INSIDE ORGANIC: IFOAM’s Drive to Ditch Its Basic Standards Stirs Up A Global Fight Over Organic Values (March/April 08)

by Roger Blobaum · Inside Organics ·March/April 2008

The organic community’s market expansion vs. organic values debate has heated up worldwide over a determined effort by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) to ditch the basic standards developed over 30 years as the gold standard for organic.

The proposal to replace the IFOAM basic standards with a Benchmark for Standards was hit hard by IFOAM members and organic stakeholder critics from 32 countries in comments filed early last summer. Alarmed reviewers contended the proposed benchmark blurs the difference between organic and conventional, fails to meet consumer expectations, and threatens to turn global standard setting into a race to the bottom.

The response is reminiscent of the flood of comments in 1998 that forced the U.S. Department of Agriculture to withdraw its proposed organic rule and rewrite it. First round comments submitted to IFOAM by 72 organizations and individuals cover more than 170 pages and, with few exceptions, strongly oppose the benchmark proposal. The opponents include respected U.S. institutions, organizations, and organic community leaders.

The push by trade expansion proponents inside IFOAM to ditch the basic standards went largely unnoticed here at first. Lack of attention was due to the high level of confidence built over many years that IFOAM could always be counted on to defend organic values and that it was a trusted caretaker of the standards developed over many years by the global organic community.

If this were less serious it probably would be written off as more quirky IFOAM politics. But it threatens to undermine the global organic sector’s credibility in defining organic and to diminish the positive impact the basic standards have on global standard setting. Both the European Union’s organic regulations and the CODEX organic guidelines reflect the high bar provided by the basic standards. They are valued by governments and the organic community alike as a model for standards development in countries with emerging organic sectors.

What would it take to be certified organic under IFOAM’s proposed Benchmark for Standards? Apparently, not much. That is the view expressed by many concerned IFOAM members and organic stakeholders.

Strong U.S. Opposition

One of the U.S. heavyweights submitting comments was the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA), which operates the largest USDA-accredited state government certification program. WSDA was most disappointed by the proposed benchmark’s failure to draw a clear line between organic and conventional agriculture. Specifically, it noted, the proposal lacks a required conversion period, allows synthetic fertilizers, fails to prohibit many toxic pesticides, allows antibiotics in livestock production, and lacks clear organic feed requirements.

A longer list of issues was submitted by Jim Riddle, past chair of the National Organic Standards Board. In addition to those raised by WSDA, Riddle stated that the proposed benchmark would allow animals to be converted to organic with no specified requirements, allow animals to be rotated between organic and conventional management with no restrictions, allow the use of cloned animals or their progeny, and eliminate recordkeeping requirements needed to document compliance during conversion and split production.

Annie Kirschenmann, former member of the IFOAM world board, urged IFOAM to abandon its benchmark campaign. She expressed appreciation for IFOAM’s efforts to create more market access and to grow organic worldwide. “However, to approach accessibility through reducing standards to the lowest common denominator is a weak, unworkable approach,” she stated. “It does not serve IFOAM or the organic world we envision.”

With rampant organic fraud, global warming, depletion of fossil fuels, and other pressing problems, she noted, organic is in a critical period when strong leadership from IFOAM is needed. “Joining the race to the ‘organic standards bottom’,” she contended, “will not fulfill that need. . .”

Brian Baker, organic materials expert and former IFOAM standards committee member, contended IFOAM’s attempt to define organic by referencing the principles of organic agriculture is flawed. Baker, like many others, noted that the proposed benchmark fails to clearly distinguish between organic and non-organic systems. “The benchmark document presented,” he added, “makes it appear as if there is very little difference between the two.”

The IFOAM World Board contends the benchmark initiative implements a motion adopted by its members in 2005 in Adelaide, Australia. However several critics, including the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI), contend the motion was changed by board members after the Adelaide meeting to make market access the dominant priority and to downplay organic integrity and consumer expectations.

“OMRI protests the unconstitutional revision of the motion . . .as amended by the motion of the Soil Association and the Organic Crop Improvement Association (OCIA),” the IFOAM member stated. “The Standards Committee should prepare a draft that is based on the motion that was actually approved . . .”

IFOAM is defensive about claims that the benchmark proposal would undermine organic integrity and lead to a “race to the bottom.” The benchmark approach, it asserted, would simultaneously facilitate trade, accommodate all serious organic certification bodies, and uphold the integrity of organic agriculture.

Big losers if the proposed benchmark is adopted will be the more than 40 certifiers accredited by the International Organic Accreditation Service (IOAS) to the IFOAM basic standards. These Accredited Certified Bodies (ACBs) operate in more than 75 countries, harmonize trade globally through a multilateral agreement (MLA), and certify much of the organic food moving in world trade.

Biokontroll, a Hungarian ACB, complained that IFOAM’s focus seems to be on finding the minimum common level of national regulations. “We think this approach is lacking the basic organic values and considerations that are important for the consumer,” the Biocontroll comment stated. “In this way we do not see the relevance of accreditation and the MLA signed by the ACBs that was based on the trust in each other’s high-quality work.”

The IOAS also urged IFOAM to abandon its benchmark proposal. It noted that the basic standards are a reference point for standard setters throughout the world, protect organic production from the influence of special interests, and help ensure that regulatory standards remain true to the heart of the organic movement. If approved, it noted in its comments, most, if not all, government standards would be higher than the IFOAM benchmarks.

“Governments and others will be able to justify practices that have never before been acceptable in organic agriculture on the basis that they are permitted by the IFOAM Benchmark for Standards,” the IOAS stated. “Organic agriculture may well be more widespread as a result, but will it be principled?”

NOC Calls Proposal ‘Wrong-Headed’

After IFOAM failed to accept most changes proposed in the first round, the National Organic Coalition (NOC) weighed in with comments in the second and final round. NOC contended the benchmark will open the organic system to greater inconsistencies of interpretation, lead to additional reciprocity confusion, spark consumer backlash, and slow growth of the organic market. “While we appreciate the intent of this revision process,” NOC noted, ”we believe this approach is wrong-headed and will have extremely negative consequences for organic integrity around the world.”

Several influential U.S. consumer organizations signed off on the NOC comments. NOC members signing off included the Center for Food Safety, Beyond Pesticides, MOSES, Union of Concerned Scientists, Food and Water Watch, and National Cooperative Grocers Association.

The cutoff date for stakeholder participation in this process has passed and further action is limited to IFOAM members only. A final decision is expected at the 2008 IFOAM General Assembly in June in Modena, Italy.

Midwest organic farmers may be tempted to shrug and say, “Well, it’s fine some are concerned about IFOAM and its global standards but that really doesn’t involve me because the NOP guarantees our standards”. Certifiers active in the region, including ICS and OCIA, would disagree because of concern that ditching a recognized international gold standard will ease pressure on government standard setters everywhere and lead to a race to the bottom.

Farmers producing organic soybeans and grains would soon be up against even cheaper imports produced in countries where government standards, no longer under pressure from the private organic sector to meet IFOAM’s 30-year-old standards, are lowered to gain export market access. And, finally, the consumers who support organic farmers and high standards, what about them? As a defender of consumer expectations like the Organic Consumers Association has warned in its comments, “When the rapid entry of powerful corporate interests into the organic market is forcing a race to the bottom, this search by IFOAM for the lowest common denominator is irresponsible . . .”

The only option left to non-IFOAM members opposing the proposed benchmark is to appeal directly to OMRI, MOSA, OCIA, Equal Exchange, the Organic Consumers Association, and other IFOAM members eligible to vote on the proposal and on IFOAM world board candidates. The time has come to ditch this proposal once and for all. And it also might be a good time to think about ditching the IFOAM board as well. (For a list of IFOAM members, go to

by Roger Blobaum

This article was first printed in the March/April 2008 issue of the Organic Broadcaster, published by the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service