The organic imperative held hostage




This commentary by ISE faculty and board member Grace Gershuny originally appeared on her author’s blog for Chelsea Green Publishers:

“We no longer have the luxury of prevention. Now we are in the dire situation of needing a cure, a reversal. We know that correcting agriculture is an answer to climate chaos, and that it hinges on human behavior. ….The future is underfoot. It’s all about healthy soil.” This statement from ‘Coach’ Mark Smallwood, Executive Director of the Rodale Institute, epitomizes the urgency of the need to convert as much farmland as possible, as quickly as possible, to organic management. The Rodale Institute, a respected independent organic agriculture research organization, has launched a campaign calling for “the restructuring of our global food system with the goal of reversing climate change through photosynthesis and biology,” with the release in April of its new white paper, Regenerative Organic Agriculture and Climate Change: A Down-to-Earth Solution to Global Warming.

The Rodale document takes off from the recent UNCTAD report entitled, “Wake Up Before it is too Late: Make agriculture truly sustainable now for food security in a changing climate” (see   Others, such as Allan Savory (see, have also pointed out the feasibility of sequestering massive quantities of carbon in the form of soil organic matter through relatively simple methods.  All that’s needed is an equally massive, worldwide shift in how food is produced.

Organic farming continues to expand, but not anywhere near quickly enough to stave off increasingly certain ecological disaster. In the forty years since the first organic certification programs were established, consumer demand for organically produced products, and therefore land under organic management, has grown dramatically—especially once regulations were put in place to bring consistency and credibility to the marketplace.  However, at least in the US, demand continues to outstrip supply of organically produced fruits, vegetables, grains, and livestock products.  While about 4% of the US food system is organic, less than 1% of domestic agricultural production is organic.

Regulatory barriers are among the many factors that might explain this gap.  Despite the laudatory push by the National Organic Program (NOP) to implement more ‘sound and sensible’ certification procedures, the level of paper work, time, and expense involved remains a daunting challenge for many farmers.  Beyond this, the standards themselves are not always sound or sensible.

To be sure, following organic standards does not in itself guarantee soil building, and it is not necessary to convert all farms to organic in order to achieve the goals identified by the Rodale Institute.  It is deeply troubling, however, to witness the animosity generated towards organic regulators when they attempt to improve the feasibility of organic conversion.  The recent assault on the NOP for daring to assert its legal authority over the National List is but one example of a misguided and regressive strategy that further erodes the trust in our regulatory bodies by potential organic producers and the general public.

It is too urgent that we convert as many farmers as possible to organic for this possibility to be held hostage by purity-obsessed ‘organic watchdogs,’ demanding that standards be ‘tightened up’ to prevent any possibly synthetic molecule from contacting an organic product.

Rodale Institute press release: