Presentation at the OFARM Annual Meeting – Political Action Needed to Turn Back Threats to Organic Integrity 2004

Presented at the OFARM Annual Meeting in La Crosse, WI February 25, 2004, By Roger Blobaum

I want to talk with you today about recent political developments that are undermining organic integrity and the support of consumers and environmentalists and that may be putting your markets and incomes at risk. My comments will focus on organic business trends, the organic guarantee system, the performance of the National Organic Program, and the integrity of USDA’s organic label.

The effort by organic farmers to develop and adopt farming methods that protect the environment and provide an economically-viable alternative to industrial agriculture practices has won much public good will and support. Consumers willingly pay premium prices because of the high quality of organic food and their awareness of the many public benefits organic farmers provide.

Organic farming is both a worldwide movement and a fast-growing global economic sector that generates an estimated $25 billion a year in sales. Other growth indicators are the increase in organization memberships in the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements to more than 700 and the more than 300 organic certifiers now operating worldwide. This growth is spectacular across Europe where governments support organic agriculture with a trouble-free regulatory system, incentive payments, and the full range of research, education, extension, and other programs.

The United States is the only country with a large organic sector where the federal government has a history of failing to help organic farmers. Most state governments have tried to be helpful. But the attitude of the federal government in general, and of USDA in particular, has ranged from unhelpful to hostile.

It probably is just as well that most people no longer remember Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz, a Republican, demanding to know how we would decide which 50 million people would starve if organic farming methods were adopted. Or Deputy Secretary John White, a Democrat, claiming that we would need manure piles as high as the Empire State Building to make organic farming work.

A rare example of good times came in 1980 when Agriculture Secretary Bob Bergland, a Minnesota farmer with an organic farmer neighbor, decided to find out why USDA wasn’t helping organic farmers. He appointed a team of USDA scientists who spent several months on a report that recommended a comprehensive list of research, extension, marketing, and other initiatives to support organic farming. USDA appointed an organic farming coordinator, organic farming information meetings were scheduled at several land grant universities, and more than 20,000 requests flowed in for copies of the report.

But this era of cooperation ended abruptly when the new Reagan Administration came in. The organic farming coordinator was fired, the meetings were cancelled, the recommendations were scuttled, and USDA ordered the destruction of all remaining copies of the report.

Organic farmers and their consumer and environmental and other supporters, disappointed but a lot wiser, launched a productive decade of working with state governments, expanding inspection and certification capacity, and developing new products and new markets. By the end of the 1980s a vibrant organic sector had been developed, both domestic and export markets had been developed, and organic sales were expanding at an annual rate of more than 20 percent.

The Organic Foods Production Association of North America (OFPANA), convinced that even faster growth was possible, decided to try once again to involve the federal government. This new group, which later changed its name to the Organic Trade Association, petitioned Congress for assistance in developing national standards to strengthen the organic guarantee and help develop national and international markets.

The result was enactment in 1990 of the Organic Foods Production Act, which was bitterly opposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and viewed with both suspicion and apprehension by many organic farmers. But it was lobbied hard by organic companies, supported by state departments of agriculture and the Food Marketing Institute, and backed by a coalition of national consumer, environmental, and animal protection organizations.

The Senate approved the bill after stripping it of all references to health and environmental benefits of organic farming, a change that has enabled agriculture secretaries ever since to declare on USDA’s behalf that organic farming is no better than any other kind of farming. The stripped-down version, now little more than a marketing bill, got a cold reception in the House Agriculture Committee and it refused to report the bill out. However it came to the floor as a farm bill amendment and, in a stunning defeat for the committee, passed with the winning margin provided by members from urban districts.

Fierce opposition from USDA and the House Agriculture Committee, which continued to the bitter end, should have been a warning to all of us of big trouble ahead. But supporters had written in provisions for accreditation of certifiers, for peer review of the accreditation process by representatives of the organic community, for establishment of a National Organic Standards Board with most of its seats reserved for organic farmers and consumer and environmental representatives, and for giving the NOSB sole authority to determine what would be on a national list of approved materials.

Few were more pleased than I was over the idea that USDA was finally being forced to give organic farming the national recognition it deserved. And, like many others, I viewed the safeguards written in as an effective deterrent to USDA mischief or manipulation, as a guarantee that organic integrity would be protected, and assurance that the farmers and consumers who developed organic farming would control its future.

Beginning early in 1992, NOSB members did their job, and more, by holding 15 meetings of several days each in all parts of the country. Each one included a full day of public comments, seemingly endless hours of open discussion, and tours of organic farms. Multiple rule drafts were submitted to the public in an attempt to reach consensus. The end result was broad support from farmers and consumers alike for the final recommendations.

This was reflected in “Toward Organic Integrity,” a guide to the proposed standards prepared by Michael Sligh, who had skillfully led this process as NOSB chairman. “These recommendations, standards, and materials are built upon a very long history of farmer knowledge,” he noted in the preamble. “The rule must reflect and preserve this rich history and wealth of experience and passion.”

Sligh also warned the organic community that the soul of organics was at stake. “This process will institutionalize the word “organic” within the U.S. government,” he wrote. “And if this process proves to be too onerous or false, the soul of organics will be lost. Then, those who love organics will have two choices: to reclaim the word and concept, or find new words and concepts. The future will determine this.”

When the future Sligh referred to finally arrived late in 1997, the organic community was stunned. My own reaction to the rule that was proposed, like that of many others, was feelings of shock, disbelief, and betrayal. We had trouble believing that USDA would ignore many of the NOSB’s recommendations and overturn many others and that it would open the door to the use of sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetically modified organisms and to irresponsible use of antibiotics. Or that it would challenge the NOSB’s authority to control the national list or include loopholes for factory farming practices.

When the organic community came together to assess the damage and seek consensus on a plan of action, one outcome was a document that listed what we called “The Sixty Six Points of Darkness.” The other outcome, later backed up by a national outpouring of 278,000 negative comments, was a demand that USDA withdraw the proposed rule and do it over.

Even when the new rule we asked for was proposed nearly two years later, many serious problems remained. Worse yet, USDA added new provisions giving itself the final authority to make certification decisions, setting unenforceable composting requirements, and adopting conflict of interest provisions that prohibited organic farmers from serving in any capacity in their own certification organizations. A special call for comments on the question of whether USDA should have the final word on all certification decisions, for example, was opposed 8,429 to 9. But USDA brushed aside this strong public “no” vote and adopted its own grab for power anyway.

So now, more than a year into implementation, where does that leave us? The government’s response, largely endorsed by the industry, is that the organic sector is booming with expanding export sales, hundreds of new organic products, wide consumer acceptance, and a growth rate exceeding 20 percent a year. Organics has gone mainstream and last year, for the first time, more than 50 percent of organic sales were in conventional supermarkets and in Wal-Mart and other discount outlets. So why isn’t everybody happy?

One reason is growing uneasiness over a rapid move toward bigness and concentration and cannibalism by outsiders of organic businesses. Also important is diminishing influence over the future direction of organic agriculture by farmers like you who share the organic farming vision, have built consensus around its principles, and have responded to consumer expectations by establishing systems guaranteeing organic integrity. All this plus growing consumer interest in new labels dealing with humane treatment of livestock, fair trade, locally grown, and other attributes many feel are no longer reflected in organic products.

I became aware of other concerns in two conference workshops. In one the spokesman for an organic company being swallowed up in a buy-out announced, “we aren’t going to be buying from small farmers anymore.” The conventional company that engineered the buy-out and now sources organic grain has a captive supply grown on farms in a vertically integrated setup. At another session a venture capitalist explained that plans for infusing new capital into an organic company often include an exit strategy for the founder. It is important to investors, he said, to get rid of the people who stressed values in building these organic companies and to replace them with managers who will focus on the bottom line.

I would urge you to get a copy of “Who Owns Organic?” a new report by Rural Advancement Foundation International that documents increasing concentration in the U.S. organic sector and questions whether rapid growth, expansion, and concentration can be balanced with the broadest principles of organic agriculture. It includes a chart showing that seven of the world’s 25 largest food companies have bought up a long list of pioneer organic companies. Included are companies like Odwalla Organics, Earth’s Best, Walnut Acres, Arrowhead Mills, Stoneyfield Farms, and Cascadian Farms.

This report also touches on some new political problems. It warns that environmental organizations concerned about the dangers of industrial farming, including some with a long history of supporting organic agriculture, are losing interest. They have become disillusioned with what has happened since USDA took over. I can tell you from my own personal experience that, with one exception, they aren’t showing up at organic meetings in Washington anymore.

Consumers Union, which has been one of organic farming’s most loyal supporters, has a press release on its web site warning that USDA actions are undermining the integrity of the organic label. The section of its web site that provides information to the media, and is viewed by millions of consumers as well, casts doubt specifically on the organic label on broilers and other poultry products. “Consumers Union,” a spokesperson reported, “has had to change its rating of the organic label from ‘highly meaningful’ on all organic products to a downgraded rating for poultry.” The press release focuses on lack of outdoor access but also cites last year’s attempt in Congress to set aside the 100 percent organic feed requirement for poultry.

Is this situation a “60 minutes” or “20/20” television expose waiting to happen? And, if it does, with concerned consumers speaking out and film showing organic production in big factory-type complexes with bad air and no outdoor access, how will the organic community defend itself? This merits your attention because these are important organic grain buyers.

I could cite other examples of fallen away friends. But I think a piece by Michael Pollack in the New York Times Magazine comes closest to summing up what we should be concerned about overall. “Now that organic food has established itself as a viable alternative food chain,” Pollack wrote, “agribusiness has decided that the best way to deal with that alternative is to own it.” “The question now,” he continued, “is what will they do with it? Is the word organic being emptied of its meaning? Many organic advocates at the same time are asking, ‘is organic becoming what we hoped it would be an alternative to?'”

This brings us to the critical question: Can the philosophical values embedded in the word “organic,” the vision shared by the farmers and consumers in developing the organic alternative, and the domestic and foreign markets organic farmers depend on survive USDA’s implementation of the Organic Foods Production Act? More important, what can we do to make sure they do survive? We can begin by weighing in on some important and pressing issues.

One is the current appeals process breakdown. This involves a recent National Organic Program order overturning an accredited certifier’s refusal to grant an organic certificate to a large egg producer that was not complying with the access to the outdoors standard. The producer appealed to the administrator of the National Organic Program who the next day ordered the certifier to issue the certificate. The certifier appealed to a USDA administrative law judge who upheld the administrator’s decision and said, in effect, that the certifier has no appeal rights.

The certifier has since appealed to the next level within USDA, arguing that the government has usurped the role of the certifying agent and undermined the organic standard. Also at issue is failure to provide due process. The certifier reports that the NOP reversed its decision overnight without reviewing any files, checking with its certification committee, or even making a phone call. I wonder how overseas buyers, especially militant consumers like those from Japan, will respond when they find out U.S. certifiers not only have lost the authority they once had to de-certify but now are being forced by the government to certify producers who don’t comply with standards.

Another unresolved issue is the drive to diminish the authority of the NOSB and turn it into just another of USDA’s many toothless advisory committees. This began when many of the NOSB’s initial recommendations were ignored or overturned during the rulemaking process. The NOSB has since lost control over its budget and its meeting agendas and more than 50 of the recommendations it has made over the last five years are gathering dust. USDA has refused to acknowledge, reject, or adopt them and contends that under the provisions of the Federal Advisory Committee Act it has no legal obligation to do so.

The peer review process also has been scuttled. USDA’s response to a consumer organization’s petition a year ago that formally requested appointment of the required peer review panel was a statement saying the NOSB’s accreditation committee would serve as interim peer reviewers. But committee members were denied access to documents that would enable them to carry out this function. The agency finally responded to the growing demand for a peer review panel by contracting with the American National Standards Institute, an entity with no organic experience or expertise, to conduct a one-time audit. It is unclear when, or whether, the results will ever be disclosed to the NOSB, the organic community, or the general public.

A different kind of threat is sneak attacks on organic standards on Capitol Hill. One of the worst trends in lawmaking in Congress is legislating through language inserted, and often hidden, in appropriations bills. These stealth attacks, which frequently occur without warning late at night, bypass the normal procedures of bill introduction, hearings, reports, and open markups. It was inevitable that special interests in the organic sector would use this approach to obtain favors they could never obtain through the normal lawmaking process.

So far these appropriations subcommittee sneak attacks have directed USDA to approve an organic label for wild salmon, allow sulfates in organic wine, and set aside the rule requiring 100 percent organic feed for poultry. The poultry feed provision, which was hidden in a $347 billion appropriations bill, embarrassed the House speaker and an angry organic community eventually forced Congress to rescind it.

It is time to revisit Michael Sligh’s warning seven years ago that we were putting the soul of organic at risk, and gambling on the future of organic farming, when we put our trust in USDA to follow the NOSB’s recommendations in writing a rule. It is clear that our trust has been betrayed and there is increasing evidence that we may have gambled and lost.

What we have ended up with is a rule that still contains many provision we opposed, a highjacked certification system out of line with international norms, flawed and uneven performance in organic program implementation, weak underfunded enforcement, consumer questions about organic integrity, and a threat to organic markets and the incomes of organic farmers. There is the real possibility, as Michael Pollack noted in describing the organic industrial complex, that we are ending up with the kind of system that we hoped organic would be an alternative to.

Is it too late to fix it? I’m not optimistic but I know we can’t afford to let them get away with this. I doubt if this can be fixed without the intervention and active involvement of organic farmers, of consumers and environmentalists, and all the others who submitted the 278,000 comments six years ago that forced USDA to take back its first rule and do it over. I challenge all of you, as farmers and as OFARM leaders, to begin taking political and other steps to make certain the integrity of the organic label is guaranteed, that the confidence of consumer and others who have traditionally supported organic farming is restored, and that your markets and your income and the markets and incomes of organic farmers across the country are protected.