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

Posted on Tuesday, October 19th, 2010 at 2:16 pm by Grace Gershuny

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 the NOP (and of course the rest of USDA) was still not to be trusted. Since then periodic action alerts have stimulated a flurry of emails and public comments to avert another “sneak attack” on organic integrity, usually by some corporate organic evildoer seeking to weaken the standards. A few ‘watchdog’ organizations have garnered substantial donations and foundation support to lead the charge to protect organic integrity by keeping the standards as high as possible.

Today the growth of the organic industry appears unstoppable. Despite the economic crisis and general downturn in sales of consumer goods, organic sales have continued to increase, albeit at a more modest rate. Unquestionably, organic has entered the mainstream, and can be found in virtually any conventional store, available to consumers who would never patronize a natural foods market. Research funds have started to flow to organic-oriented farm technologies, and conventional universities offer coursework and concentrations in organic and sustainable agriculture.

To many in the activist community, including some pioneering organic advocates, this success represents a defeat of the vision of transformation of the food system – a sell-out of true organic values to the globalized industrial monoculture system that drives out small farmers and mass produces uniform, lesser quality products that are processed and distributed via exploitive, profit-driven corporate entities. While they may admit that there is much to celebrate in increased numbers of small organic producers and support for local, artisanal foods, they see this improvement as coming in spite of, not as a result of, the federal regulation of organic.

This final article in the series looks at the path of US organic regulation in the first decade of the 21st century, and suggests the possibility that the organic community may be sowing the seeds of its own demise.

Organic Expansion at USDA

The NOP today has evolved from a minor program in a small division of the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) to its own division, with its budget and staff doubling in the past year. Miles McEvoy, former Director of the Washington State organic program, is now Deputy AMS Administrator in charge of the NOP. Kathleen Merrigan, author of the OFPA and AMS Administrator during the last months of finalizing the NOP regulation, is now Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, and has created the high level position of Organic Program Coordinator to better integrate organic into every aspect of USDA.

NOSB (National Organic Standards Board) meetings are held twice a year, and the amount of time and effort needed by this all volunteer committee to keep up with its responsibilities mounts geometrically. In the aftermath of the first proposed rule, when the relationship between NOP and the NOSB was strained, the NOP made a political decision not to act on any standards-related issue until receiving a recommendation from the NOSB. There remains widespread public misunderstanding of the NOSB’s strictly advisory role, although the NOP-NOSB relationship has gradually become a more collaborative one.

One topic that continues to occupy endless hours of committee time, public input energy, and industry concern is the question of classification of materials: Should a given substance be considered synthetic or nonsynthetic? Agricultural or nonagricultural? As an example of the inordinate impact of these questions, the upcoming NOSB meeting agenda includes a recommendation to classify Corn Steep Liquor (CSL), a byproduct of the wet milling of corn, as synthetic. CSL is widely used as an ingredient in commercial organic-approved fertilizer formulations, due to its high nitrogen content, and classifying it as synthetic would make it prohibited as a fertilizer ingredient. Arguments hinge around the OFPA and NOP definition of synthetic[1] and the secondary definition of chemical change. The discussion involves fine distinctions about different types of chemical reactions. The question remains: How is this distinction relevant to organic agriculture?

Harvey Splits the Organic Community

Shortly after NOP implementation an organic inspector and blueberry producer named Arthur Harvey filed a lawsuit against the NOP, alleging that parts of the regulations were inconsistent with the law. Although the suit was at first overruled, Harvey persisted and convinced many of the grassroots organic and sustainable farm organizations to sign on as amici (supporters of his claims). An appellate court overturned much of the earlier decision and ordered the NOP to bring its standards and program into compliance.

The most significant impact of the Harvey victory was the interpretation that the law did not allow for any synthetic substances to be used as ingredients in or on organically labeled products. This was one of the parts of the law that contained ambiguous and contradictory language, about which the consensus of the community had been to permit some synthetic substances to be used in handling, and later make appropriate technical corrections to clarify the law. Examples of these substances, all approved by the NOSB for inclusion on the National List, are ascorbic acid (Vitamin C), magnesium chloride (used to make tofu), and leavening agents used as ingredients in baking powder.[2]

The previous consensus was thus broken by those groups who signed on as amici to the Harvey case, and who now came into direct conflict with the rapidly growing organic business sector, represented by OTA (the Organic Trade Association). Numerous organic manufacturers had by this time begun to market hundreds if not thousands of products legitimately labeled “organic” that would no longer be able to use the USDA organic seal. For example, most organic sugar is filtered to remove impurities, through the use of calcium hydroxide or slaked lime as a processing aid. The result of the Harvey decision would be that refined sugar could no longer be considered organic, but only represented or labeled as “made with organic ingredients.” This would then disqualify many organic products that contain a significant percentage of refined sugar, such as sweetened drinks, chocolates and cookies, from displaying the coveted USDA organic label.

Finally, OTA decided to do something about the looming catastrophe unleashed by Harvey, and lobbied successfully for a minor change in the OFPA in 2005. Once again the self-appointed ‘watchdogs of organic integrity’ unleashed a barrage of attacks, charging that allowing use of ‘synthetic chemicals’ in organic foods undermined confidence in the organic label and permitted the takeover of organic by corporate interests.

Not much later a genuine ‘sneak attack’ on the OFPA occurred when an amendment was inserted allowing up to 20% of nonorganic feed to be given to organic livestock. A poultry company in Georgia had asked their Senator to introduce this item via a routine budget bill, claiming it was necessitated by the high cost of organic feed grain. Senator Leahy (original sponsor of the OFPA) was again enlisted by the community, including OTA, to put the law back the way it was, but necessitating political tradeoffs such as allowing organic certification for wild caught seafood.

Beating the Drum for Higher Standards

By the middle of the decade the NOP had grown considerably, but was still vastly understaffed as the industry it was charged with regulating grew by around 20% a year. Dealing with the Harvey lawsuit and the mandated changes to the regulation had drained significant staff time and again created an atmosphere of hostility, not only between the organic community and the NOP, but between different sectors within the community.

Since that time the activist sector has focused primarily on demands for stricter livestock and dairy standards. In 2007 a Wisconsin based advocacy group sued a large organic dairy producer, as well as the USDA, for mislabeling milk as organic because animals were not being managed on pasture as called for in the regulation. Aggressive publicity fanned consumer concerns by painting a picture of corporate friendly USDA allowing deceptive practices by large animal confinement operations, calling into question the trustworthiness of the industry in general as well as the regulators.

The NOP responded with a proposed regulation on access to pasture for ruminants that included some draconian requirements, such as requiring animals to be outdoors year round, with exceptions only for “hazardous” weather events. The tactic of forcing the community to request somewhat looser standards succeeded, with the final rule reflecting a much more moderate approach. The impact on small livestock producers remains to be seen, as the increased documentation of feeding practices and cost of verifying those practices is felt.

Conclusion: Questions to Consider

The pioneers of organic agriculture as well as the younger generation of organic producers continue to grumble about compulsory certification and USDA “stealing” the organic label. Many small organic producers have either dropped out of organic certification altogether or switched to concepts like “Farmers Pledge,” a form of participatory guarantee system. “Everything I Want to Do is Illegal” proclaims Joel Salatin, a Virginia farmer featured prominently in the film, Food, Inc., whose book by that title bemoans the encroachment of federal bureaucrats into regulation of the “O” word.

An article in The New York Times from April of 2010 describes the situation of some organic farmers in upstate New York, who “can’t make a living because it is so expensive for them to comply with the federal certification requirements for organic foods.” [3] Food system activists almost universally focus on promoting local foods and more direct farmer-consumer relationships. Some denigrate ‘corporate organic’ food that comes from far away or dismiss as not credible organic products obtained from large retail chains. An informal poll about perceptions of organic standards and regulation, conducted by the author in several classes and workshops, reveals that student activists who consider themselves well informed and concerned about food system issues generally agree that organic has been corrupted by corporate interests who have weakened the standards to the point of being meaningless.

Other food system activists aim to go “beyond organic,” and look to ecolabel schemes or social criteria such as fair trade, often denigrating organic standards for failing to include preferences for small farmers or requirements for labor conditions. Few question the assumption that more restrictive or complicated standards benefit smaller producers, although the reverse is generally shown to be true. (See my previous post: “…How the activists got it wrong”).

Besides the constant message of distrust of USDA organic, mostly from the political left, the opposition of conventional agri-business to government support of organics has also intensified. Organic producers are portrayed as relying on unscientific, outmoded methods that cannot feed the world’s growing population.

There are many questions to consider as the organic community and its regulatory mechanisms move forward. Does it make sense to restrict the organic label to only those who have the wherewithal to meet ever escalating bureaucratic requirements? Should consumer perceptions and expectations about organic purity and avoidance of ‘synthetic chemicals’ dictate standards? Can the social and ecological damage done by market driven system that has turned food into a mass produced commodity be reversed through a market-based strategy?

Without doubt organic agriculture represents an important part of the solution to the global climate crisis now confronting us, in addition to myriad other problems of environmental degradation and their human health consequences attributable to conventional agriculture. This potential can only be realized if organic production expands much faster than is currently happening, at least in North America, where still less than 1% of agricultural land is farmed organically.

Organic production alone cannot solve all the problems of the food system. Saddling organic producers and handlers with ever “higher” standards, and adding on desirable social criteria, creates unnecessary obstacles to solving the problems that organic production can solve. Activists who are outraged at large corporations getting involved in organics should ask themselves to what extent they are bolstering the argument, often made by conventional agribusiness, that organic can never be more than a small niche market that caters to the elite and the fanatic—and could never feed the world.

One corollary to the adage that we must not let the perfect be the enemy of the good, is that we should not make the good into our enemy because it is not perfect.


[1] Synthetic is defined as “a substance that is formulated or manufactured by a chemical process or by a process that chemically changes a substance extracted from naturally occurring plant, animal, or mineral sources, except that such term shall not apply to substances created by naturally occurring biological processes.”

[2] Refer to Section 205.605(b) of the National List, Nonagricultural (nonorganic) substances allowed as ingredients in or on processed products labeled as “organic” or “made with organic (specified ingredients or food groups(s)).

[3] Leonard, Devin: Green Gone Wrong, NYTimes, 4/2/10

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