Will Fantle is director of research for the Cornucopia Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to the fight for economic justice for the family-scale farming community. The group’s Organic Integrity Project acts as a corporate watchdog monitoring the credibility of organic farming methods and the food it produces. Today, he’s at a meeting of the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board.

Friday, 30 Apr 2004

CHICAGO, Ill.

The weakening of federal regulations governing organic food standards and farming practices came under fire at the semiannual meeting of the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board in Chicago. Today, the last day of the NOSB’s three-day meeting, 50 consumers, organic farmers, processors, and organic certifiers and inspectors voiced their displeasure with the direction of the national organic program during an unprecedented four hours of public testimony.

According to the Cornucopia Institute’s Mark Kastel, much of the public testimony expressed a common theme: “Large corporate interests are working to hijack organic foods and the USDA is helping them do it.” The Cornucopia Institute’s Organic Integrity Project helped organize the testimony, working to partner organic farmers who couldn’t attend the meeting with supportive consumers willing to read brief statements on their behalf.

The NOSB is empowered by law to oversee the USDA’s organic food-labeling and farm-certification programs. But Kastel and other critics contend that its recommendations are being uniformly ignored or dismissed by USDA bureaucrats. Two recent examples illustrate the drive to water down organic standards.

USDA staff reversed a decision made by an accredited organic certifier who had denied organic certification to a factory farm raising chickens because the birds lacked access to the outdoors. Organic standards for dairy operations are also threatened by a staff decision allowing large organic dairy farms to purchase conventional heifers and phase them into their organic operation. Previous precedent demanded that all replacement milkers come from certified organic operations.

Kastel, in his testimony, told the NOSB that “many of the staff directives make it possible to operate organic ‘factory farms,’ dumbing down the standards.”

Other critics echoed the charges. Larry Gilbertson operates a 40-head organic dairy farm near Marshfield, Wis. His statement to the NOSB, read on his behalf, noted that all of his herd’s replacement cows came from births on his farm. “There is little need,” he stated in his testimony, “for a national organic standard if favoritism and exemptions are granted to large, influential, deep-pocket farm operations that do not want to or can not follow the standards set by the National Organic Rule.”

Another farmer, Rufus Yoder of Belleville, Penn., told the board through his proxy statement that the lowered dairy-herd standard “clearly puts sustainable farmers like us who make extra efforts to care for their animals at a competitive disadvantage — we do not want this to happen.”

Jim Koan grows organic apples at AlMar Orchards in Flushing, Mich. Koan’s statement, again read by another consumer, declared: “If you lower the standards for organic certification, or change the rules to make it easier to grow organically, you’ll substitute chemical power for manpower and brain power. Factory farms and corporations will overpower the family organic-farming operations … Please don’t listen to big business, but instead listen to the simple little organic farmer, for he is the meek of this earth.”

Organic vegetable grower Jon Cherniss, who made the drive to Chicago from the central Illinois town of Urbana, focused on potential consumer impacts from weaker standards: “Every time the National Organic Program grants an exception that violates the spirit of the rule, it degrades the term ‘organic’ and chips away at its legacy and erodes its traditional base of support. What are consumers supposed to think? How can I convince my colleagues, experienced organic practitioners, not to walk away from organic?”

The loss of consumer confidence in the organic label could prove devastating to farmers. The organic food biz is one of agriculture’s rare bright spots; it’s growing at a rate of 20 percent a year and totals about $12 billion in annual sales.

Many of the statements presented at the meeting were addressed to USDA Secretary Ann Veneman. According to Kastel, there is no longer reason to believe that the management and federal staff at the USDA’s National Organic Program can be swayed by logical arguments and negotiation.

Staff, insists Kastel, “has created an adversarial environment and has lost the respect of the organic community.” Instead, the institute is calling for “regime change” in program management and directly asking Veneman to make the needed changes.

For their part, the NOSB responded to the strong public testimony and passed their own resolution, one condemning the USDA’s National Organic Program for bypassing the board’s legal authority.