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Who Gets to Decide What ‘Organic’ Means?

Recent appointees to the National Organic Standards Board suggest a cozy relationship between Big Agriculture and the USDA.
Sep 25, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

As consumers increasingly opt for organic products at the grocery store, the giants of the food industry have moved into the organic sector—and weakened the standards for the organic food we eat.

Nearly half of American consumers put organic items in their shopping cart at least once a month, while 84 percent, according to a recent survey conducted by Consumer Reports, do so “on occasion.” Right or wrong, many of us equate the label with a smaller-scale, more off-the-grid mentality on the ag end of things, believing our purchase is supporting a farm that doesn’t resemble the endless monocultures of industrial agriculture.

But organic is big business too. Just 12 years after the implementation of the Organic Foods Protection Act, more than 18,000 farmers and producers in the U.S. are certified organic—an increase of more than 245 percent since 2002. The organic sector grows at a rate of about 4 percent annually, which is catnip for big businesses looking to open new markets. But what is organic in the nitty-gritty terms of rules and regulations? According to the Consumer Reports survey, 91 percent of shoppers think there should be no pesticides or antibiotics in foods that are certified organic—which isn’t essentially the case. The USDA organic label is backed by a set of standards, not an ideology, and those standards bend to accommodate the unpredictable realities of farming.

But as industrialized farms and food companies have made moves to tap into the growing consumer demand, the industry has turned its eye on the regulators too.

“Now that all the big food companies have an interest in organic brands, their lobbyists are all over this thing,” said Mark Kastel of the Cornucopia Institute, an industry watchdog.

Kastel says one need only look to the makeup of the National Organic Standards Board—which “advises USDA on which substances should be allowed or prohibited in organic farming and processing, based on criteria under the Organic Foods Production Act,” according to the agency’s website—to see that lobbying in action.

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The original organic act, passed in 1990 (but not implemented until 2002), dictated that the board membership would include a variety of independent stakeholders. The board must contain four farmers or growers, three environmentalists or resource conservationists, three consumer or public interest advocates, two handlers or processors, one retailer, one scientist, and a USDA accredited certifying agent. Over the years, however, Kastel believes the board has become stacked with members tied to Big Agribusiness—including its newest farmer-appointee, Ashley Swaffer of Arkansas Egg Company. Nearly 500,000 eggs are laid by the company’s hens on a daily basis.

Kastel sees the original intent of the makeup mandate as a way to “insulate organic from the corporate people,” something he believes isn’t happening with appointments of people such as Swaffer. He says at least four small-scale organic farmers were passed over for Swaffer, something that did not sit well with Wisconsin dairy farmer Rebecca Goodman, who has applied for the position several times.

“I am a hands-on organic dairy farmer working with my animals and land every day,” she said in a statement. “I guess I am not suave enough to serve my fellow organic farmers. After three attempts, I will not be applying again.”

The USDA did not respond to a request for comment.

Other new appointees include Paula Daniels, a senior adviser to the Los Angeles Food Policy Council. That organization, run out of the mayor’s office, has made strides toward bolstering the local food economy, including urban agriculture, and promoting the idea of access to healthy food as being an important component of the city’s public health policies.

The new appointments follow a tumultuous NOSB meeting in April, when activists protested new rules implemented by the USDA that limit the board’s ability to exempt nonorganic materials that were temporarily allowed under the standards. Under the new rules, approved nonorganic materials—such as antibiotic sprays used in apple and pear orchards—can only be removed from the exemption list with a supermajority vote of two-thirds of the board. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., who helped author the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act, wrote in a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack that the change was “in conflict with both the letter and intent of the statute.”

But if the intent of the law was determined when organic was a niche market, shouldn’t big farms that are increasingly seeking out USDA Organic certification have a place at the table too? Kastel believes they’re already well represented, pointing to instances in recent years when the board has voted to “erode organic integrity” by allowing more and more controversial synthetic and nonorganic additives in “organic” food and weakening animal husbandry standards. Cornucopia has even produced a scorecard for NOSB member votes on matters fundamentally changing the definition of “organic,” which shows a clear divide between members connected to corporate agribusiness and farmers and consumers. Under the current standards, for instance, the same organic label goes on cartons of eggs from both the factory henhouse with 100,000 birds and the smaller-scale, free-range operation.

“If they want the organics to be a safe haven, then the organic sausage-making in Washington matters,” Kastel says.

It’s easy to see why the corporate food industry wants a piece of the organic pie. But Kastel says that the organic apple must remain fundamentally different from the apple grown conventionally by a big producer, which means that safeguarding the USDA from lobbying influence must remain a top priority.

“Organics is not supposed to be easy and convenient for corporate interests to mirror what happens in the conventional food sector. We don’t want to make it too easy for them to make an organic version of a Twinkie,” he says. “Organics is worth protecting. It’s the last safe harbor for people, especially parents, that want safe, nutritionally superior food.”