Thanks to Peter Melchett for his provocative blog on why, across the EU, the government, farmers, food industry, and consumers are all pulling in the mostly same direction to grow the volume and quality of home-grown organic food.
Lessons learned from the efforts of many individuals, companies, and organizations in the EU are worth heeding in the U.S., as we struggle to deal with multiple contemporary undercurrents sapping the juice and energy needed to drive growth in the organic sector.
Some of the most important undercurrents are deeply rooted in USDA policy, and are described in Part III of the Hygeia Analytics blog on the organic apple industry in Washington State.
Undercurrents Down-Regulating Organic’s Growth Promotion Gene
Some undercurrents flow insidiously, and stubbornly, within the organic community. They arise from fundamental disagreements over the core purpose, or mission, of those working to promote organic food and farming.
The roots of these undercurrents have remained largely unchanged since passage of the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) in the 1990 farmbill, but their volume and the energy driving them has clearly grown.
The populist wing of the organic community has always looked to organic food and farming as a way to save the small and mid-sized family farm, by creating an island within the larger food industry where people, animals, and the land are nurtured and sustained.
The consumer and environmental wing of the organic community sees in organic food and farming the best hope to lighten agriculture’s tragically – and needlessly – heavy environmental footprint, while also vastly improving food safety, increasing food nutrient density, and deepening and diversifying flavor.
But these proven benefits are real only to the degree they manifest across a substantial portion of the ag land base, and reach most if not all consumers, to one degree or another.
Over the last three decades, substantial policy and political support for organic food and farming has come from national consumer and environmental groups, most of which spent the 1970s through the 1990s supporting national legislative and regulatory interventions to deal with agriculture’s environmental, food safety, animal welfare, and human workforce sins.
As opposition to these efforts and campaigns intensified in Congress and across executive branch agencies, these groups were constantly challenged by those defending the status quo – well, what is the alternative?
Increasingly over time, the best and most credible answer was “organic.”
Then, in the mid-1990s, the great debate over agricultural biotechnology began in earnest in the U.S., lagging Europe by about a decade. Soon, worldwide, biotech vs. organic became the frame within which many people discussed, debated, and advocated to change the future of food.
The meteoric rise of ag biotech in the U.S. as a consumer, economic, and public policy issue diffused the focus and energy of activists and consumer groups, most of whom had previously been focused to a much greater degree on growing organic.
As mostly negative attention was focused on the biotech industry and its first-generation crops, a predictable, strong and well-financed immune response was triggered from across the biotech-seed-pesticide companies, which had incidentally, almost overnight, become one and the same industry.
This framing of the debate over the future of food drew big money and considerable political clout into the effort to marginalize and disparage organic in the U.S.
Herein lies another stark contrast to the EU. The biotech industry never gained much traction in the EU, and hence the juxtaposing of organic vs. biotech played out on conference panels and in the media, but was simply not an issue in the isles of grocery stores.
Hence, the biotech revolution in the U.S. gave rise to the non-GMO food movement and the Non-GMO Project. The dramatic growth in consumer concern over GMO foods in the U.S. was driven substantially by activists and organizations previously focused on other issues, including as noted above, expanding the acreage devoted to organic farming in the U.S.
Rapid growth in the number of U.S., and soon, international food companies that sought out Non-GMO Project certification has siphoned off some of the energy that was driving double-digit growth in organic food sales up to about a decade ago.
This series of events, and unfortunate outcomes, was enabled by the collective failure of the U.S. Congress, the USDA, and the National Organic Program (NOP) to deal with the threat of gene flow into organic crops from nearby fields planted to GMO crops.
This is probably the most consequential example of bad mojo for organic arising in the wake of the failure to innovate legislatively and administratively in the U.S., a weak link in the chain supporting organic sector growth in the U.S. that is highlighted in Peter Melchett’s piece.
Another prime and costly example playing out now in the U.S. involves whether organic food needs to be harvested from plants growing in soil, versus plants in predominantly non-soil growing media (e.g., most hydroponic operations).
The failure of the NOP to deal with this controversial issue has allowed divisions to deepen and positions to harden. Working through the underlying issues will, as a result, be much harder and take more time and energy, both of which could be more constructively invested in building sustainable, organic supply chains and encouraging food companies to commit to sourcing organic ingredients.
A Farmbill Fix Wish List
I used to work closely and happily with Senator Pat Roberts in 1981-1983, back in the day when the Congress still functioned pretty well, and Mr. Roberts was the ranking member on the DORFA Subcommittee of the House Ag Committee. I worked for the Subcommittee Chairman, the late Congressman George Brown of California.
If Senator Roberts invited me in for a chat regarding what to do about the upstart organic sector in the forthcoming farmbill, I would pitch the following five priorities.
- Clarify and strengthen the role of the National Organic Standards Board, or NOSB.
The NOSB is continuously placed in an impossible position, and consistently disappoints because the community is deeply divided on the issues that come before it. The lack of real political support for the NOP and NOSB within the USDA over most of the last 28 years has also contributed to NOSB and NOP dysfunction.
So, revisit the NOSB’s composition, narrow its responsibilities, but give it more clout in assuring its recommendations move smoothly through the rule-making process. As the NOSB proves it can deal with issues in a way that supports continuous improvement and side-steps, or works through divisions within the community, it’s mission can be expanded.
- Deal with GMO undercurrents by amending OFPA to build into the statute the essential provisions needed to support meaningful co-existence, as debated and laid out in the most recent AC 21 Ag Biotech Advisory Committee’s final report.
There needs to be clear guidance in law regarding what level of GMO contamination is essentially unavoidable in organic foods, and hence acceptable. The market needs a clear, quantitative, measureable basis for identifying “adventitious presence” in organic food that we, and the world, will have to live with, versus higher levels that will trigger enforcement actions and payments to organic farmers whose crops are contaminated through no fault of their own.
International markets have already developed de facto thresholds. Why not codify these in law and mandate the NOP to use the thresholds in addressing the threats posed by GMOs to organic farmers, exporters, and the food industry?
- Acknowledge in Congressional findings the proven food safety and food nutritional quality benefits grounded in organic food and farming.
As argued in Part III of the apple blog, USDA policy asserts that there are no food safety or nutritional benefits associated with organic production, a position which is no longer supported by sound science.
So, the Congress and USDA either must admit that “sound science” does not really matter in shaping policies applicable to organic food and farming, or it must bring those policies and statements into accord with what science has now proven.
- Debate and address clearly lingering statutory ambiguity that has promulgated a host of issues over the scale of organic livestock operations.
How can the existing access to pasture rules be more effectively enforced? The core provisions of the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices rule should be moved into the statute, along with transition provisions that eliminate most of the rule-change-driven economic hit on some, currently certified operations.
Direct the NOP to build specific, enforceable animal health and welfare standards into the NOP rule, e.g. require that the average productive life of a milk cow on a certified organic farm must span at least three lactations (over twice the average on conventional farms), a policy innovation some EU countries are flirting with.
- Enhance the tools, strengthen the authority, and provide added resources to the NOP to combat organic fraud in imported organic foods, animal feeds, and food manufacturing ingredients.
Apparently, the NOP is lacking some essential ingredient, or ingredients, needed to curtail the flow of fraudulent organic food into the U.S. The Congress should build into law the thoughtful suggestions made by Lynn Clarkson in his guest blog on Hygeia, as well as forthcoming recommendations from the Organic Trade Associations new Global Organic Supply Chain Integrity Task Force. On this front, where there is will, there will be a way.
Coping with New Players and Big Business
The growing role of multinational food companies in the organic sector is seen as an existential threat by most people in the populist wing.
If and as new players and capital threatens the economic viability of smaller, old-school organic farms and businesses, an immune response is triggered that sometimes has trouble distinguishing between true pathogens and healthy tissues.
Consumer and environmental advocates, however, are cautiously optimistic that corporate players, fresh ideas, and new capital can bring about meaningful economies of scale along organic supply chains, allowing food companies to maintain farm-level organic prices, while incrementally lowering prices to consumers and narrowing the organic price premium at retail – one of the best ways to expand organic market share.
The consumer/environmental wing shares the concern of their friends and colleagues in the populist wing over the incremental erosion in the integrity of organic food and farming in the U.S., especially in these dark days in Washington, D.C. But in most of the consumer and environmental wing of the community, there is reticence to throw the baby out with the sometimes sullied bathwater, and confidence that vigilance coupled with consumer activism can assure that organic food delivers on its core promises to consumers.
Perhaps my good friend Lord Melchett, his colleagues at the Soil Association, and others involved with the organic industry in the EU will have some suggestions regarding how old-school, smaller-scale organic farms and businesses can thrive in the U.S., despite the flow of new capital and bigger companies into the organic sector.
Innovative thinking is surely needed to figure out how different sizes of organic businesses, serving different markets, can mutually support and enhance the overall “organic food experience” in the U.S. This is a link in the chain supporting growth in organic that is yet to be forged.
With a new farmbill about the hatch, new paths are needed now to navigate around or through divisions in the organic community. Cohesiveness and collaboration are essential ingredients if the community will effectively engage the broader food and agricultural communities in a meaningful discussion about the future of food.
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