Guest Commentary published in the “OFARM Quarterly” – Organic Farmers and Consumers Face New Challenge: Stopping Government Backsliding on Organic Integrity 2006

Organic Farmers and Consumers Face New Challenge: Stopping Government Backsliding on Organic Integrity

This guest commentary was published in the November 2006 issue of OFARM Quarterly. By Roger Blobaum

Developments unfolding in the organic industry are raising serious new concerns about how fast the organic sector can be expanded and mainstreamed without weakening standards, undermining organic integrity, and turning off consumers concerned about the authenticity of organic products.

The rapid and fully documented movement of large conventional food processors and manufacturers into organic through mergers, buyouts, and consolidations the last two or three years has raised serious organic integrity concerns. This summer’s announcement that Wal-Mart, the world’s largest food retailer, is making a strong move into organic food marketing is focusing new attention on what is rapidly becoming a corporate takeover of the organic industry.

The Wal-Mart announcement was viewed with alarm by many in the organic sector because it showed the huge retailer plans to gain organic market share quickly by driving down prices. “Introducing Organics at the Wal-Mart Price,” its new advertising tagline, clearly signals its price-cutting plans. Wal-Mart announced that 20 percent of its produce will be organic and that it will make organic food much more available and affordable by charging no more than 10 percent over the conventional price at its 3,200 big box stores. It already is the biggest seller of organic milk and the world’s biggest buyer of organic cotton.

This move to drive down prices, plus Wal-Mart’s unmatched ability to arm twist suppliers and import cheaper supplies from China and elsewhere, threatens the ability of organic farmers to maintain price premiums. Organic farmers are pushing now to meet rapidly rising demand and having Wal-Mart competing along with Safeway and other conventional retailers with their own organic house brands should help keep farm gate prices up in the short term. Eventually, however, Wal-Mart and others will turn to huge corporate operators because it’s a lot easier to source organic lettuce from one or two corporate farms than from 100 small operations. And they will go to China, Mexico, Brazil, and other low-wage countries as well to source supplies needed to drive prices down.

China’s export-driven organic sector, launched in the early 1990s, is expanding rapidly in northeast and coastal provinces and has significant government support. The recent announcement in Beijing that China now has 12 percent of the world’s organically-managed land and has become a major exporter of organic dry beans, rice, vegetables, and soybeans appear to make this a genuine threat. China still relies heavily on respected foreign bodies for inspection and certification.

The New York Times, in an editorial commenting on the Wal-Mart announcement, was unusually direct in describing the likely impact:

“There is no chance that Wal-Mart will be buying from small, local organic farmers,” the editorial stated. “Instead its market influence will speed up the rate at which organic farming comes to resemble conventional farming in scale, mechanization, processing, and transportation. For many people, this is the very antithesis of what organic should be.”

Consumer organizations that advocate organic farming, like most organic farmers, are not elated about all this. Even before the Wal-Mart announcement, the national magazine that is published by Consumers Union and goes to 4 million households carried a warning about whether the federal government’s organic guarantee is meeting consumer expectations. Spending on organic has grown so fast, Consumer Reports magazine noted, that large food companies have begun chipping away at what organic labels promise to deliver. Lobbying to weaken organic rules, it noted, has been underway continuously since the final version came out nearly four years ago.

So far the big organic retailers, manufacturers, and processors seem to be giving consumer concerns the brushoff. If you go by their publications, and what they say and do in Washington, their position is that consumers actually know very little about organic food and farming and are clueless about organic integrity. Organic industry advertising increasingly tends to feature questionable health and food safety claims rather than the environmental and other benefits of organic farming verified by certifiers. The industry line is that organic is becoming a trendy lifestyle thing and that consumers see it as little more than healthy food they feel good about bringing home to the family.

Organic Processing, the main industry magazine, says in its most recent issue that it’s the buzz about organic and not the label and the regulations designed to guarantee organic integrity that are fueling organic growth. An article entitled “Behind the Organic Buzz: What Consumers Think of Organic Labeling” states that mainstream organic consumers are hard pressed to define organic as more than a product with fewer pesticides and that most know little or nothing abut standards or certification.

Are these the same consumers who by huge margins in a Consumers Union poll said they do not want food labeled as organic to contain artificial ingredients? The poll of 1,200 consumers showed 85 percent were opposed to allowing synthetics in food labeled as “organic” and 74 percent did not want synthetics in food labeled as “made with organic.” Yet Congress rejected these findings, as well as a flood of letters from consumers, and rammed through without a hearing or debate an industry provision overturning a federal court decision and restoring the use of synthetics in both label categories.

Or the same consumers who by huge margins in a different Consumers Union poll of 1,485 adults supported national organic standards that require outdoor access to pasture for ruminant animals? Or those in a poll of more than 1,000 adults commissioned by the Center for Food Safety that had similar views? Yet the Department of Agriculture is still stalling, and still questioning, the value of adopting pasture standards recommended several years ago by the National Organic Standards Board.

What seems to be unfolding is a struggle between organic manufacturers, processors, and retailers pressing for more relaxed rules with the help of pay-to-play politicians and a compliant National Organic Program and organic farmers and consumers trying to mobilize public support for strengthening the rules now in place. The lack of an authentic farmer voice in national organic policymaking makes it harder to get this done. The continued erosion of organic integrity appears to be the likely outcome.

This troubling situation is made worse by the growing market power and political influence of conventional food companies that use buyouts and mergers to take over pioneer organic companies and move aggressively into most organic industry sectors. The extent of this corporate takeover is dramatized by this takeover list published by Organic Processing magazine prior to the Wal-Mart announcement:

Kellogg’s Kashi, General Mills Cascadian Farms, Kraft’s Boca Burger and Back to Nature, Mars’ Seeds of Change, Coca Cola’s Odwalla, Con Agra’s Lightlife, Danone’s Stonyfield, Uniliver’s Ben and Jerry’s, Dean’s White Wave and Horizon Organic, and Heinz’s Hains which operates Arrowhead Mills, Health Valley, and Celestial Seasonings. Nestle’s, Pepsi, and others are still jockeying for a slice of the organic pie. Amy’s, Lundberg Family Farms, Eden Foods, Organic Valley, Traditional Medicinals, and Nature’s Path are on the short list of independent organic pioneers still standing.

Aaron Stephens, an organic pioneer and CEO of Nature’s Path, admitted in this same industry article that these huge late-arrival competitors may not have the same level of commitment to organics, the environment, and bettering the world as organic’s pioneer companies. But on the plus side, he conceded, more land is being converted to sustainable practices and more people are eating healthful food.

What is not being said is that this rapid food industry takeover signals Congress and USDA that a level of organic integrity guaranteed by strong rules may no longer be an organic priority. Legislative and regulatory arena slippage and backsliding has already taken place with both Congress and the National Organic Program doing their part as ready accomplices.

The Organic Foods Production Act, for example, has already been amended four times through industry-sponsored riders hidden in huge appropriations bills. This has been done without notice to consumers and farmers, without access to the amendment language, without public hearings, and without debate. These changes, including the one that repealed the 100 percent feed requirement for poultry, have been hidden in funding bills up to 14 inches thick that are wiped clean of all political fingerprints and rushed through without debate.

Appropriations subcommittees are referred to on Capitol Hill as “favor factories,” sort of high-end flea markets where everything is for sale and all transactions are made under cover of darkness. That is the political arena into which organic is increasingly being dragged by industry lobbyists, including those from big companies involved in the corporate takeover of the organic sector, creating a difficult political environment for those committed to protecting organic integrity.

Another example is the end run the NOP attempted to make around the NOSB through a series of regulatory changes that became known as the four directives. Included were changes allowing the use offish meal with unapproved synthetics in poultry and livestock feed, organic calves treated with antibiotics and other medications to stay in organic dairy herds, and pesticides containing unidentified harmful substances. The directives eventually were rescinded following a strong public protest.

Still another was USDA cowtowing to corporate interests by naming a General Mills manager and a dairy industry consultant to two of the NOSB slots reserved for consumer/public interest representatives. Eight national consumer and public interest organizations immediately launched a campaign to force USDA to rescind the appointments and restore the veracity and integrity of the NOSB. In the end, after heavy pressure was applied, the General Mills appointee withdrew but the industry consultant was kept on.

Unfortunately the threat to organic integrity created by the rush of conventional processors, retailers, and others moving into, or buying up, the organic sector extends well beyond problems linked to rapid expansion and mainstreaming. It deals with the need to protect what organic is all about, to be certain it is what the organic label says it is, and to make sure it does not become what it was hoped it would be an alternative to.

Organic farmers and consumers are no match for the 29,709 registered lobbyists that swarm over Capitol Hill or big money politics overall. What is possible is a renewed effort by the farmers who developed organic farming and the consumers who support it to build public support for halting Congressional and USDA backsliding, for keeping the integrity of organic food and farming from being undermined by food industry lobbyists, for making elected public officials accountable, and for making certain organic doesn’t become just another meaningless green label in the marketplace.

This guest commentary was published in the November 2006 issue of OFARM Quarterly.