In this and future issues of the Inland FoodWise Newsletter, we will explore the question of food and farming certification labels and systems. The discussion of what's right and wrong with different certification systems is a huge subject and we will just scratch the surface today. For now, let us begin to explore the question of what’s wrong with USDA organic certification. Explorations of solutions and alternatives will be presented in future issues.
In the 1980's, the hottest gossip and discussion among the relatively small cadre of American organic farmers (relative to today) had to do with the proposal that instead of small, regional non-profit organizations doing the work of certifying organic farms, as was the normal practice then, instead the industry might be better served if the U.S. government took over the task of certifying organic farms. Most of those early small certifying agencies were made up of farmers who either certified each other or hired professionals to do the certifying under their supervision. More or less, the standards for organic certification were similar, though not identical, among the different entities. At that time in history, organic food was just making its first forays away from being an oh-so-'70's fringe niche market and was entering the mainstream. International sales of organic food were starting to happen on a large scale. In this burgeoning environment, "more or less" similar organic standards began to look to many in the industry like barriers to market access. Some markets might not accept one certifying agency’s version of standards, effectively closing that market to anyone certified under the label. If that market was, say, Europe, this could prove rather costly. A unified organic standard, undergirded by the credibility of the famous and powerful USDA, was a concept steam-rolling towards inevitability. Legislation was being drafted in Washington D.C., eventually to become the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990. The law was passed and the USDA became the setter of the National Organic Standard and the nationwide overseer of organic certification through its National Organic Program and the organic certifying agencies that the USDA licensed to carry out inspections and certification. Today the round, green "USDA Organic" seal is seen on grocery shelves all over the world.
You bet, in those far-gone days, there were loud voices from strong-willed, independent-spirited farmers, opposed to such an incestuous relationship with the federal government. No way could they see the United States Department of Agriculture, that bastion of pesticide pushers and "get big or get out" factory farm fanatics doing anything but destroying what organic farming was all about. The problem was, what organic farming was all about was already changing. Many organic farmers at the time, even since the dawn of the concept of organic agriculture when it was, one must say, re-discovered in the 1940's and 1950's, were practical idealists wed to the dream that someday, poisonous, soil-killing industrial farming would be a thing of the past; that organic methods would be adopted universally, on a broad scale, globally. It's a lesson in being careful what you wish for. Many wished for landscapes dotted with small, pastoral, organic family farms stretching as far as the eye could see. What they got was a rapidly industrializing organic farm sector with plenty of growing pains and compromised ideals along the way.
The present day National Organic Program has a lot of problems. It has become a huge bureaucracy certifying farms, crops and products not only in the United States, but the world over. It is a bureaucracy dominated by big players in the organic industry many of whom only saw dollar signs in their eyes when their market analyses suggested they got into the organic game, not pastoral farms dotting the landscape in their dreams. Some organic farms are huge corporate spreads. Some organic dairies are really factory farms. Some are pretty much mono-crop farms (lettuce from horizon to horizon), the type that were so reviled by members of the early organic movement. Some very weird ingredients keep getting added to the list of materials approved for organic production despite objections from consumer groups. Some farms game the system by exploiting the "3 year rule" that says a farm can be certified organic if it hasn't had prohibited chemicals applied to it in the previous three years. They'll either take a chunk of organic farmland out of certification, spray the shit out of to kill off all the weeds they didn't bother to learn how to control organically and then put it under certification again to grow organic crops three years later or they’ll carve out a piece of virgin land that might better be left in its natural state and start farming that. You can be pretty sure that's not what the hippie (and not so hippie) organic farmers of the '60's and '70's had in mind as the future of organic agriculture. As a result, many farmers and many shoppers nowadays do not trust the USDA organic label. Some call it meaningless. Others say despite its shortcomings, organic certification under the government program has introduced the existence of organic alternative to millions of shoppers and the resulting demand has spurred a massive increase in the number of acres under organic production, much of it legitimate and honoring the rules and values of organic farming. Some say Big Organic has succeeded in preventing massive amounts of toxic, synthetic chemicals from being used and reduced their residues ending up in our food and waterways and that Big Organic has saved large acreages of precious topsoil from erosion– possibly even built up topsoil in some locations.
But problems with USDA organic certification continue to arise, and the ability or will of the USDA as an agency to address these problems is in doubt.
This past May, two investigative articles appeared in the Washington Post written by reporter Peter Whoriskey. One exposed a recurrent issue that has been raised before and never seems to find resolution, namely: Are giant factory farm dairies that produce certified organic milk really following the rules of organic certification? The other article exposed a situation where millions of tons of non-organic corn, soybeans and other grains are transshipped through Turkey only to arrive at U.S ports sporting the USDA Organic label– a “remarkable transformation” in the words of the reporter, but one, he points out, that was made due to massive fraud. It also exposed a recurring problem of pesticide residues on purportedly organic crops, notably ones imported from China. While some of these have their organic certification revoked, the article says “enforcement of ‘USDA Organic’ rules for pesticide [residues] are uneven and possibly arbitrary, with results depending on the [particular USDA-licensed] inspection agency.”
In the dairy case, a large-scale, factory farm style “organic” dairy operated by Aurora Organic Dairy, that has been in hot water before, was found by the Washington Post to be in violation of an organic rule requiring that cows be on pasture eating grass every day during the growing season (a minimum of 120 days). “But during visits by The Washington Post to Aurora’s High Plains complex across eight days last year, signs of grazing were sparse, at best. Aurora said its animals were out on pasture day and night, but during most Post visits the number of cows seen on pasture numbered only in the hundreds” on a farm that is home to over 15,000 cows.
In the fraudulent grain case, the Washington Post exposed some fundamental weaknesses in the USDA Organic Program’s ability to trace crops back to their farm of origin when those farms are located overseas. Certified organic grain crops can bring twice the price of their “conventional” (non-organic) counterparts. That is quite an incentive for the unscrupulous to put the fix in. This case is even more troubling since it has become known that many conventional grain crops are 1) Genetically Modified (GMO) versions that many shoppers don’t trust and are not allowed in organic production and 2) are routinely sprayed with the herbicide Glyphosate (Round-up) just prior to harvesting resulting in significant levels of herbicide residues in the food itself (see the herbicide article in this issue of the FoodWise Newsletter), not to mention the residues of insecticides, fumigants, fungicides and whatever else these conventionally farmed crops are laden with. And, here we’re talking about large and repeated shipments of fraudulent organic grains.
Part of the problem lies in USDA's anemic organic inspection system. Many people scoff at the idea that farms can be trusted to follow organic standards year-round when all that ever happens is one farm inspection per year during which most of the inspection time is taken up going over paperwork. The Post's article on the dairy scandal points out "under organic rules, the USDA typically does not inspect farms. Instead, farmers hire their own inspectors from lists of private companies and other organizations licensed by the USDA. An inspector makes an annual visit, arranged days or weeks in advance. Only 5 percent of inspections are expected to be done unannounced ... This inspection system saves the USDA money because it does not have to hire many inspectors. The compliance and enforcement team at the USDA National Organic Program has nine people– one for every $4 billion in sales." That doesn't add up to much capacity for enforcing anything. In addition, the USDA requires its licensed certifying agencies to conduct pesticide residue testing on only 5% of an agency's clients in any given year– the exception being certifying agencies may require pre-harvest or post-harvest testing of organic products when there is reason to believe that the product has come into contact with a prohibited substance or has been produced using excluded methods. Usually, this involves someone filing a complaint. On the positive side, the USDA rules say that any and all complaints about compliance with organic standards must be followed up on, but how thoroughly the USDA follows up is another question.
Okay, so, when these kinds of problems are discovered, what does the USDA do about it? Here’s an excerpt from the Post’s dairy article that sheds some light on this:
About 10 years ago, the USDA launched an investigation into Aurora’s organic practices [as a result of a complaint filed by the Cornucopia Institute, an organic industry watchdog group]. In April 2007, the USDA said it had identified “willful violations” of organic rules by the dairy. Aurora had, among other things, for three years “failed to provide a total feed ration that included pasture.” The USDA proposed revoking Aurora’s organic status. It also proposed suspending the Colorado Department of Agriculture from certifying organic livestock “due to the nature and extent of these violations.” Four months later, though, the case was resolved. Aurora pledged to make improvements and was allowed to continue operating. It issued a news release saying that the USDA had “dismissed the complaints ... following an extensive review” — a finding contrary to the view at the USDA, which issued a news release saying “the complaint was not dismissed.” It noted that the consent agreement called for Aurora to “make major changes.” For its part, the Colorado Department of Agriculture agreed “to make several changes in its operation,” including hiring more personnel and adding staff training, according to a USDA news release. Aurora also settled a related class-action lawsuit [not brought by the USDA] for $7.5 million in 2012 and said it did not admit wrongdoing.
That sounds like a rather anemic response on the part of the USDA– a slap on the hand. The result? Ten years later, the same dairy is up to its old tricks. This is the price of impunity.
The article about the fraudulent grain shipments says little about any USDA enforcement. It says, basically, certain shipments are refused by buyers. It’s left unclear whether the shipments might have simply been sold as organic to other buyers who practice less scrutiny. Any way you look at it, the shopper who is wanting to feed their family clean, organic food is getting shafted in a big way. The article quotes USDA Organic Program Director Miles McEvoy (who used to run the organic certification program for the Washington State Department of Agriculture) as follows “With ‘the complex supply chain of organic grain,’ McEvoy, the USDA official, told concerned farmers at the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service conference earlier this year, ‘there are challenges.’” That’s like saying “who knew organic certification could be so hard?” Perhaps it’s also time to impeach the USDA National Organic Program.
Adding insult to injury, on May 10, 2017, the now Trumpified USDA shelved, for at least six months, a set of new rules for organic livestock producers, the The Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices Rule. Fourteen years in the making, poised for final adoption, already published in the Federal Register, the result of difficult yet transparent negotiations and public comment, scheduled to go into effect last March, these animal welfare regulations reflect a consensus among producers, certifiers, and consumers that organic livestock, including poultry, should be provided with meaningful outdoor access and adequate space to move around, and that all organic livestock should not be subjected to unnecessary physical alterations like tail docking. Now all that is in jeopardy.
The USDA has re-opened the debate, undoubtedly in response to pressure from factory-style “organic” producers like the misbehaving Aurora Dairy. The USDA is asking for input on whether to suspend the rule indefinitely, delay it, or withdraw it. The Organic Trade Association, a leading voice for the organic trade in the United States, representing over 8,500 organic businesses across 50 states, has made it easy for organic producers, organic businesses and organic shoppers to send comments to the USDA urging final implementation of the rules so they may go into effect on November 14, 2017. Follow these links to send your comments:
The OTA’s prepared comment for organic shoppers, which is editable before you submit it, reads as follows:
I am writing today to express my strong support for the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices (OLPP) final rule and urge that it become effective on November 14, 2017.
In the Federal Register notice of May 10, 2017, USDA asks the public to comment on four options presented for this rule. I firmly support option (1) Let the rule become effective. This means the rule would become effective on November 14, 2017.
The OLPP rule is the result of 14 years of public and transparent work, and addresses four broad areas of organic livestock and poultry practices, including living conditions, animal healthcare, transport, and slaughter. These are important to me in my decision to buy organic products. I want to know that the product I am purchasing meets a rigorous standard, and I expect organic eggs, dairy and meat to have standards about not only what an animal eats, but also how the animal’s living environment is managed for adequate space and the ability to go outdoors. It’s important to me to know that the same standard applies to all products labeled organic regardless of where I buy them.
As a consumer, I rely on a strong USDA Organic seal to know that what I am purchasing is backed by a standard that I can trust. I am willing to pay a little extra and expect products bearing the USDA Organic seal to meet rigorous standards.
The organic consumer, including myself, supports this final rule. I do not want Washington holding back the organic seal. Without the ability to deliver a product that keeps up with the evolving consumer preference, the relevance of the USDA Organic seal is at stake.
Thank you in advance for allowing this rule to become effective in its entirety on November 14, 2017, without further delay.
In future issues of the Inland FoodWise Newsletter, we will explore how the dire crisis in the USDA Organic Program can be addressed, how citizens can get involved in the process and the roles of the National Organic Standards Board and advocacy organizations.