The fight for 'organic'

Posted in Consumer, Food Security, Food Systems on Jun 07, 2018

Let’s set the scene: a conference room within the Capitol Hilton in downtown Washington, DC where the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) 2018 National Food Policy Conference was in full swing. Outside the room a sign read ‘Growing Pains: What’s in Store for Organic?’ The Sumfood team took a seat, notepad and pen at the ready, delicious cup of black coffee with half & half steaming at our feet. [Note: NZ-based Sumfood employs an American. His opinions about coffee are his own and wholly unshared by the Sumfood team – and the whole of NZ, for that matter.]

What ensued over the next hour was both entirely predictable and a shock to our senses. We’d flown from Auckland to attend this annual gathering but were about to get a lesson in the cognitive dissonance that’s currently choking the life out of reasonable discourse and accountability in the United States.

The session began with moderator Jean Halloran, Director, Food Policy Initiatives, Consumers Union (CU) – the advocacy division of Consumer Reports – describing how any company can label its product ‘natural’, a descriptor she said held little actual meaning. But hundreds of pages of regulation dictate what products may be certified ‘organic’ – making them a ripe (and easy) target for an administration hell-bent on deregulation.

A glimpse at the schism between CU and the Trump administration may be found in a January 2017 letter sent by CU to the USDA regarding its strong opposition to the USDA’s desire to withdraw the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices (OLPP) rule, which took effect in the waning days of the Obama administration and raised the standards of ‘care’ for livestock declared organic. In the course of voicing its opposition the letter says, like a parent explaining the properties of heat to a child playing near a stove, “As you well know, participation in organic production is voluntary, because certification is a choice, not a requirement for any farmer or business. Likewise, purchasing certified organic foods is a choice for consumers. To protect consumers who buy organic foods from being misled, and to ensure that their expectations are met, farmers and businesses should not sell their products as certified organic if they cannot meet all the requirements for organic certification.”

In other words, farmers and businesses that don’t like widely accepted and, frankly, common sense rules that determine what constitutes organic food are free to sell their products without the certification. But big business wants it both ways. And in 2018, these well-connected chickens are ruling the roost.

Saying it exceeded USDA’s statutory authority, the OLPP rule was withdrawn by the Trump administration in December 2017. Organic food producers and consumer groups voiced their outrage, but the rollback pleased large industrial agriculture organizations and Republican politicians.

You’d think the very framework of what makes organic food ‘organic’ would remain outside the political realm. According to Laura Batcha, CEO and Executive Director of the Organic Trade Association (OTA), that’s been the case throughout the history of organic food’s rise in the US, which she called a “runaway success story” at the start of her presentation. It’s impossible to argue otherwise: When the first national organics law in the US — the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) of 1990 — was passed, Laura said organic food sales totalled $1 billion in sales. In 2002, when comprehensive national standards were published for the first time and a certified seal was introduced, sales reached $8.6 billion. In 2018, that number is close to $30 billion.

Two things were obvious during Laura’s presentation: She’s passionate about her role with the OTA, and she’s dismayed by the current administration’s disregard for those who’ve fought to make organic food the supermarket mainstay it’s become — especially for regulations that only came into effect in 2002. However, a slightly more curious eye would see that practically all farming was organic only 100 years ago. It took catastrophic soil degradation and abuse of chemicals to spark a 20th-century movement that would create today’s organic food industry.

Some history: As if the Great Depression that began in 1929 wasn’t bad enough, the Dust Bowl of the 1930s brought high winds and choking dust from Texas to Nebraska, killing people and livestock and decimating crops across the entire region. For 200 years prior the Great Plains spread wide before settlers, offering nothing but promise and opportunity. But their farming practices, which included digging up moisture-retaining prairie grasses and plants and replacing them with monoculture crops and using mechanized plowing and burning, created conditions that led to 100 million acres of Great Plains topsoil literally blowing away. The US government – generations before ‘government’ became a dirty word for those in thrall to market-based ‘solutions’ – responded by creating the Soil Conservation Service (now known as the Natural Resources Conservation Service) under the USDA to oversee soil research and conservation projects across the country.

While World War II has been credited with non-military technological advancements like radar, microwaves, nylon, and even Jeeps, its effect on farming was so detrimental it helped birth the organic movement of the 1940s. Many factories that pumped out munitions and chemicals like DDT for the war effort were converted to make pesticides and fertilizers that the US government urged farmers to utilize to increase crop yields. They grew, but so did the proliferation of water pollution and soil erosion while birds and insects died by the score.

Five individuals are most associated with the evolution of the modern organic farming movement: J.I. Rodale, whose name lives on via the Rodale Institute, which supports research into organic farming and who provided the main source of information about ‘non-chemical’ farming and organic production methods; Sir Albert Howard, a British scientist whose book ‘An Agricultural Testament’ was based on his work documenting traditional farmers in India and who promoted nature-driven principles like soil fertility and composting instead of the chemical methods that were standard at the time; Lord Northbourne, another Englishman, who coined the phrase ‘organic farming’ in his 1940 book ‘Look to the Land’; Lady Eve Balfour, whose 1943 book ‘The Living Soil’ included the first scientific study comparing the efficacy of organic versus chemical farming and who started the Soil Association, perhaps the world’s first organic farming advocacy group; and Rachel Carson, whose 1962 book ‘Silent Spring’ famously documented the effects of DDT on the environment and helped galvanize an already revolutionary generation to support organic foods and avoid synthetic chemicals.

By the 1970s the organic industry was growing, but without standards, the very definition of what was ‘organic’ varied from state to state. Slowly, a movement grew to develop a national organic standard that would eradicate ineffective regional certification programs. This culminated in 1990’s OFPA, which mandated that the USDA develop and write regulations for producers, handlers and certifiers and called for the creation of a standards board to recommend which substances could be used in organic production and handling.

Twelve years later, the final rules were implemented – rules suddenly under attack by, according to Laura, “a government that has a better idea of what organic should be” than actual stakeholders. “Will the definition of organic survive?” she asked, noting that the current administration is disregarding 28 years of progress. When you walk away from organic rules, as the USDA did with the withdrawing of the organic livestock rule, “you lose the ability to prosecute, to take action, to provide oversight,” she said with palpable exasperation.

Next to speak was Patty Lovera, Assistant Director, Food & Water Watch, and she continued where Laura left off. Saying “we need more rigor, not less, as the organic industry grows”, she too bemoaned the lack of appreciation shown by the current administration for the very standards that defined organic products. Referring to its history, Patty explained how the “organic industry went to the government for help with regulations, and now the government is walking away from those same regulations.” She also described the “heartbreak” of small organic farmers being hurt by industrial agriculture, and how without consistent organic standards consumers are forced to figure out what’s what while shopping, reminding everyone that “supermarkets are a terrible place for learning about food.”

Brian Ronholm, Senior Director of Regulatory Policy, Arent Fox LLP changed the subject a bit by discussing GMOs – “GMO-free is not necessarily organic” – but as former Deputy Under Secretary of Food Safety at the USDA during the Obama administration he also referenced the important work of "career people" within the organic food universe.

Finally it was time for Jennifer Tucker, Associate Deputy Administrator, USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, National Organic Program, to speak. We sat on the edges of our seats in anticipation of her response to the incessant USDA-bashing we’d just heard. Even Jean, the moderator, inferred that a hearty rebuttal was in the works as she introduced the lone representative of an administration we’d just heard was ‘walking away’ from the very regulations that gave organic certification any teeth.

Then it all got weird.

Had we imagined the fusillade of accusations we could swear we’d just heard? Had we been transported back in time, and Jennifer was in fact the first speaker, released from any expectations of response or showing backbone? Unlike every previous speaker, Jennifer read from a prepared speech that repeated an odd mantra: It was her job to protect the integrity of the organic seal. No mention of the administration’s efforts to demolish the very foundations of that seal – in fact, the opposite. Her only mention of regulations reflected the premise of the National Rifle Association’s favorite response to mass shootings: there are plenty of laws on the books, there’s no need to create more, we just need to better enforce the ones we already have. She claimed an earlier speaker’s mention of the rollback of the livestock rule misstated the facts and that “other” regulations covered the ones eliminated by the USDA’s move. She mentioned the “hassle factor” involved in getting an organic certification, but only briefly. It was her only genuflection to the interests of big business, couched in the language of fighting for the ‘little guy’.

In political circles it would have been graded a first-class dodge. She spoke at length, repeated the administration’s “we will protect the integrity of the organic seal” pledge ad nauseum, and did nothing to rebut the arguments put forth by four previous speakers. But it wasn’t brilliant. It was cowardly. Choosing not to engage is not strategic – it’s capitulation.

Question time. We waited. Surely there’d be a mad rush to ask Jennifer for reactions to the extemporaneous recriminations voiced by her peers. Alas, no. Someone asked her a question about genetically altered meat that she answered adroitly. Afterwards, silence. So we put our hand up: “This may be an obvious question, but you said several times that your main focus is protecting the integrity of the organic seal. How does that square with what Laura and Patty said earlier regarding this administration walking away from the very rules and standards that went into creating the integrity of the seal?”

We may call New Zealand home, but at that moment we were in the center of the netherworld of US politics. We didn’t catch the precise wording of Jennifer’s response, but suffice to say it was an artwork of agitated obfuscation. “We” didn’t understand this, “they” didn’t comprehend that … no facts, no recognition of differing voices, no respect for the concerns of those who’d dedicated years of their professional lives to protecting the seal she had to know her superiors were intent on melting down and molding into a rubber stamp.

We’d attempted to introduce truth to power. And got drowned in gibberish as a reward.

For the sake of posterity, here’s the actual USDA guidelines for organic food. We present them exactly as they appear on the USDA website. Perhaps, not for long:

“USDA certified organic foods are grown and processed according to federal guidelines addressing, among many factors, soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and use of additives. Organic producers rely on natural substances and physical, mechanical, or biologically based farming methods to the fullest extent possible.

Produce can be called organic if it’s certified to have grown on soil that had no prohibited substances applied for three years prior to harvest. Prohibited substances include most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. In instances when a grower has to use a synthetic substance to achieve a specific purpose, the substance must first be approved according to criteria that examine its effects on human health and the environment (see other considerations in “Organic 101: Allowed and Prohibited Substances”).

As for organic meat, regulations require that animals are raised in living conditions accommodating their natural behaviors (like the ability to graze on pasture), fed 100% organic feed and forage, and not administered antibiotics or hormones.

When it comes to processed, multi-ingredient foods, the USDA organic standards specify additional considerations. Regulations prohibit organically processed foods from containing artificial preservatives, colors, or flavors and require that their ingredients are organic, with some minor exceptions. For example, processed organic foods may contain some approved non-agricultural ingredients, like enzymes in yogurt, pectin in fruit jams, or baking soda in baked goods.

When packaged products indicate they are “made with organic [specific ingredient or food group],” this means they contain at least 70% organically produced ingredients. The remaining non-organic ingredients are produced without using prohibited practices (genetic engineering, for example) but can include substances that would not otherwise be allowed in 100% organic products. “Made with organic” products will not bear the USDA organic seal, but, as with all other organic products, must still identify the USDA-accredited certifier. You can look for the identity of the certifier on a packaged product for verification that the organic product meets USDA’s organic standards.

As with all organic foods, none of it is grown or handled using genetically modified organisms, which the organic standards expressly prohibit.”