Reclaiming the True Meaning of Organic

American agriculture has reached a fork in the road. Mainstream agriculture, veering down one path, has become highly concentrated, capital intensive, and driven by biotechnology. It offers factory farms with thousands or tens of thousands of animals living in confinement, technologies like bovine growth hormone (rBGH) increasing milk production, and the widespread application of genetically engineered crops. The result of this juggernaut has been farm families driven off the land and increaseding health and environmental burdens falling on society.

The other path for agriculture is growing rapidly and is about consumers finding more meaning in their food. It’s ecological farming—consumers and producers joining together with a vision of a more ethical brand of animal husbandry and land stewardship. Its manifestation is in the growing legions at natural food co-ops and growing support for CSAs and farmers’ markets. The strongest institutional manifestation of this movement is in the exponential growth of the market for certified organic food.

Bigger players join organics

As organic food marketing has grown into a lucrative $12+ billion industry, it has become attractive to the multinational corporations that dominate conventional food. Heinz acquired the greatest cachet of organic name brands when it took over Hain/Celestial Seasonings (Earth’s Best, Arrowhead Mills, Health Valley, and many, many more). The nation’s largest milk bottler, Dean, controls Horizon, Organic Cow of Vermont, Alta Dena, White Wave, and Silk. And General Mills gobbled up Cascadian Farms and Muir Glenn. The list goes on.

What does this mean? Is big necessarily bad for organic? I would say no—as long as these behemoths understand and recognize how the organic industry was established and the meaning it has for consumers. If these companies respect the fact that farmers and consumers are doing more than simply buying healthier food products for their families, then they might succeed and prosper by giving the customers what we really want.

Watering down organic standards

Unfortunately, large corporations are partnering with the USDA to water down organic standards. The proverbial organic manure has, however, hit the fan. At the most recent National Organic Standards Board in Chicago, farmers and consumers alike showed up in force to testify—and they were searing mad! The USDA’s National Organic Program had just published guidelines allowing the use of antibiotics and other drugs on organic dairy farms under certain circumstances, fishmeal containing mercury and other heavy metals as well as synthetic preservatives, and the labeling of pet food, textiles, HABAs, and fish for human consumption as organic without organic supervision/certification.

Why should we be so surprised by these actions at the USDA? There’s been an adversarial/confrontational environment at the National Organic Program since the beginning. The USDA did not support organic labeling legislation when it passed as part of the 1990 farm bill. The department effectively delayed implementation of the law for over 10 years after they promulgated the first set of very flawed rules, a wave of protest generated almost 300,000 comments from consumers and farmers.

Even before the recent guidance documents were published, the USDA was allowing corporate players to chip away at what organic production really means.

• Horizon Organic Dairy operates a 4,000+ cow “organic” farm in Idaho—many large farms are allowed to pay lip-service to the organic law requiring pasture for dairy cows. And note that one of Horizon’s original founders is about to launch the first in what could be a series of 5,000 cow setups in Colorado.

• Some large organic dairy operations, again including Horizon, are bringing in replacement cattle from conventional farms. Some have been using antibiotics during the first year of a cow’s life.

• The NOP has approved “organic” egg laying operations where chickens are confined to buildings 24/7—again contrary to law.

• A number of name-brand organic food marketers, including General Mills/Cascadian, are importing commodities from third-world countries (Mexico, Guatemala, Uruguay—even as far away as New Zealand and China). The USDA has never visited the foreign certifying agencies to verify their procedures before accrediting them.

When learning of these and other practices, it is not surprising that the confidence consumers have in the integrity of organic agriculture has been shaken!

Farmers and consumers outraged

Knowledgeable and respected representatives of farm and consumer groups, such as the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture, Consumers Union, and the Organic Consumers Association, have been at lagerheads with bureaucrats at the NOP for years. The uproar about the recent guidelines is just the latest chapter in this fight. Other recent complaints have included NOP staff approving food additives, fertilizers, and other inputs without, as the law requires, the guidance of the National Organic Standards Board (an expert advisory panel made up of consumers, farmers, processors, and environmentalists). In fact, there are over 50 recommendations that the Board has made that NOP staff have not even acted on. They appear to be scoffing at the law.

One of the recent and more egregious examples of the USDA partnering with industrial agriculture took place when The Country Hen, a confinement egg producer, with 67,000 birds, applied for organic certification. NOP bureaucrats overruled an accredited organic certifier who denied certification because the birds lacked access to the outdoors, as required by law. This reversal was done within one business day, without a hearing and without consulting the certifying agency or its inspector.

How many other actions like this have taken place without anyone’s knowledge? We should be demanding full transparency and a formal appeals process. And the worst part of the story? The Country Hen simply chose another, more accommodating certifier, and their eggs are now on the market labeled “certified organic.”

Organic community wields clout!

While the Cornucopia and Rodale Institutes were helping to mobilize organic farmers, the Organic Consumers Association launched a petition drive. These efforts were directed at USDA Secretary Ann Veneman. Our organization and several others were not only demanding a withdrawal of the guidelines that so inflamed organic supporters, but were also calling for a “regime change” at the National Organic Program. Soon after launching the campaign, this issue received excellent national media coverage (Carol Ness of the San Francisco Chronicle, Marion Burros in the New York Times and the Associated Press).

Members of Congress also swung into action. Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Congressman Ron Kind of Wisconsin, co-chair of the House Organic Caucus, communicated forcefully with Secretary Veneman. Leahy demanded withdrawal of the “universal fiats” that violate the spirit of the organics law.

Mounting pressure

The mounting pressure plus approaching elections led to a sudden announcement by Veneman on May 26 that she was overruling the NOP and rescinding the recent guidelines.

Despite this victory, we will continue to lose the war if major systemic changes do not result from our pressure at the USDA. We must focus on the management at the NOP and on the membership of the National Organics Standards Board. The Secretary will soon appoint five new members to the board (one-third of its membership). She needs to know that we are watching and will not support anything less than appointments of individuals who are qualified and who uphold the traditional ideals inherent in organic production. If they try to slip in agribusiness minions, we will once again take our fight to the streets and to Capitol Hill.

Protecting organic integrity

My real education in food, health, and environmental impacts did not take place until I became a member of People's Food Co-op in Ann Arbor in the 1980s. My awareness of and sensitivity to food issues continued to develop until I became a supplier of fresh vegetables to the co-op. Eventually I moved to Wisconsin, where I farmed on a larger scale and have been engaged in agricultural policy work the better part of the past two decades.

I probably would not be doing this job today, and certainly not writing this piece, if it hadn’t been for the educational efforts of co-op members and staff in Ann Arbor. I use this illustration both to thank the first co-op in which I was a member (I am now a member of People's Food Co-op in La Crosse, Wisconsin) and to hammer home the power and influence you good people have.

Without successful organizing, the path we're headed down will spell destruction for family-scale organic farms in America. The model is well known. Vertical integration and complete corporate control has just about killed family farms in this country.

For family farmers, converting to organics has helped them financially stabilize their livelihoods, stay on the land, provide a healthy environment for their families (conventional farmers have the highest rate of cancer in the nation), and produce wonderful food for consumers.

But family organic dairy farms cannot compete with 3,000–5,000 cow factory farms. Families that produce meat and poultry cannot compete with large confinement operations or the importation of cheap organic meat from New Zealand or Uruguay. And vegetable and grain producers will be driven out of business by the imports from Mexico, Brazil, and China.

The corporations utilizing these imported organic commodities or industrial methods have not lowered their price to you—on the contrary, organic price inflation has skyrocketed! Consumers who have felt good about their spending on organic products because they feel they're helping the environment, fostering humane treatment of animals, and supporting family farmers could become seriously disillusioned. If we lose this fight, what will the term "organic" mean?

However, since legions of organic consumers, farmers, processors, and retailers make up the “organic community,” rather than just an industry sector, I have hope. Just as we have prevailed in this recent battle with the USDA, political and marketplace pressure can force corporations to act responsibly and government officials to enforce the law.

Co-ops can take action

Cooperatives can help protect organic integrity in two ways:

Given a choice, buyers can help consumers make good purchasing decisions by stocking products from companies that exhibit high ethical behavior in terms of respecting organic ideals (accurate comparative analysis for many products will soon be available from Cornucopia's website, Local and regional producers, with whom you might have a personal relationship, offer a special opportunity to help build your cooperative community.

Include an article in your newsletter and/or on your website about this controversy and how consumers can take action. Cornucopia also has news articles, action alerts, talking points, and sample letters that you can share with your members (Cornucopia Institute, P.O. Box 126; Cornucopia, WI 54827; 608-625-2042; [email protected].) Other key allies and resources include the organizations mentioned earlier:

National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture,
Consumers Union,
Organic Consumers Association,

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