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Sad news for the organic vision

Monday, January 3rd, 2011

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 recently returned to the staff after Miles McEvoy took over the helm of the program over a year ago. Having a high regard for Miles and his understanding of organics I had some reason to hope that, despite the fact that this program is now on everyone’s radar and has grown to become its own division, some vestige of that egalitarian organic spirit might be resurrected.

Sadly, it seems I was mistaken. Mark is fighting his dismissal, which happened just before Thanksgiving with no recourse. The documents he circulated make it clear that the grounds for this action were primarily his refusal to kow-tow to his immediate superior in the hierarchy and admit wrongdoing in voicing his opinion about a standards question during a conference call with the NOSB Livestock Committee.

Many doubtless would argue that hierarchy is necessary to get things done – someone has to be the boss, and insubordination should not be tolerated. I disagree. There is no need for this kind of authoritarian bullying, ever. The inevitable result is paranoia and resentment among other subordinates. Subtle acts of sabotage and undermining are manifestations of this situation—taken to extremes we recognize the origin of the expression “going postal.” It is doubtful there ever would have been an organic program if creativity and outspokenness had been stifled this way from the beginning. It is a shame that the organic values of compassion and collaboration have fallen by the wayside in the process of regulating the organic label. It did not have to be this way, and the spirit of organic is diminished by it.

Information about the issue from PEER:  http://www.peer.org/news/news_id.php?row_id=1431

How did a nonconformist from Vermont end up in Washington writing regulations at USDA?

It was January of 1994, and I had just left Vermont to live in Jamaica. I rented out my house to friends and flew into Montego Bay with a lot of baggage and my four year old daughter in tow. I had with me a primitive prewindows laptop and the hope that I could stay in touch with my Goddard students via email, which at that time was far from universal.

There was no phone in our little cinderblock house, and no cell reception – the phone booth down the street would have to suffice for occasional collect calls to the US. I could go on line from Falmouth, where a friend had a tailor shop with a phone line. In addition to a sumptuous stipend (by Jamaican standards), the Goddard job paid my expenses to attend residencies in Vermont twice a year. I was also developing a volunteer project to work with organic farmers in Jamaica that would pay for my living expenses there. A sketchy hodge podge of income, but my credit card would tide me over if need be.

I was ready to leave the world of organic certification behind now that things were becoming professionalized. However, the organization of professional organic inspectors (IOIA, now International Organic Inspectors Association) was putting on a training program in Florida, an easy hop from my new home, and I was invited to give a talk to the trainees. It seemed like a good idea to keep up my credentials in case I could pick up some inspection work.

That was where I met Michael Hankin, then second in command at the USDA National Organic Program (NOP). Michael appeared to be a stereotypical nondescript bureaucrat – glasses, bald, maybe mid-forties. Soft-spoken and a stutterer, he seemed sincerely interested in learning all he could about the organic world. We sat and chatted after my talk, and he began telling me that they now had funding to hire more staff people, and a specific mandate to bring in someone from outside USDA with some expertise in organic certification to help write the regulations. Then he mentioned the salary and benefits that went with the job, when they expected to officially announce it, and other details, looking at me expectantly. I was starting to get a clue. “Why are you telling me all this?” I asked. “You’re not doing Organic Farmer any more, are you?” he grinned.

This was a possibility that had never entered my mind–I was caught totally off guard and rendered speechless. My first words were: “Oh No! — “Me??? Move to Washington, DC??? You’ve gotta be kidding!” No, he calmly answered, he was perfectly serious.

FAST FORWARD TO LATE AUGUST 1994

We arrived at our furnished apartment in Takoma Park, MD at the end of August. Matches (now known as Bentley, his ‘Babylon name’), Opal and I drove down from Vermont in my little Honda Civic, while Stewart transported our possessions in his pickup truck. Opal was to start kindergarten in another couple of days, and my new job was to begin after Labor Day. I was still suffering from the miserable flu I contracted during the mythically horrible experience at the US Embassy in Kingston, and on top of everything had to find a walk-in clinic over the weekend to treat a bladder infection. I was, in short, a wreck—emotionally as well as physically. Once again I found myself in a totally new life, new job, far from close friends and family, wondering what planet I was on.

My first challenge was simply to find room 2510 of the USDA South Building – the second largest building in Washington after the Pentagon, originally designed as a prison. On the walls around the office were a series of quotes about yeoman farmers and soil from authors such as Liberty Hyde Bailey and Wendell Berry. Everyone was welcoming – there were a couple of other new staff people, eight in all counting Hal Ricker, the Program Manager, and Karen and Gayle, our support staff, but I was the only one who was totally new to USDA. From the start, Michael did everything possible to ease my transition, even offering to lend me some money till I started getting paychecks.

Details of my first months are fuzzy, but the first task I was given was to draft a set of basic principles of organic agriculture. When I stopped laughing, I typed in my favorite saying at the top of the page: “The only thing I know for sure is not organic is dogmatism.” Ted Rogers, our resident quote catcher, quickly printed out that statement and put it up over the office door.

I soon learned that all Federal agencies have their particular cultures, and that within USDA there were still more differences among the branches. However tight or loose, progressive or conservative the agency, all conformed to a strongly entrenched bureaucracy and a rigid command and control style hierarchy. First hand observation confirmed my intuition that this military approach, so unlike the egalitarian nonprofit world I came from, was a source of much dysfunction in government. It certainly confirmed my abhorrence of hierarchy as the root of all evil.

Our miniscule program was housed within the huge Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), responsible for all the commodity programs and promulgator of the largest number of regulations, covering standards for products such as peanuts, cotton, dairy products and potatoes, among others. Although I knew a lot about organic certification and standards I knew nothing about regulations. Never having even read a Federal regulation, now I was being asked to write one. I assumed there would be someone on staff at AMS charged with translating concepts required by the various programs into the proper regulatory language and format. No such luck.

It is a miracle that I survived this learning experience with my sanity intact. What got me through, other than my family and frequent visits to the Erhardts, my ‘adopted’ farm in Maryland, was the atmosphere of trust and collaboration among equals cultivated within our little team by Michael Hankin. It was this sense of being free to be myself and speak my mind, explore possibilities and try things that were ‘outside the box’ that made it possible for me to do the work that was in front of me. Michael also ran interference for me with the bureaucracy, shielding me from its worst absurdities and coaching me on how to circumvent them. We were flying under the radar, almost unnoticed and largely the subject of wagers amongst the other AMS programs as to how quickly we would fail.

The group’s commitment to the deeper meaning of organic – its bigger picture vision or soul – was what most impressed me and earned my unwavering loyalty. We were not perfect human beings – Michael’s extreme compassion and emotional sensitivity, while exemplifying the ‘new age guy’ in some respects, also manifested as indecisiveness; his softness and vulnerability made him an easy target within the system. Unfortunately, a key skill that was lacking among us was any kind of political savvy. We were a bunch of starry eyed idealists (except maybe for curmudgeonly Ted), naively believing that if we did what was right and were true to the organic vision we would be supported by the organic community. Boy, were we ever wrong.

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

Tuesday, October 19th, 2010

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

CONFLICTS OVER ORGANIC STANDARDS Part 2: Organic standards become law

Friday, September 24th, 2010

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 www.organicstandard.com)

Part 1 of this story left off in the late 1980s, as the stage was set for the introduction of the US organic law (OFPA) in 1990. Despite concerted efforts by the nascent trade association to unite it, discord and turf battles were rampant in the organic industry. Part 2 looks at the period starting just before passage of the OFPA through implementation of the National Organic Program in 2002.

Key issues in defining organic standards:

The story begins with two controversies over organic standards that later determined the direction of the OFPA. The newly formed Organic Trade Association (OTA, then known as OFPANA), produced a set of “Guidelines for the Organic Industry” in 1986 (as noted in Part 1). These guidelines were based on three overarching precepts that distinguish organic standards from other types of standards:

1. Organic standards address the process of producing an agricultural product, rather than any measurable quality of the product itself.

2. Organic standards encourage the most environmentally sound farm practices, with flexibility to allow for geographic and site-specific differences, referred to as “agronomic responsibility.”

3. Organic standards require producers to demonstrate continual improvement in the quality of their management system, as evidenced by improved soil and water quality, crop quality, biological diversity and other factors outlined in a farm plan.

The first of these came into question when a laboratory owner argued that the absence of pesticide residues, and possibly also nutritional analysis of a product, should be the primary focus of organic standards. Several OTA/OFPANA members drafted a position paper arguing that the organic nature of a product resulted from a holistic set of attributes and production methods which could not be based on laboratory analysis of product quality. This position was affirmed by the Board of Directors.

The second and more contentious issue turned on the question of whether the use of specific farm inputs should be allowed or prohibited based on their origin from either natural or synthetic sources, or whether the criterion of “agronomic responsibility’ was most important for evaluating farm inputs. This generated a heated debate, with the Board split fairly evenly. Proponents of the “origin of materials” criterion acknowledged that this was neither scientifically valid nor consistent with prevailing norms for organic production methods. However, they argued that consumers had come to expect that organic food was produced without the use of “synthetic chemicals,” and that this expectation should not be violated.

The membership was asked to vote by mail for the position they favored. By a narrow margin the tally resulted in a majority favoring “origin of materials” as the basis for organic standards. The OTA/OFPANA Board then changed the Guidelines to prohibit all synthetic materials, and to establish criteria by which some synthetics (for example, dormant oil for fruit trees) might be considered acceptable on a case by case basis. This approach was later enshrined in the OFPA, with the responsibility for determining which synthetics should be allowed and which “naturals” should be prohibited given to the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB).

Pressure mounts for legislation

Although a few members of Congress had previously sponsored organic labeling bills, none were supported by the organic community. Then, early in 1989 a popular television news magazine (60 Minutes) aired an exposé about the dangers of the synthetic growth regulator Alar, widely used on apples to allow harvest of the whole crop at once. Overnight, supermarkets started featuring displays of apples that were claimed to be “organic.”

What came to be known as “Alar Sunday” resulted in a clamor by consumer groups for legislation to protect the public from fraudulent organic claims. It soon became known that Senator Patrick Leahy, a strong supporter of sustainable agriculture, had taken up the task. With the threat of Federal legislation looming, the grassroots organic organizations that had developed and refined the system of organic certification saw the need to band together to help shape the bill to reflect the farmer groups’ understanding of what ‘organic’ really meant.

Under the aegis of OTA/OFPANA, a national meeting of the grassroots organic producer groups was held in December of 1989. Calling itself the Organic Farmers Associations Council (OFAC), representatives from producer groups all over the US met – many for the first time – to agree on common principles and definitions of organic agriculture and to dialogue with Senator Leahy’s staffer, Kathleen Merrigan, about provisions that should be included in the law. This coalition was hardly unanimous in its support for Federal organic legislation, but the leadership helped convince their members that if they didn’t get involved it would be drafted without them – a potentially disastrous situation for organic farmers.

A victory for the grassroots organic producers

As legislative language was being hammered out, OFAC put together a coalition of consumer and environmental groups, along with the organic farm constituency. Other players also got into the act, including a group of organic manufacturers and business people who hired an expensive Washington lobbying firm. Credit for the passage of the law, however, truly belongs to the grassroots organizing effort – phone calls, letters and personal testimony from organic farmers and consumer representatives from all regions of the US put enough pressure on key Congress people to force an unprecedented floor vote in the House of Representatives, despite the opposition of the House Agriculture Committee and the USDA (US Department of Agriculture).

The law that was finally passed includes a blanket prohibition on ‘synthetic’ substances and allowance for ‘natural’ ones, with the possibility of exceptions as discussed previously. It also assigned to USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) the task of implementation, including developing programs to certify organic operations as well as to accredit organizations who could carry out the certification program on its behalf. Despite a number of internal contradictions and errors in the law, no technical corrections were requested by USDA, which had opposed the law and therefore also requested no funding from Congress to implement it.

The law established the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) as a Federal advisory board charged with oversight of the National List of permitted synthetic and prohibited natural substances, as well as offering general guidance to the USDA. The first 15 member NOSB was not appointed until 1992, when the administration changed in Washington. With only one half-time staff person assigned to manage the new program within USDA, the NOSB’s volunteer industry representatives took the initiative to begin drafting regulations—a task normally assumed solely by the agency staff. They circulated drafts of all aspects of the expected regulation and held a series of meetings to receive public comment, resulting in a set of final recommendations that were submitted to USDA in 1994.

Creation of the NOP

With a more sympathetic administration, some resources became available to begin implementation of the National Organic Program (NOP). The first couple of full-time staff members were hired in 1993, and then in 1994 an additional handful were brought on – including one recruited from the organic community who was knowledgeable about organic principles and practices: this author.

The original few NOP staff members were career bureaucrats who had had some previous involvement in organics, and were committed to crafting a regulation that would honor the true spirit of the organic vision and be workable for small farmers, as well as being legally airtight. Not an easy task.

The author’s first assignment was to draft a set of organic principles, which was ultimately approved by the NOSB with minor amendments, and later condensed into a definition of “a System of Organic Farming and Handling” or SOFAH. This definition became the SOFAH on which the entire regulation was designed to rest, a yardstick for determining the compatibility of a given practice with the organic vision.

The first complete draft of the regulation took another three years to finish. In addition to the law itself (which, absent early technical corrections, included significant contradictory and ambiguous language), the NOSB’s recommendations and the OFPANA/OTA Guidelines were key reference documents.

Many battles were fought in the course of drafting the rules. Almost every agency within the USDA, as well as parts of US EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and FDA (Food and Drug Administration) was affected by and had to approve the document. In addition to internal struggles, the relationship between the NOP staff and some members of the organic community, including the NOSB, was adversarial from the start. There were many who never wanted the law to begin with, and almost everyone distrusted the USDA to get it right. Ironically, a common accusation was that USDA was trying to “take over” organic standards. This antagonism created more delays and frustration for everyone.

Finally, in June of 1997 a draft was approved by all necessary agencies, including the Secretary of Agriculture. The fight to prohibit both genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and irradiation for organic production – both of which were (and are) actively promoted in other branches of USDA – had been won. Unfortunately, there was one more government hurdle to overcome – the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). They had to approve any new ‘significant’ regulations and were unwilling to accept the prohibitions on GMOs and irradiation, also demanding several other changes that effectively gutted the organic vision embedded in the draft. The only option left to the staff was to make the changes required and request public comment about the now missing prohibitions. The proposed rule was published in December of 1997.

Although the staff had protested strongly at the changes and warned senior officials about the kind of response to expect, nobody was prepared for the onslaught of public outrage that followed. Self-appointed “watchdogs of organic integrity” spread distorted information that whipped up hysteria about corporate agribusiness-controlled bureaucrats seeking to undermine the meaning of organic and “water down the standards.” This was the first proposed rule to accept public comments via email, and it generated a record 275,000+ mostly negative messages – the majority of them form letters circulated through consumer networks and retailers. The personal attacks and utter nonsense coming from former colleagues and friends was crushing.

The uproar resulted in making scapegoats of the NOP staff members who truly cared about the organic vision and the impact of the new rules on small organic farmers. A new NOP Program Manager was hired in 1998, who responded to political pressure from the community by discarding the initial proposal and starting over. It took another year to create a new proposed rule, deleting the ‘SOFAH’ definition and substituting “practice standards” for more flexible criteria of compatibility with a system of organic farming and handling, among other changes considered to be “higher” standards.

With the USDA hierarchy now chastened by public anger, the path to finalization was much smoother than previously. In the Fall of 1999, OFPA author Kathleen Merrigan (today Deputy Secretary of Agriculture) was appointed AMS Administrator and was able to midwife the publication of the final rule at the end of the year, just before the next change of administration in Washington. Before an organic producer or handler could be certified in compliance with the NOP an initial group of accredited certifying agents would first have to be accredited—the new rule would thus not be fully implemented until 2002.

The repercussions of these events continue to be felt in the ongoing regulatory approach that accedes to public demands for “stricter” standards, to the detriment of small organic producers and, in this author’s opinion, the true organic vision. The third and final segment of this series will examine the development of the NOP since implementation, and the questions raised by younger generations of food activists as the organic industry appears increasingly dominated by global big business and incomprehensible regulatory complexity.

Links:

NOP Home Page:

http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/ams.fetchTemplateData.do?template=TemplateA&navID=NationalOrganicProgram&leftNav=NationalOrganicProgram&page=NOPNationalOrganicProgramHome&acct=AMSPW

OFPA, as amended in 2005: http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/getfile?dDocName=STELPRDC5060370&acct=nopgeninfo

Organic Trade Association (OTA): www.ota.com

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

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

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 (www.organicstandard.com).

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.

New Roots for Inspiration

Wednesday, February 10th, 2010

I had the good fortune to be able to attend a talk by Wes Jackson on Monday, sponsored by the University of Vermont Department of Plant & Soil Sciences. The room was packed with eager agriculture students as well as local agricultural luminaries such as Fred Magdoff. Among them were John and Nancy Todd, founders of New Alchemy Institute, both of whom have been major inspirations in my journey on this path. It was moving indeed to hear Wes pay homage to them as well, and to be able to bask in their glow.

The holistic and interrelated problems of the dysfunctional food system will require equally holistic and system wide strategies to address, and the key message I took from this talk was that there is no one thing to be done that is more important than anything else. We all should “follow our passion” and work on some way to protect soil and heal the wounds inflicted by modern industrial agriculture on this living planet. Of course I am most proud of the work I did as a grad student at UVM in the early ‘80s, when I produced the first version of The Soul of Soil. Almost thirty years later, with help from my compadre Joe Smillie, it’s still in print—and allows me to claim a place in Chelsea Green’s authors’ blog.

Even policy work, which is about all I do these days, is helpful – “kicking the giant sponge” in Washington, as Wes put it. I was greatly impressed with the forward thinking plan being proposed by Wes and Wendell Berry, among others, for a 50 year Farm Bill. Just thinking again about soil organic matter and the enormous beauty of soil biology, that “slab of space-time” of the ecosystem, and other such delights that were laid out for us that evening gave me the morale boost I was looking for.

So I take a moment to reflect on how far this movement has come, and to thank those like Wes who have continued to work—literally—on the root causes of agricultural malaise. We may still have a long way to go, but when the Secretary of Agriculture comes to speak at a winter NOFA (Northeast Organic Farming Association) Conference, as he is scheduled to do this Saturday, it has to mean something. If nothing else, my personal slogan is affirmed: “There’s no hope – but maybe I’m wrong.”

More backwards hype about "the soul of organic"

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010

A recent post on GRIST (http://www.grist.org/article/battle-for-the-soul-of-organic-dairy-farmers-goes-on-behind-the-scenes) 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 - http://chelseagreen.com/blogs/gracegershuny/2008/12/03/are-the-best-organic-standards-the-toughest-organic-standards-why-the-activists-got-it-wrong.

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 paper of record and the organic urban legend

Thursday, November 5th, 2009

An editorial in the New York Times on November 4th expressed concern about the appointment of Dr. Islam Siddiqui (currently a VP at Crop Life America) as chief agricultural negotiator for the office of the United States trade representative.  It was gratifying to see the NYT have a position supporting organic and sustainable agriculture, and their concern is well placed. With all the positive changes at USDA, it is time to bring agricultural trade policy in line with the momentum towards responsible, sustainable agriculture.

It is also time to retire the “urban legend” about the ill-fated first draft of the organic regulations, in which Dr. Siddiqui had a role. As a staff member of the National Organic Program from 1994-1999, I helped write that draft rule, which the NYT (and just about everyone else) characterizes as “notoriously loose about allowing genetically engineered crops and the use of sewage-sludge fertilizers to be labeled as ‘organic.’”

The actual first draft of that rule, which gained approval all the way up the USDA hierarchy, including by Dr. Siddiqui, explicitly prohibited genetic engineering and irradiation. These prohibitions were subsequently deleted by OMB (Office of Management and Budget), which cited Administration policy supporting both genetic engineering and irradiation. Dr. Siddiqui was fully aware of the importance the NOP staff and the organic community attached to keeping the prohibitions in the rule, but did not include us in negotiations with OMB.

In desperation, the staff added a request for comments on genetic engineering and irradiation to the Preamble when the proposed rule was finally published, knowing what the comments would be, and expecting to use those comments as ammunition to restore the prohibitions in the final rule. EPA, which was lobbying hard to allow "biosolids" (aka sewage sludge) in organic production then insisted that a similar request for comments be included for their pet issue - but at no time was any of the “big three” of sewage sludge, genetically engineered organisms or irradiation ever proposed to be permitted.

Just another installment in the story of how the vision of organic has been subverted by those who claim to defend "organic integrity."

A New Day at USDA

Monday, March 2nd, 2009

At first we heard that she was to be Under Secretary for Marketing & Regulatory Programs, and a cheer went up from the world of organic and sustainable food advocates. Then came the news that Kathleen Merrigan was to be Deputy Secretary of the whole freakin USDA, and the din of our jubilation filled cyberspace. One of our own, who has been called "the midwife of the organic law," would be in charge of the day to day workings of this vast bureaucracy that affects every aspect of our food system.

Count me among the most pleased, for sure. If you follow this stuff, there’s no need to repeat her credentials—she is one of the few names on the list of the "sustainable dozen" who is truly qualified for a top government job. At first disappointed by the choice of Tom Vilsack as Secretary, my opinion was swayed by another friend on that list, Denise O’Brien of Iowa, who convinced me (and others) that he would put a strong emphasis on our concerns. But with Kathleen as second in command at USDA, there will be no doubt.

I first met Kathleen in late 1989, when she attended the organizing meeting of the Organic Farmers Associations Council (OFAC) in Leavenworth, Kansas. As staffer for Senator Leahy, who then chaired the Senate Ag Committee, she had taken on the drafting of an organic labeling law, and had circulated some early drafts to organic farming, consumer and environmental leaders. I was impressed by her ability to listen, as well as her no nonsense explanation of the political realities involved in hashing out legislation that would satisfy everyone who wanted it and still be workable. She proved to be a great tutor in the art of lobbying, and helped the grassroots organic movement score a huge victory in getting the OFPA passed over the objections of USDA.

When I joined the National Organic Program (NOP) staff in 1994, Kathleen was actively involved in discussions with the staff and NOSB (National Organic Standards Board), becoming an NOSB member a little later. I have not always agreed with her, and was very unhappy about her involvement with opposition to the first proposed rule. Although the "bible thumpers" thought it perfectly clear, the OFPA was far from perfect, and its implementation was problematic from the start. How much she had to do with the hiring decision in early 1998 that installed her former Texas colleague as NOP Program Manager, I really don’t know—it was a moment of irrevocable harm to the work we tried to do that remains a sore spot with me.

Despite our disagreements, I learned to respect Kathleen as a tough political fighter, and as an effective manager who was able to take over at AMS (Agricultural Marketing Service, the USDA agency where the NOP is housed) and finally push the revised regulations through the tangle of legal reviews to the light of day just before the end of the Clinton administration. My reservations about her are minor compared to the obvious strength of her commitment to the agenda of alternative agriculture. Kathleen lives and breathes politics, and sometimes doesn’t "get" the realities of farming. She also made some enemies of career people at USDA, who are the ones who do all the work and whose cooperation is critical to realizing the policies of a "political." Whatever obstacles she encounters in reshaping USDA to advance sustainable policies and implement some of the forward-looking sections of the new Farm Bill, she has my complete support. Way to go, Kathleen!

Grace Gershuny
Barnet, VT

Reflections on NOFA-VT past and future

Monday, January 12th, 2009

The following was written for the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFA-VT) newsletter, at the request of Enid Wonnacott, Executive Director.

My involvement with NOFA began in 1975, when I helped organize a farmers market that is now in Newport, VT.  "Local food for local Markets" was the primary approach at that time–it only took us 30 years to get the rest of the world to pay attention.  We also emphasized farm diversification, introducing many more vegetable and small fruit growers into a state that was even more heavily dependent on dairy than it is today.

In 1977 I volunteered to develop a certification program—at the time, NOFA was one bi-state organization of Vermont and New Hampshire. For the first few years we had at most 5 certified producers at any given time. The basic concept and approach remained intact for many years, with standards decisions made by vote of the membership.  This was the time when organic producers began to take marketing seriously—certification was both a way of defining organic for ourselves and a way of providing assurance to consumers who did not have direct contact with the producer.

The eighties began with a couple of landmark USDA publications, “Report and Recommendations on Organic Farming” and “A Time to Choose,” both of which were dumped by the Reagan administration (wrong choice).  I had been VT State Coordinator in 1979, the first full-time staff person,and was succeeded by Sara Norton, who pulled the organization together during a difficult time.

The eighties could be characterized as the time of the “birth” of the organic industry.  OTA (Organic Trade Association, then OFPANA) was started in 1984, along with OCIA (Organic Crop Improvement Association).  NOFA-VT (now Vermont Organic Farmers) was briefly an OCIA chapter, really getting serious when a big Maryland produce distributor offered contracts to NOFA growers if they got certified. It was also a time when “sustainable” began to be a more acceptable term to “the establishment,” and NOFA Council, now 6 state chapters, received one of the first LISA (Low Input Sustainable Agriculture, now SARE) grants in 1989.

By this time I was market gardening and had stepped down from being certification czarina when we hired Enid (right choice).  The end of that decade saw full tilt national organizing as the dreaded Federal legislation appeared on the horizon. Vermont NOFA was very much a leader in that effort, especially since Pat Leahy was the sponsor of the bill that later became the OFPA (the organic law). We also published Organic Farmer magazine through Rural Vermont (another project started in the 80s as an offshoot of NOFA),and helped organize the Organic Farmers Associations Council (OFAC), a key player in getting the OFPA passed.

A lot more happened that deserves mention, but for me the most memorable part of the eighties was organizing the NOFA Summer Conference in 1983, when it was held at Johnson State College.  It had been alternating between Vermont and New Hampshire, and had lost money the previous few years. I’m proud of having come out in the black, but even more so of the fantastic keynote lineup we put together:  Starting with a performance by Bread & Puppet, we listened to Grace Paley read poetry, and then heard from Pat Leahy, who was the champion of “sustainable” agriculture and nuclear disarmament. But the star of the evening was Murray Bookchin, who was in fine polemical form, rallying us to overturn the industrial food system.  I later went on to teach at the Institute for Social Ecology (which was co-founded by Bookchin), an important influence in my thinking then and now.

Fast forward to 2009, when organic products populate virtually every supermarket in the country, and certified producers in Vermont alone total an astonishing 533+. Ideally, that kind of growth will continue—there are a few helpful provisions in the new Farm Bill, for example.  But there’s a long way to go before organic becomes the predominant form of agriculture, and many forces arrayed to block it.

Of course, “we” were never a monoculture and are less so now.  Now we are again confronted with a choice:  Do we want to protect the niche of premium priced organic, even if it never exceeds 5 percent of the food system? Or do we really want to replace the corporate agri-industrial model with a bioregional food system grounded in ecological relationships?  Perhaps it’s time to reflect on what strategies will move us in the direction we want.   Amazingly enough I’m still engaged in that discussion, and hope to see NOFA once again lead the way.

 
 

Are the Best Organic Standards the Toughest Organic Standards? Why the Activists Got it Wrong

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2008

As an aware consumer imploring farmers to "put away that DDT now," Joni Mitchell sang, "give me spots on the apples, but leave me the birds and the bees…please."

Once upon a time, when I was an activist and small organic farmer, organic standards were a self-imposed system of rules developed primarily by organic farmers, those who had to work with them on the ground. Consumer expectations have always figured into organic standards, but there was a general understanding that consumer perceptions of what is "pure and natural" do not always fit the reality of organic farming, let alone food processing. Organic standards were not just about marketing products, either. We thought that consumers might well be ignorant about farming and food production, but they could learn—it was more important to support farmers who did the right thing than to pander to consumer fears. Just as the immortal Ms. Mitchell learned to ignore those spots on the apples.

Today, no one seems bothered by the assertion that consumer expectations, even those grounded in ignorance, are all that matters. Add to that the argument that consumers cannot understand and could care less about the nuances of organic methods, and only want to be assured that organic products meet the toughest possible standards. What it often adds up to is unparalleled hypocrisy, and betrayal of the early vision of organic in the name of an ideological anti-corporate agenda that actually works against the interests of both small farmers and "ordinary" consumers (not Joni Mitchell–think Joe the Plumber who shops at WalMart).

The gist of the problem is this: The activists have had it wrong all along. They believe without question that the only way to fend off the takeover of organic by global corporate evildoers is to keep up the pressure to make the standards as tight, strict, rigorous and undiluted as possible, and use consumer perceptions as their rationale. They mistakenly believe that regulation of the organic label is comparable to regulations that prohibit misdeeds by corporate polluters. Not true.

The difference is one that very few outside of government and some rarified academic fields seem to get, but which immediately makes sense to most people – even ignorant consumers – when it is explained. The short explanation is that, unlike a traditional environmental or consumer protection regulation that keeps giant corporations from threatening the health of consumers and the environment, the NOP is a marketing program that establishes minimum requirements for those wishing to enter the organic market.

In marketing programs, tightening the standards is a strategy commonly used to benefit established players and limit competition by potential new entrants. It has nothing to do with protecting consumer interests, and works against consumers by maintaining high prices and limited supply for products that may not be demonstrably superior (e.g., spotless apples drenched in pesticides). It also has nothing to do with protecting the environment, and may even harm it, as may be seen in some of the provisions in the new proposed rule on access to pasture, discussed below. In fact, tightening the rules creates more obstacles for small players to enter the market than for large players, who are accustomed to meeting bureaucratic requirements and have paid compliance staffs. They actually prefer to have tighter standards, to protect the substantial investment needed to get in.

Unfortunately, the activists have more power than they realize. Everyone connected with the organic industry–from the NOP administration to the companies, large and small, who are trying to make a buck and save the world at the same time (never mind if the two may be mutually contradictory—that's another discussion)—live in fear of being publicly accused of trying to "weaken" the standards.

The most recent examples of this can be found in discussions about the NOP's proposed rule on access to pasture and in some public comments about the NOSB's proposed standards for organic aquaculture. In my role as a consultant for OTA, which can ill afford to risk being painted as a tool of corporate agribusiness, I have to restrain myself. So I am writing this on my own behalf, in hopes of starting some small back draft in the hurricane of unfounded assumptions that envelops every discussion about how to improve organic standards.

What touched off my ire was an exchange about the current requirement for 100% organic livestock feed (with no exceptions, period), which the NOP proposes to tighten still further by disallowing feed purchased from organically managed but exempt operations. In other words, up till now an organic beef or dairy farmer could buy hay from a neighbor who used organic methods to produce it, but was exempt from certification because she sells less than $5,000 worth of organic products a year. Those arguing in favor of closing this "loophole" supposedly represent small organic farmers, who would be hurt the most by cutting off this option.

What's going on here? We can go back even farther than the firestorm that erupted around publication of the first NOP proposed rule, in the drafting of which I proudly claim a major role. But that's another chapter for another time, especially if someone finally agrees to publish the book I've been working on since I left the NOP nine years ago. The charge that USDA was trying to "weaken" organic standards at the behest of corporate agribusiness, while plausible to any activist who has battled corporate owned regulators, was wildly and hilariously inaccurate. Some of those who led the charge, I continue to believe, may themselves have been agribusiness plants. Amusing as that misinformation might have been, it has had some unfortunate consequences for the original organic vision, and for its potential to have a real impact on the food system.

When the public response to the first proposed rule erupted, the only people in the NOP who truly cared about small organic farmers and the organic vision were immediately sidelined from the program. Then the new management instituted a policy of supporting the strictest possible interpretation of the law, and responded to the argument that the rules should be feasible for small producers with a cynical, "we're just going to give them exactly what they want, and they'll have to live with it" attitude.

Ten years later this attitude is evidenced in the proposed rule for access to pasture that is excessively prescriptive and draconian in its requirement for year-round outdoor living for organic livestock in any climate. If implemented as written, it would likely eliminate a large number of small organic dairy farmers, as well as most organic beef producers. To this extent the strategy has succeeded: Activists are now being forced to ask that USDA make its rules just a wee bit looser. But they continue to cling to the delusion that tougher rules benefit small operators, and threaten those who disagree with public relations nightmares.

Another case in point is the recommendation on standards for organic aquaculture that was just passed by the NOSB. It was opposed by some groups, including the National Organic Coalition, who consider fish farming as it is practiced by conventional agribusiness concerns to be an ecological and health disaster—as well they should. But does it make any sense to oppose the possibility of environmentally sound fish culture because consumers think organic should mean "pure and natural?" No bones about it—I think this is nutty.

With the myriad crises we face, not least of them climate change, why on earth would anyone want to limit the possibility of the broadest possible transition to organic methods, without delay? There's much more I could say, especially about what organic does mean, if not "pure and natural." But as our local public radio storyteller, Willem Lange, famously closes—"I gotta get back to work."