance, consumers were rarely represented in early standards discussions. The focus was on what made sense ecologically in that region, as well as the practicality of different requirements for working farms. The scientific justification for a given practice was key, and it was believed that consumers would neither understand nor care about the technical details. The promise of ‘food you can trust’ was backed up by a system of farmers watching over each other.

In the Northeast, the first certification programme for the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) was developed in 1977. However, primarily due to a lack of market demand for certification those early years were characterised by a low level of participation – about five producers registering per year through the early 1980s.

Markets in this region were almost exclusively local food cooperatives, restaurants and small health food stores, as well as direct sales at farm stands and farmers markets. There were a few producer cooperatives and larger growers who dealt with wholesale markets such as cooperative distributors. Those who sold direct to consumers, including early community supported agriculture farms, generally saw no need for certification, although an early experience with fraud convinced many of its importance.

The pivotal year for the organic community in the Northeast and the whole of the US was 1984. Certification in the Northeast was substantially boosted by the arrival of a large organic produce wholesaler who sought suppliers from a different state and required certification. Under their sponsorship the Organic Crop Improvement Association (OCIA) was initiated as a pilot project. This became the first nationwide chapter-based certification programme to operate under a single set of standards.

It was at this time that IFOAM called a North American meeting of organic certifiers and businesses to consider developing unified standards. For the first time representatives of grassroots organic organisations and organic processors and marketers met to work together on common concerns. From this meeting the Organic Foods Production Association of North America (OFPANA), which later changed its name to the Organic Trade Association (OTA), was born. While the grassroots organic organisations played a central role in its formation, many of them have since abandoned the OTA, refusing to collaborate with ‘corporate organics’, whom they view as having control of the organisation.

OFPANA/OTA’s first project was to create unified ‘Guidelines for the Organic Industry’, which was to form the basis for evaluating and then accrediting standards and certification programmes. In the course of developing this document the standards from all known North American certification programmes, including the handful of organic programmes established by state agriculture departments, were compared. There was remarkable consistency among the standards, with only a few variations such as whether or not the use of Chilean nitrate was permitted and different lengths of the conversion period. There were regional differences in other aspects, such as allowance for livestock medications in the case of illness and use of some non-organic livestock feed.

These differences were generally covered under ‘grey areas’ that allowed use of ‘restricted’ or ‘regulated’ practices and substances under certain specified conditions. Farm plans were universally required to document what practices were used, provide justification for use of any ‘restricted’ practices (based on monitoring of conditions in the field), and describe how the farmer would move away from reliance on them. This system provided ultimate flexibility to allow consistent application of clear organic principles to different ecological conditions, in contrast to a ‘one size fits all’ approach.

Meanwhile the problems of multiple competing and inconsistent certification systems were mounting. Certifiers would not accept each others’ certifications, and states had conflicting labelling rules. Despite the similarities of their standards, every certifier claimed theirs to be the ‘highest’ or ‘strictest’, and mutual distrust was rampant. Producers often needed multiple certifications for different markets, and manufacturers of multi-ingredient organic products had huge headaches working with suppliers whose certificates were not accepted by their own certifier. It was, in short, a mess.

With a mission to unite the industry, OFPANA/OTA originally intended to develop an accreditation programme for mutual recognition amongst certifiers. This idea was later picked up by IFOAM, although the reciprocity part did not quite happen. Several meetings were held with the aim of promoting voluntary reciprocity agreements between certifiers, without success.

Polarisation and divisiveness in the US organic community has, sadly, been one of its defining features, despite various attempts at unity. The failure of this voluntary reciprocity effort led directly to calls for federal legislation to facilitate interstate trade in organic products under consistent national standards.

Part two of this series will discuss the events and controversies surrounding the passage of the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) as part of the 1990 US Farm Bill, the establishment of the first National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) up to the publication of the final regulations establishing the National Organic Program (NOP) in 1999. It will also examine the crafting of the first NOP proposed rule, published in 1997, which was withdrawn as a result of a firestorm of opposition by the activist community. The third and last part will cover what has happened since implementation of the NOP in 2002.

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