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The Assault on Organic


By Garth Kahl

The organic movement is under attack. In the process of growing an over 70 billion dollar a year industry, sparking a revolution in the way people eat and think about their food, drafting a national law, winning recognition from the government in the areas of both regulation and funding, and putting organic gardens at the White House and USDA, we have understandably become the target of a number of powerful interests.

On the one hand we are seeing efforts to confuse the consumer and muddy the waters, through such terms as “natural,” as well as the broader effort to present “local,” conventionally grown food as more environmentally friendly than organic. Add to this the presence of non-certified growers selling product as organic, although many are plainly selling over the $5,000/yr. limit where certification is required, and it’s not surprising that certified growers are reporting frustration and loss of sales. I recently talked with one producer having trouble selling his certified organic, pasture-raised beef…because the buyer was more interested in “local,” “sustainable” beef; even though these terms allow animals to be raised on herbicide-treated pasture and fed GMO grains. So why is this happening?

Many in our movement took notice in March, 2007, when Time magazine’s cover proclaimed, “Forget Organic. Eat Local.” What the cover story conspicuously failed to mention, is that if your local food is grown with the use of synthetic fertilizer, the carbon footprint of that food far outweighs the carbon footprint of organic food even, when brought from extreme distances. This is because the production of urea and other synthetic fertilizers consumes vast amounts of fossil fuels. Not surprisingly much of the world’s fertilizer is produced in the Persian Gulf region, and urea supplies have recently been subject to the same price shocks, and even disruptions due to Somali pirates, as oil. In short, while organic agriculture is clearly the best ecological alternative, and local organic is even better, a variety of interests would love to confuse the consumer and obfuscate the issue. It should come as no surprise then in Newsweek’s web-only Intelligence Squared U.S. debate series “Is Organic Food Marketing Hype?” and trotted out Dennis Avery, the careworn organic detractor who’s industry-funded Hudson Institute has spent the last 20 years sniping at organic agriculture. While the piece was touted as debate, the effect was the same; confuse consumers, sow doubt and detract from the success of the organic revolution. 

Things might be alright if this was the only prong of attack by Mr. Avery and his ilk, but our enemies are launching an even more damaging and insidious assault on our organic success and promise…guised in the sheep’s clothing of “food safety.”

Underneath the alarmist doomsday scenarios being circulated on the Internet, the fact is that many provisions of the food safety legislation currently working its way through congress could severely inhibit the use of compost and manures on organic farms and could well drive many small producers out of the market. Unless significantly revised, the provisions for Good Agricultural Practices (GAPS), required under some of the proposed legislation, would severely restrict many small growers’ ability to grow and create their own fertility and detract from their efforts to produce food in greater harmony with nature, by requiring the clearing of hedgerows and wildlife habitat that are viewed as threats under these standards. Never mind that certified organic growers (though perhaps not those non-certified operations riding our coat tails) already comply with strict, but livable, regulations for the preparation of compost and the use of manures; provisions that were put in the NOP in part to appease the likes of Avery back in 2001. Never mind the cutting edge science showing that pathogenic bacteria are rapidly out-competed by the thriving micro-fauna inherent in organic farm environments. Never mind the benefits, in terms of carbon footprint and sustainability, of having integrated small farms with crop and animal production. Never mind that new peer-reviewed research from Rodale Institute suggests that whole-sale adoption of organic farming methods in the U.S., with their emphasis on cover crops and soil building, could alone sequester 25 percent of U.S. carbon emissions, with rates nearing 100 percent if this is combined with the adoption of grass-based intensive grazing for meat production. Never mind that their model will lead to more carbon releases into the atmosphere, thousands more dead from hurricanes, rising seas and the other effects of global warming, a larger dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico from high-nitrate runoff carried down the Mississippi from urea applied on Midwestern farm lands. They want the public to be scared of their local, organic grower.

This issue’s theme, “Government –Friend or Foe,” could not be more timely. On the one hand we have a national organic standard that WE the organic community fought for only 10 years ago. We who flooded the USDA with over 275,000 comments, the most ever received on a USDA rule, and fought back attempts to include GMOs and sewage sludge under the organic label. The resulting rule is strong, and more importantly, it’s our rule. It’s basically the same rule that organic growers and activists drafted, campaigned and worked for, and in spite of what you might believe if you listen to the internet buzz, has been strengthened, not watered down since 2001. Nor is certification overly costly or burdensome for small growers, especially when cost share programs will pay 75 percent of the cost (up to $750)! We have gained unparalleled support from many agencies and departments within the USDA, most notably the appointment of long-time organic supporter Kathleen Merrigan as Deputy Secretary, and funding from the Natural Resource Conservation Service being used to support transitioning farms to organic agriculture. Not surprisingly large-scale ag interests are not standing by as their market domination and death dance production methods are questioned. Just recently, a trio of US senators representing agribusiness attacked the USDA’s highly successful “know your farmer, know your food” program, charging in a letter that “Unfortunately this spending doesn’t appear geared toward conventional farmers who produce the vast majority of our nation’s food supply, but is instead aimed at small, hobbyist and organic producers…” 

Meanwhile the National Organic Program is finally being funded at a level that is allowing them to go after fraudulent operators, whether they are large, currently certified operators breaking the rules, or non-certified operations making false claims about being organic. Miles McEvoy, the new NOP director, has called this sea change “the age of enforcement.” Given consumer concerns and perceptions about large or small operators evading the letter or spirit of the law, this is a welcome direction on the part of the program. 

But these gains are tenuous and could be made moot if government regulation, in the form of “food safety” legislation, makes it impossible for small-scale producers to grow and sell food to local markets. Our movement needs to rise up and face down the extremist food safety legislation with the same vigor we fought back that original USDA organic rule. Unfortunately, the organic community has not as yet been able to come to a unified position on this, partly because everyone seems afraid of being painted by the media as being “against safe food.” Still other regional divisions exist. For example, Senator Tester (D MT) has submitted an amendment to SB 510, that would exempt growers with gross revenues over $500,000 from the most onerous of the proposed food safely legislation, but some national organic groups have been hesitant to mobilize their forces behind this because of the perception, especially in the northeast, that $500,000 is too big. $500,000 may be a large gross for a small farm on the east coast, but can be average for a farm, or especially a dairy, in the west selling at several farmers markets and retail outlets. We need to recognize this as bad government and push back hard, supporting not only this amendment, but also pointing out to anyone who will listen that certified organic growers have more than adequate controls over manure and compost, and that our model supports healthy, living farms and local economies while theirs leads to increased use of fossil fuels, longer supply chains and less real food security. Our movement is crucial to any real security on an increasingly warming planet facing the end of cheap oil. We have a world, and future to win. Adelante!

Although Garth Kahl is Oregon Tilth’s Latin American Specialist, the views expressed here are entirely his own.


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