Are the Best Organic Standards the Toughest Organic Standards? Why the Activists Got it Wrong




As an aware consumer imploring American farmers to “put away that DDT now,” singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell sang back in the 1970’s, “give me spots on the apples, but leave me the birds and the bees…please.”

Once upon a time, when I was an activist and small organic farmer, organic standards were a self-imposed system of rules developed primarily by organic farmers, those who had to work with them on the ground. Consumer expectations were always figured into organic standards, but we understood that consumer perceptions of what is “pure and natural” do not always fit the reality of organic farming, let alone food processing. While consumers might be ignorant about farming and food production, we believed they could learn—it was more important to support farmers who did the right thing than to pander to consumer fears. Just as the immortal Ms. Mitchell learned to ignore those spots on the apples.

Today, no one seems bothered by the assertion that consumer expectations, even those grounded in ignorance, are all that matters. Add to that the marketing myth that consumers cannot understand and could care less about the nuances of organic methods, and only want to be assured that organic products meet the toughest possible standards. What it often adds up to is unparalleled hypocrisy, and betrayal of the early vision of organic in the name of an ideological anti-corporate agenda that actually works against the interests of both small farmers and “ordinary” consumers.

The gist of the problem is this: Most of the grassroots farm and consumer activists have had it wrong all along. They believe that the only way to fend off the takeover of organic by global corporate evildoers is to make the standards as tight, strict, rigorous and undiluted as possible, and use consumer perceptions as their rationale. This is in part due to the mistaken assumption that regulation of the organic label is comparable to regulations that prohibit misdeeds by corporate polluters. Not true.

The difference is one that very few outside of government and some rarified academic fields understand, but which immediately makes sense to most people when it is explained. Unlike a traditional environmental or consumer protection regulation that keeps giant corporations from threatening the health of consumers and the environment, the NOP (like any other government organic labeling program) is a marketing program that establishes minimum requirements for those wishing to enter the organic market.

Marketing programs are generally there for the benefit of the regulated industry, not as watchdogs to stop them from harming the public. Established players want to tighten their standards to limit competition by potential new entrants. It has nothing to do with protecting consumer interests, and works against consumers by maintaining high prices and limited supply for products that may not be demonstrably superior. For example, spotless apples that meet cosmetic standards as “fancy” may still be drenched in pesticides, and milk from a cow that was treated with antibiotics when she was a calf cannot be distinguished from milk from a cow has never been treated with antibiotics (as required under the NOP), if other factors such as feed quality are the same. Marketers point to consumer preferences for qualities that the marketers themselves have told them they should prefer. Tighter organic standards also do nothing to protect the environment or improve product safety. Tighter rules mostly serve to create more paper work, a bigger obstacle for small operations than for large players, who are accustomed to meeting bureaucratic requirements and have paid compliance staffs.

Unfortunately, the activists often have more power than they realize. Everyone connected with the organic industry–from the NOP administration to the companies, large and small, who are trying to make a buck and save the world at the same time (never mind if the two may be mutually contradictory—that’s another discussion)—live in fear of being publicly accused of trying to “weaken” the standards. The charge (endlessly repeated even by people like Jim Hightower, with the aura of accepted truth) that USDA has been trying to dilute organic standards at the behest of corporate agribusiness, while plausible to any activist who has battled corporate owned environmental regulators, is completely wrong.

This has had unfortunate consequences for the original vision of organic, most clearly seen in the public reaction to the NOP’s first proposed rule in 1998, when the only staff people who truly cared about small organic farmers and the organic vision were immediately sidelined from the program. The new management then instituted a politically driven policy supporting the strictest possible interpretation of the law. The most recent examples of this can be found in discussions about the NOP’s proposed rule on access to pasture and in some public comments about the NOSB’s proposed standards for organic aquaculture.

The proposed rule for access to pasture is generally acknowledged to be excessively prescriptive in its requirement for year-round outdoor living for organic livestock in any climate. Many of the comments agree that, if implemented as written, the rules would likely eliminate a large number of small organic dairy farmers, as well as most organic beef producers. To this extent the NOP’s strategy has succeeded: Activists are now being forced to ask that USDA make its rules just a wee bit looser. But they continue to cling to the delusion that tougher rules benefit small operators, and threaten those who disagree with public relations nightmares.

Another case in point is the recommendation on standards for organic aquaculture that was just passed by the NOSB. It was opposed mainly by consumer groups, who consider fish farming as it is practiced by conventional agribusiness concerns to be an ecological and health disaster—as well they should. But does it make any sense to oppose the possibility of environmentally sound fish culture because consumers have been convinced that organic means “pure and natural?”

With the myriad crises we face, not least of them climate change, why on earth would anyone want to limit the possibility of the broadest possible transition to organic methods, without delay? There’s much more I could say, especially about what organic does mean, if not “pure and natural.” Lets continue the discussion.

Grace Gershuny

GAIA Services

Barnet, Vermont