Grace Gershuny  @  ChelseaGreen

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More backwards hype about "the soul of organic"

Posted on Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010 at 11:52 am by Grace Gershuny

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."


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