Organic Food’s Sticky Wicket

Michigan Cherries

When people think of local food, most have seasonal sweet corn and tomatoes in mind. That hasn’t changed much in years.

The quest for good-tasting food that does no harm has also been around for a long time. Organic food production came up in the early 20th Century as an alternative to the rise in mechanized, industrial farming.

An organic food production system developed, although there is less clarity about it today than there was a few years ago. Organic certification has contributed to confusion.

The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 and the National Organic Program were game changers that created a new certification process and, importantly, a greater market for organic food. Sales of organic food more than doubled during the period 2006-2015, according to the Organic Trade Association, reaching $43.3 billion in 2015. In its quest to bring standards and a market, the well intentioned government program suffered abuse in the form of government lobbyists from moneyed interests who diluted the meaning of “USDA Organic” many of us found inspiring in the 1990s. Under Sonny Perdue, the 31st U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, further erosion of the law’s original intent and the organic standard is expected.

“It seems that uncertainty and dysfunction have overtaken the National Organic Standards Board and the regulations associated with the National Organic Program,” Senator Pat Roberts (R-Kansas), chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, said recently according to the Washington Post. “These problems create an unreliable regulatory environment and prevent farmers that choose organic from utilizing advancements in technology and operating their business in an efficient and effective manner. Simply put, this hurts our producers and economies in rural America.”

Roberts statement is code for getting government regulations out of the way of large scale producers in the organic market. As the 2018 farm bill is crafted by the Congress, any meaningful regulation pertaining to organic standards is expected to be gutted by Trump Republicans.

What you see is not always what you get as organic food producers scale up to meet demand and work the system. Here are two recent examples:

Herbruck’s Poultry Ranch in Saranac, Michigan produces one in 10 organic eggs in the U.S. according to the Chicago Tribune. The linked article describes production processes indistinguishable from those of almost any Iowa confinement egg producer. Those eggs don’t seem organic despite assertions by the ranch. What does “organic” mean in this context. At a minimum, not what we expected.

In May, Peter Whoriskey of the Washington Post reported fraud in imported corn and soybeans. A large shipment of soybeans began as “regular” soybeans in Ukraine and changed to “USDA Organic” by the time it reached a California port, garnering an additional $4 million for the shipment because it was “organic.” Some doctored documents is all it took for a huge, fraudulent payday.

My perspective of organic food is from a backyard garden. Gardening is about changing one’s relationship with food as much as providing food for the table — process more than produce. Using organic practices comes naturally as gardeners are mindful of crop inputs that will land on the dinner plate. A common mistake is neglecting the social context of gardening. In most cases gardening includes family, fellow consumers, merchants, farmers and gardeners. A gardener has only slight intersection with government.

Once government got involved in organic food production a market became viable. That was a good thing for farmers who sought to make a living growing organic food. Organic food systems then merged toward commodification as they scaled to meet demand and that’s the sticky wicket.

An ability to increase organic food production without compromising organic standards has been difficult all along. When news stories raise doubt about the meaning of “organic food,” it’s one more burden for farmers to bear in a business where the challenges of producing organic food at a profit are substantial.

I work on farms that use organic practices and plan to resist compromise on organic standards in the next farm bill. If you care about what’s on your dinner plate, should too.

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