By the Organic Trade Association’s statistics the continuing growth in organic sales is so bright you gotta wear shades. Now over 5% of the food industry, organic has left any purported fad status far behind. While the food industry limps along with annual 0.6 increases, organic continues to post gains over 8% year after year. Carried by Walmart, Target and other Big Box stores total US sales have reached around $50 billion now – and some estimates are putting the organic market at $320 billion by 2025. With sales generated by consumer demand, minor and major companies are fearful not to have a stake in the accelerating market.
But by ignoring the dark, threatening clouds gathering on the horizon are those business-boosters really wearing blinders instead? Led by declines in organic milk and eggs the latest OTA statistics show a significant slowing of the growth rate. Thanks to a spate of negative publicity about watered down standards and fraud in the organic industry consumers are growing wary. The organic label has become a ripe target for co-option by conventional entities looking to acquire a fat piece of the pie, while the list of US Department of Agriculture (USDA) preemptions and enforcement failures is getting longer. And for the first time a Congressionally abetted statutory takeover attempt of the Standards is in the works. It was not always thus, however.
Back in the early days, organic’s primary battles were against conventional forces trying to stamp out or at least severely marginalize the upstart label whose very presence in the marketplace indicates that other food and farming methods are lesser. For farmers, nascent businesses and advocates it was a painful fit housed in USDA, long regarded as a Big Ag lapdog and described by organic stalwarts as “residing in the belly of the beast”.
But that was the trade-off for uniting the 60-some separate certification programs around the country and securing governmental legal protections against fraudulent operations. Adding insult to injury USDA then “owned” the use of the word “organic” in food and farming as producers cannot use the term legally without certification. But then again USDA has to contend with the definitive Organic Food Production Act of 1990 (OFPA) and a vociferous Movement scrutinizing their every move.
Championed by Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, OFPA was enacted as part of the 1990 Farm Bill, passed by the slim Democrat majorities in both the House and Senate and landing in the Agriculture Marketing Service division of USDA for implementation. Creating comprehensive standards for organic certification, it required the Secretary of Agriculture to establish a National Organic Program (NOP) as manager to administer the accreditation of certifiers and govern the use of the official USDA label along with overseeing and enforcing the National List of approved and prohibited substances.
OFPA also mandated the creation of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) – a Federal Advisory Board with atypical statutory power to determine which materials are allowed on the National List as well as to advise the Secretary on aspects of the NOP. The NOSB, composed of 15 members representing the food processing industry, farmers, consumers, and environmental organizations, was directed to meet twice a year with proceedings fully open to the public.
Passing the OFPA statute was just a first step – but no one supposed that this would turn into a10 year process. Although annual appropriations were authorized to support the program no monies were voted into existence until 1994. And as for the federal comment rule-making phase required to create the program’s regulations, the proposed rule that finally emerged in 1998 had Big Ag’s fingerprints all over it. The regs hit like a brick with the infamous allowance of GMOs, sludge and irradiation along with an additional “64 points of darkness”. NOFA was part of a huge public outcry that raised holy hell to send it back to the drawing board – but it wasn’t until 2000 that the revamped NOP Final Rule was instituted at last.
Tarnishing the Gold Standard
In markets replete with non-regulated claims like “natural” – the transparent and verifiable high standards built into the organic seal became respected as the gold standard of food labels, gathering solid consumer acceptance. Mounting challenges began to cloud its dominion, however. While NOFA’s organic and sustainable agriculture coalition partners have had a good share of policy wins, this current Congress and Administration is fixated on undoing as many as they can.
Several of these interloper incursions have morphed into serious attacks on organic integrity – with repercussions for the authenticity of the label. The short list includes overturning Biotech labeling by Congress; the reversal of Sunset Review regulations governing the National List, restriction of the NOSB work plan, allowance of hydroponics and carrageenan along with failure of certification enforcement for grain, dairy, the pasture rule and origin of livestock by the NOP and ongoing appointments of Big Ag insiders to the NOSB and the overturning of the organic animal welfare law by USDA.
Grave New Threats
But right now there’s a major new threat in the offing – the protective OFPA legal foundation itself is under fire. This being a Farm Bill year Congress is working to authorize farm and food legislation for the next five year period. Pushed by Big Ag lobbyists, the Republican Chairs of both the House and Senate Agriculture Committees are including language to open up OFPA to make statutory changes that would fundamentally alter the structure and process for NOSB – along with other machinations still to be announced. The House markup (which still needs to be passed on the Floor) already includes provisions to allow corporate employees to fill the owner-operator farmer representative positions and an expedited process for adding synthetic materials to the National List. Threats to “reforming” OFPA by Senate Chair Roberts are even more dire, however – although we won’t see the full extent until the Senate mark-up later this Spring.
From all reports we’re going to need All Hands On Deck to thwart this unconscionable takeover attempt with a national campaign that once again raises holy hell to try and stop it.
“Where Do We Go From Here?”
In response to these diverse attacks on organic integrity “Where Do We Go From Here?” has emerged as a major concern for the Interstate NOFA Policy Committee and charting the course ahead was the main agenda item at the NOFA-IC Retreat in late March.
Although some of these transgressions are being dealt with in a number of ways, including pressure on the NOP and USDA lawsuits, there are further calls by new players on the scene for separate add-on labels to designate authentic organic inputs and practices in the marketplace.
Over the past year two major initiatives have emerged: the Regenerative Agriculture Certification (ROC) put forth by Rodale, Patagonia and Dr Bronners and the Real Organic Project (ROP) that has come via the “Keep the Soil in Organic” movement by grassroots farmers. Initial pilot projects to test the efficacy for both are scheduled for this summer.
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