Presentation on Organic Integrity Workshop at the MOSES Organic Farming Conference 2006

Organic Integrity Workshop, Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference, LaCrosse, Wisconsin, February 25, 2006

I want to talk about the most important thing consumers buying organic food have wanted to be sure about, and that organic farmers who produce that food have wanted to be sure to provide, and that is organic integrity. It means organic food that is what the organic label says it is.

You may be aware that Consumers Union, a national consumer voice, published a warning about the organic guarantee and about consumer expectations in the latest issue of Consumer Reports.   This monthly magazine goes to more than 4 million households.

Spending on organic has grown so fast, the Consumer Reports story notes, that large food companies have begun chipping away at what organic labels promise to deliver. Lobbying to weaken organic rules, it reports, started as soon as the final version came out more than three years ago. And there’s ample evidence it’s underway today with big money and backroom deals.

In preparing for today’s workshop, I did a web search to see if organic integrity was getting any attention beyond the organic community. And whether what Consumers Union and other organizations that support organic farming are saying is getting any attention. I was stunned to find 455,000 matching sites for organic integrity. Any doubt about whether this is getting media and overall public attention quickly vanished.

I also came across a story about a web dictionary that claims some 7 million users and publishes a list of the 10 words looked up most often. And again, another surprise! Integrity topped the list.   The dictionary suggested the strong interest in the definition of integrity suggested overall national concern about an erosion of values and concern about loss of authenticity. The story even included a quote from a journalism professor who suggested integrity itself had become so scarce that people have forgotten what it means and felt they ought to look it up.

Finally I did a web search of the word integrity and that result was a real shocker. The search turned up 17,300,000 matches. Those that came up first dealt with political corruption, faked research, plagiarism, and more reports of institutional and other dishonesty in our society than you can imagine. You couldn’t even make up much of this stuff.

All of this points to a values crisis and the strong suggestion, to me at least, that organic is in danger of getting caught up in all this. Weakening standards and other requirements, in my opinion, undermines the bond between organic farmers and consumers and raises legitimate questions in the marketplace about whether organic really is what the organic label says it is.

My comments today are meant to be a wakeup call for organic farmers, those special people who developed organic farming on their own in the 1960s and 1970s and have by far the most to lose by attacks on organic integrity in the marketplace. Their legacy of environmentally sound farming, which has been passed on to today’s organic farmers, is a model for the future of agriculture and we must not allow it to be cheapened.

So what do the big organic retailers, manufacturers, and processors have to say about organic integrity? If you go by their publications, and what they do in Washington, the overall answer is that consumers know little or nothing about it. 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 regulations designed to guarantee integrity that are fueling organic growth. An article entitled “Behind the 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 about standards or certification.

Are these the same consumers who by huge margins in a Consumers Union poll said they did not expect 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% did not want synthetics in food labeled as “made with organic.” Yet the Congress rejected these findings, as well as more than 300,000 letters from consumers, and rammed through Congress an industry provision restoring the use of synthetics in both label categories.

What we seem to have here is organic manufacturers, processors, and retailers going one way and organic farmers and consumers going the other with the steady erosion of organic integrity as the likely casualty. This loss is incremental but, unless pushed back, will eventually spell the end of organic as we know it.

There also is a disconnect here that relates to the power and influence of big food companies that are using buyouts and mergers to take over the organic processing, manufacturing, and retailing sectors. The industry downplays this but I ask you to consider this takeover list published in the latest issue of Organic Processing:

Kellogg’s Kashi, General Mills Cascadian Farms, Kraft’s Boca Burger and Back to Nature, Mars’ Seeds of Change, Coca Cola’s Odwalla, ConAgra’s Lightlife, Danone’s Stonyfield, Unilever’s Ben & 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 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 he did not say is that this rapid food industry takeover signals Congress and USDA that organic integrity may no longer be the No. 1 organic priority. We have already seen a series of examples of legislative and regulatory arena slippage and backsliding that has alarmed consumers and should concern us all. There is time only to touch on three of the worst examples:

-The Organic Foods Production Act, for example, has been amended four times by industry-sponsored riders buried in the middle of the night in huge appropriations bills. No public notice to consumers and farmers, no access to amendment language, no public hearings, and no debate. These changes, including the one that repealed the 100% organic 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 with no debate. That’s how special interest favors that could not survive an open democratic process are handed out in today’s pay-to-play political system.

Appropriations subcommittees are referred to on Capitol Hill today as “favor factories,” sort of high-end flea markets where everything is up for sale and all the transactions are made under cover of darkness. That’s the political arena in which organic is increasingly being dragged into by industry lobbyists and in which, we hope, organic integrity somehow can be maintained.

-Another example is the end run the National Organic Program attempted to make around the NOSB with a series of regulatory changes that became known in the organic community as the four directives. Included were changes allowing the use of fish meal with unapproved synthetics as a poultry and livestock feed, approving organic calves treated with antibiotics and other medications to stay in an organic herd, and allowing pesticides that contained unidentified harmful chemicals. The directives were publicly rescinded in an embarrassing election year retreat by the Secretary of Agriculture following a storm of protest that included editorials highly critical of USDA in the New York Times and elsewhere.

The NOSB was included in the Organic Foods Production Act because Congress concluded USDA did not know enough about organic food and farming to implement the law and, further, that USDA could not be trusted to provide and protect an organic guarantee. What we are beginning to see now is the integrity of the NOSB itself being threatened. This first became apparent when a Georgia chicken industry specialist who had never applied was put on the NOSB. This bizarre appointment came right after a Georgia congressman, with insider help from the Speaker of the House, tried to end the 100% organic feed requirement for poultry.

Other questionable appointments came in January when USDA named a General Mills manager and a dairy industry consultant to NOSB slots reserved for consumer/public interest representatives. Public interest groups, angered by the appointment, immediately launched a campaign to force USDA to rescind the appointments. In the end, after heavy pressure was applied, the appointee from General Mills withdrew but the dairy industry representative remained.

It is important for organic farmers to support the position that the veracity and integrity of the NOSB is compromised by these appointments and to acknowledge the efforts of consumer organizations that serve as organic integrity watchdogs. The organizations united in this campaign were Consumers Union, the Center for Food Safety, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the Consumer Federation of America, the Organic Consumers Association, Food and Water Watch, Beyond Pesticides, and Public Citizen.

I realize a call to action is included in the title of this workshop. I am probably a lot better at sounding the alarm than about laying out a plan of action to address what I believe is a threat to organic integrity and to the future of organic agriculture.

I would urge you as organic farmers and supporters of organic food and farming to seriously consider becoming involved in the attempts to find a way to give organic farmers a voice in the political arena. I would urge you to reach out to, and to educate, consumers and environmentalists about the benefits of organic and the threats to organic integrity. I would urge you to make a special effort to inform media people about organic farming, to invite them to your farms, and to respond to their requests for information. And I would urge you to call on state and national lawmakers who are in a position to do something about threats to organic integrity and will be asking for your vote later this year.

Finally I want to challenge all of you to stand up and fight those trying to cheapen organic and to do everything possible to preserve the heart and soul of organic agriculture. If that doesn’t happen, organic will go the way of “natural” and “sustainable agriculture” and “IPM,” which have been co-opted and cheapened to the point where they have little meaning.

We are stewards of the term “organic” and all it stands for. We must not let anyone take this away from us. We have a duty to the farmers who developed organic agriculture and the consumers who support it, to the Earth our Mother, and to future generations to make certain organic does not become just another green label in the marketplace. I urge you to join the fight to make sure its credibility and its integrity, and its heart and soul, are not stolen or frittered away.