Presentation at the Upper Midwest Organic Conference 1998

Roger Blobaum, Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference, Sinsinawa, Wisconsin, February 20, 1998

When Faye Jones asked me last November to pick a title for my talk here, I had just completed a year as coordinator of a new initiative called the Soul of Agriculture Project. And I had just spent several weeks putting together a national conference in Minneapolis entitled “The Soul of Agriculture: A New Production Ethic for the 21st Century.”

This project was inspired by “The Spirit of the Soil: Agriculture and Environmental Ethics,” a book by Paul Thompson, Professor of Applied Ethics in the Department of Philosophy at Purdue University. The conference was a response to Thompson’s call for “an ethic of farming, a philosophy of agriculture, with particular attention to agriculture’s impact upon and integration with the wider natural world. . . a philosophy needed as much by those who eat as by those who farm . . . nearly gone is the spirit of raising food and eating it as an act of communion with some larger whole.”

In thinking about what I wanted to say here, I also was influenced by the theme for last November’s Urban-Rural Conference organized by the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute. In choosing “Reclaiming the Sacred in Farming and Food,” Gail Kahovic and her committee were responding to growing interest in the spirituality of agriculture. A featured speaker was John Ikerd, Extension Professor of Agricultural Economics at the University of Missouri, who chose “Valuing the Spiritual Dimension of Sustainable Agriculture” as his topic.

Ikerd noted that for many in our society, farming has become just another business and that those who still treat farming and food as sacred are often written off as old-fashioned or strange or naive. But he said the trends that have taken the sacred out of farming, and that are the source of concern for agriculture’s sustainability, may have run, or even overrun, their course. He acknowledged the contribution of organic farming, which he described as a philosophy of producing food in harmony with nature.

This is a thoughtful and scholarly talk and I could not begin to summarize it. But I do want to share with you some statements relevant to this discussion. “Farming was one of the last strongholds for the sacred in the world of science.” “Agriculture without spirituality may well be agriculture without sustainability.” “Why pray for rain when we can drill a deep well and irrigate?” “Why thank God for food created by ConAgra?” “We need to seek and accept the spiritual in everything we see and do.”   “The physical may be far easier to see and to manipulate. But we need to learn to dance with life rather than try to push life around.”

The things that John Ikerd and Paul Thompson are saying, and that speakers at our Soul of Agriculture Conference said, are things I associate with organic food and farming. It seems to me, in listening to what they are saying, that the ethics of production and the sacred in farming and food are already enshrined in what organic agriculture is and what it stands for. At least so far.

So far we have done a reasonably good job of keeping organic from becoming what we hoped it would be an alternative to. Organic is still more than just a parallel food system and much more than “greened over” agriculture. At the same time, in many ways and in many parts of the world, organic principles are under attack and the struggle for the soul of organic has reached a crossroads. I am usually an optimist, and I don’t like saying this, but I believe this could go either way.   I believe there’s a chance the integrity of organic will become so compromised by government action that organic will lose its meaning. This struggle over the soul of organic is what I told Faye last November that I wanted to talk about today. Now that I have seen the proposed rules for implementing the Organic Foods Production Act, I am even more convinced that this is what I should be talking about today.

These proposed rules, which represent an unprecedented attack on the integrity of organic food and farming, are the latest indicator of trouble. This power grab by big government would force weak and inadequate standards on us against our will and blur the line between conventional and organic. It is ironic that while industries normally complain that newly-imposed government regulations are too strict, the organic community is fighting newly-proposed rules because they are not strict enough.

All of us who participated in a two-day organic rules meeting last month organized by the Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture were surprised to find we were able to list 60 specific things that needed to be fixed. But probably more important was a shorter list of government attempts to over-reach, going beyond the law or violating it, by drastically changing definitions and overturning organic principles. The proposed rules would change the organic approach from a process standard to a performance standard, for example. This philosophic change would enable the government to create large, vague exemptions to organic processes and standards. We identified more than a dozen similar serious breaches.

We also wondered whether the rules document should have included one of those World War II “Uncle Sam Wants You!” posters. It would have been perfect as an illustration for the proposed rule that would draft all private certifiers into service as USDA agents, strip them of their authority to make final certification decisions, and charge them for doing the government’s work. The rules also call for levying what would be, in effect, a $1 million tax on organic farmers, certifiers, and processors. Worse yet, it is a regressive flat levy that would hit small farmers and certifiers hardest. All of this money would go to support an already-bloated organic bureaucracy at USDA.

We probably should have seen this coming. USDA was hostile to the Organic Foods Production Act when it went through Congress. The Senate Agriculture Committee, in the markup, cut out references to soil health and environmental benefits. The House Agriculture Committee refused to report the bill out. And the Conference Committee, not to be outdone, knocked out references to “environmental stewardship,” “health or environmental effects,” and “sustainable farming methods.”

I will not take time now to talk more about how the law was twisted and butchered in putting these rules together. We discussed this at yesterday’s forum. And a panel of experts will discuss the proposed rules in detail later this afternoon. But I do want to make it clear what needs to be done. You should submit comments on the rule and get them in the record. And you should write to the member of Congress from your district and your two senators and ask them to write to Secretary Glickman and ask him to withdraw the rule, fix it, and re-propose it. Don’t express your anger in commenting on the rule. It will be wasted. Save it for your letters to Capitol Hill. It will help in getting their attention.

I want to turn now to the politics involved. This fiasco is not the result of some innocent bureaucratic misunderstanding, as some have suggested, or even of bungling or malfeasance. It is a calculated and coordinated attack on the heart and soul of what organic is. It is sometimes said that farming organically is like dancing with Nature. What we have here is what happens when big government dances with the devil.

Most of the dirty work was done in secret. As you all know from the latest White House scandal, politicians are always expressing shock and pointing fingers at each other over leaks.   The fact is that Washington leaks like a sieve and everybody knows it. I say this because I want to tell you something that I am absolutely certain of. But I have to attribute it, as reporters like to say, to someone I can identify only as a person high up and close to the rules fight.

Last summer at USDA, and later when the proposed rules were sent to OMB, large corporations in the food industry worked closely with government officials in a coordinated back room campaign to trash the standards. That has not yet been publicly documented but it is a fact. It should be no surprise that the livestock standards recommended by the NOSB were scuttled so meat from hog factories and broilers and eggs from Tyson-type confinement setups can be certified and sold as organic. Or that sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering, which were ruled out by the NOSB, were put back in.

We know that EPA, which over 25 years has never lifted a finger to support organic farming, did its dirty work behind the scenes on sewage sludge. We know that FDA, long an organic food skeptic, pushed the irradiation scheme it has been trying to force on consumers for years. And we know that the Office of the Trade Representative, along with the Foreign Agricultural Service and the Vice President’s office, went all out to reverse the NOSB’s stand on genetic engineering.

Most of us were naive enough to believe that the long public input process required by law and carried out in cooperation with the National Organic Standards Board would be honored by the Secretary of Agriculture.   People participated in good faith in the 12 full board meetings and five joint committee meetings held since the NOSB was appointed six years ago. And many of us were conscientious about submitting statements for the record. We thought this was the defining official process, that the NOSB’s recommendations would be the most important factor in shaping the final rule, and that the Agricultural Marketing Service and the Secretary of Agriculture would make the defining signoffs. How wrong we were.

The ability of other powerful agencies, both within USDA and elsewhere in government, and of the food industry to destroy the soul of organic out of sight of the public is a betrayal of this process and of all of us who, in good faith, followed the rules for making input. Freedom of Information requests are being filed to try to find out what went on. But we may never get the full story. We have a right to be angry about what has been done to us and, even worse, about how it was done.

There is another reason why what the government is trying to do to us, and whether or not we can stop it, is so important. Farmers who have developed organic agriculture at the grassroots in other parts of the world, and see it as both a way to farm ecologically and a way to support agricultural reform, also are concerned about losing control over its definition, development, and direction. They report that government regulation, increased involvement of multinational corporations and global traders, and attempts to open the door to biotechnology threaten organic agriculture’s consumer support base and its overall integrity.

This is being debated in international journals and was discussed in detail at a recent global forum in Costa Rica. A prominent Swedish organic farmer and business owner complained, for example, that organic standards are being developed more and more by civil servants who are not connected with or accountable to the producers who initially developed everything. A leader of a Mexico-based organic coffee producers organization warned that “the concepts of organic production will be prostituted and lose the values that gave it life . . . and that commercial models for organic trade will favor developed countries and Third World elites and further impoverish small producers.”

A leader in the development of a nonprofit global accreditation program shared his suspicion that governments will engage in collusion with industry outsiders to expand the organic market share by lowering standards. And he emphasized that an industry build on credibility with consumers cannot afford to lose control. In these remarks three years ago he seemed to have a vision of what was coming. “With government intervention the door has been opened to other influences and the perception of the consumer is unlikely to be a dominant force. Issues such as genetic engineering, livestock protection standards, and positive environmental production standards are fundamental to the consumer perception of organics. Lower standards and weak certification may make it easier to produce. But they also can lead to an erosion of the consumer support.” Does all this sound familiar?

Organic farmers in Europe, for the most part, have stood their ground with government regulators by enlisting the help of well-informed consumers, politically-active environmentalists, and others. They have made the case, in their own countries and in the European Union, that organic farming is in the public interest and deserves public support. Farmers in 15 EU countries who farm organically, or are converting to organic farming, can receive government payments of several hundred dollars per hectacre for up to five years. Land under organic management in Europe, as a result, has increased from about 12,000 hectares in 1986 to 1.3 million hectares 10 years later. That’s a more than 100-fold increase.

The atmosphere in Europe is much different. During a recent visit to Denmark, I picked up a copy of the government’s 128-page annual English-language guide to the organic industry. It included statistics on organic milk, beef, pork, deer, lamb, goat, grain, feed, vegetables, fruit, and berries. More than 70 organic research projects underway at state-supported universities and research centers were listed and described. It also described the state-funded organic advisory service and organic information campaign. I know this is a little off the subject. But I wanted to contrast what one tiny country is doing with how little the U.S. government, with a $1.4 trillion annual budget, is doing to support organic farming here.

The USDA rule is not the only one we need to be concerned about. A move to establish a global definition of organic and impose weak standards worldwide is underway in the Codex labeling subcommittee, which meets every spring in Ottawa, Canada. Both Tim Sullivan and I have been serving on the U.S. delegation and as members of the subcommittee’s Organic Working Group where drafts of global organic guidelines have been debated since 1992. Final action has been postponed, partly because the U.S. government wants low USDA standards in place before these guidelines are finalized and partly because it has not been able to get its way on genetic engineering and livestock standards. Adopting weak rules here would help our government pressure the Europeans, who are trying to hold the line for high standards. This U.S. pressure could make the difference in turning the tide at Codex..

This may sound a little remote to all of you here. But Codex is important and it has a long reach. It is the international tribunal that sets the rules for international trade in foodstuffs under GATT.   I can assure you that what happens with USDA’s proposed rules has implications in the global arena. And that, at some point in the future, through some kind of World Trade Organization ruling, weak rules now could very well directly impact organic farming later, both here and around the world.

Another trend that suggests organic food and farming may be losing its way is the wave of organic company mergers and takeovers, venture capital investments, and Initial Public Offerings. Conventional food companies have no trouble raising money needed to buy into the organic industry. The proponents contend this is needed for the mainstreaming of organic we hear so much about. We probably should feel proud that organic company shares are now bought and sold on Wall Street.

I participated last summer in an organic business symposium and I have to say I was not reassured by what I heard. I found out, for example, that business plans required for an infusion of venture capital into an organic company often call for an exit strategy for the founder. The idea is to get rid of the people who stressed values in building these companies and replace them with corporate managers who will focus on the bottom line. I discovered at this meeting that Mel Coleman, who founded Coleman Natural Meats and built it into a wonderful company, will probably be pushed out when his company goes public. I talked to Mel about this and, with some sadness, he confirmed it.

Some will say that getting investment bankers and venture capitalists involved in organic companies is not a serious problem. But I was surprised, for example, to hear one of those new organic merger managers argue at a symposium session that the way to assure profitability in the organic processing and manufacturing sector was to begin paying farmers less. I was even more surprised when the spokesman for Cascadian Farms, a highly respected organic company recently involved in a merger, said that the company planned to ease its product sourcing problems by bypassing small producers and contracting with large corporate organic operations. We expect organic farmers to emphasize values and I, for one, think we should demand this as well for the handling, processing, and retailing sectors as well.

There is growing concern about the appearance on the world market of a lot of organic food from Third World Countries, most of it certified by outsiders and bought and sold by traders from Europe and North America. How did these people find all this organic food in such a short period of time? Is it possible to quickly put reliable organic systems in place in remote areas where farm record keeping is almost nonexistent and where they is little or no local inspection and certification capacity? Who is making certain there is no cheating on the use of inputs and no conflict of interest? Who has enough information to assure consumers of the integrity of this food?

What we are seeing is the spread of biocolonialism, where companies and traders from industrial countries set up large organic operations in Third World countries or contract with captive grower groups. These operations raise questions about ethical trade, safe working conditions, and fair prices for organic farmers. I don’t believe consumers want the organic industry to be build on the backs of low-wage workers or exploited small farmers in the Third World, or anywhere else for that matter.

Shouldn’t we do what we can to support the social and environmental interests of Third World indigenous producers? If we don’t, many multinational corporations and traders from Europe and North America will continue to apply the traditional agro-export model to the international organic market. I believe we should be making a serious effort to begin phasing in social rights and fair trade guidelines. Don’t we always say we want food systems that are environmentally sound, economically viable, and socially just and humane?

We also should help new and emerging indigenous certifying organizations to get established and encourage outside certifiers to phase themselves out of these Third World countries when that transition becomes possible. We should do all we can to help indigenous farmers everywhere develop their own organic systems. If we don’t press for this, how are we any different from the United Fruit Company or Cargill or any other multinationals?

You may think, as many involved in these operations do, that fair trade is a little radical and hard to inspect and verify and not too important. I was surprised to find at a recent meeting in China that several large multinational corporations have joined together to establish global social accountability standards and a nonprofit accreditation agency to conduct audits and assure compliance. The list includes Nike and Walmart and Toys R Us and Reebok, all major companies highly sensitive to consumer concerns over products produced in Third World sweatshops. Business Week reported that this effort represents a breakthrough, not just on sweatshops but on common labor standards for the global economy as a whole. Surely, if organic means anything, we should start trying to catch up with companies like Nike and Walmart and get in line on these and other biocolonialism issues.

I believe many consumers will go out of their way to buy these products and offer this small news item from the Washington Post as evidence: “Where will it all end? The Tabard Inn is now serving coffee that’s so politically correct (organically grown, bird-friendly, and fairly traded) that the restaurant claims it’s been endorsed by the Smithsonian Institution.” I can tell you from experience that the dining rooms at the Tabard Inn are almost always packed.

Behind this is a campaign by the Smithsonian, in cooperation with the National Audubon Society, to promote shade-grown coffee in South America. This coffee is produced by small organic growers in forests where songbirds from North America go to spend the winter. Well-informed consumers know songbirds avoid coffee plantations that are doused with chemicals and perfectly spaced in a monoculture pattern.

I know some of you here could not care less about organic company takeovers, international trade issues, the proposed organic rules, or anything else USDA or the federal government might be up to. You chose to unhook and be left alone so you could focus on another important organic principle, working locally to close the gap between farmers and consumers. It provides a way to sell direct and capture what the middleman would get and to include scale, locality, and local control as attributes of your farming operation.

I would say, however, that you, too, are making a major contribution toward deciding the outcome of a continuing global debate over the future of agriculture itself. Organic agriculture could well make the difference in two over-arching global issues where the outcome is still in doubt. One is the choice to be made between industrialized and ecological agriculture. The other is the struggle between advocates of the globalization of agriculture and the proponents of local food security. The U.S. government, and in fact most governments around the world, are still coming down on the wrong side of both issues. Organic agriculture, on the other hand, has become the ecological model and is a major contributor to the growth and vitality of local food systems as well.

Finally, I want to put in a good word for the consumers and environmentalists and animal protection advocates and chefs and other non-farmers who support organic agriculture in the marketplace and in the political arena. Many organizations in the nonprofit world also are affiliated with international NGOs that support organic farming on the global scene. They help provide a counterforce, especially in the Third World, to investors, traders, multinational corporations and others promoting industrial agriculture and global trade.

We must get consumers and others mobilized in the organic rules fight and I think that is happening. I received a call yesterday from a small nonprofit center in New Jersey that is holding meetings to inform consumers about USDA’s proposed rules. It has has set a goal of 3,000 letters calling on the government to withdraw the rules and fix them. Some say we have taken organic for granted and that this fiasco may be a blessing in disguise. I agree that this is the kind of threat that can mobilize the entire organic community, farmers and non-farmers alike.

I believe organic agriculture will become the model for agriculture in the next century. I believe it will play a leading role in reforming agriculture and in changing the world. This movement and our community have been built on things like integrity, resource stewardship, soil life, direct marketing to consumers, natural systems, spirituality, farmer innovation, biodiversity, humane treatment of livestock, social justice, and gender and intergenerational equity. We need consumers and other collaborators to help us make the fight against this attempt to force us to accept weak and inadequate standards. Organic farmers must stand up and fight as well if we are to preserve the heart and soil of organic agriculture. If that doesn’t happen, we 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. We have an obligation to make sure its credibility and its integrity, and its heart and soul, are not stolen or frittered away.

I challenge every one of you, especially in the next few weeks, to activate your family and your friends and your organizations and the politicians who need your votes, and to write letters and do everything else you possibly can personally, to make certain this doesn’t happen. The larger organic community is big enough to beat this thing. I hope and pray that we are able to join hands, rise to the occasion, and do it.