What if Organic Standards Were Bioregional and Written by Real Organic Farmers?

John Ikerd

Cattle on an organic farm in Ohio.

I seem to view organic standards a bit differently from most people involved in the organic movement. I see standardization as a requisite for industrialization. Standards tend to simplify production processes, but complex standards can be accommodated with computers and robots. Regardless, production processes must be replicable and scalable to allow the specialization and consolidation characteristic of industrial organizations. That’s the reason uniform national standards were required to allow organic foods to move into the mainstream, industrial food system.

New sets of uniform national organic standards will simply create additional options for industrializing organic food production. The new Regenerative Organic Certification” (ROC) and Real Organic Program” (ROP) would certainly represent improvements over current USDA standards, which appear to ensure little more than adherence to an approved list of organic inputs and materials.

The ROC proposal includes standards for social equity and animal welfare, which are essential for sustainable” organic production. The ROP proposal appears to be an attempt to redefine and enforce standards that many organic farmers thought were ensured by current USDA standards. Regardless, the goal of both proposals is to provide a new and better set of uniform national standards for organic production.

I personally see no inherent problem with having a variety of organic standards or standards for other agri-food production processes. Ultimately, discriminating consumers will have to accept responsibility for their individual food choices. Anyone who simply relies on labels — such as organic, natural, grass-fed, or cage-free — is going to end up eating foods that are produced by large, agri-food corporations. Such corporations are purely economic entities. At best, they will meet the minimum enforceable requirements for the label, and labels simply cannot ensure the ecological or social integrity of an agricultural production process.

Once these large agri-food corporations gain positions of influence they will quite naturally attempt to remove any existing impediments to further industrialization. In addition, they will attempt to eliminate competition by creating complex regulatory requirements that smaller producers cannot meet — or can’t meet as efficiently. This is nothing new. Adam Smith wrote in the Wealth of Nations, The usual corporation spirit, wherever the law does not restrain it, prevails in all regulated companies. When they have been allowed to act according to their natural genius, they have always, in order to confine the competition to as small a number of persons as possible, endeavoured to subject the trade to many burdensome regulations.”

We see this tactic most clearly in the new FDA Food Safety Modernization Act. The new standards make it very difficult for farmers who are large enough to represent a competitive threat to the large agri-food corporations to compete. The paperwork burden in the current USDA organic program is another example. We can expect this tactic to be embedded in or emerge from any new organic certification program proposed or promoted by the large organic” agri-food corporations. New standards that are developed and promoted by grass-roots organic farmers have a much better chance of increasing the overall integrity of organics, as well as increasing the difficulty of organic industrialization. Their priority is more likely to be organic integrity than economic efficiency.

I personally would prefer national organic standards that included only those practices that are appropriate, meaningful, and enforceable at the national level — such as allowable and non-allowable inputs and materials. This would allow elimination of paperwork associated with the unenforceable portions of current USDA standards — making the program more accessible to smaller organic farming operations. I would also prefer organic add-ons” or real organic” programs that are defined, organized, monitored and enforced at the local or bio-regional level.

The organic bioregions should be small enough to allow the integrity of the bioregional labels to be ensured through personal relationships. These bioregional organic programs could be administered by cooperative organizations with memberships that include the certified organic producer and boards of directors with representatives of local consumer and citizens groups as well as producers.

Additional standards regarding authentic organic production practices — such as employee working conditions and wages, animal welfare, and relationships with the local community — could be designed to fit the specific ecological, social, and cultural environment of the bioregions. Standards defining the social and ecological integrity of the bioregional organic labels could be enforced through peer evaluations during periodic visits to organic farms by other organic farmers and community members chosen by the cooperatives.

Organic farms could also be required to be open to the public for visits by local customers or anyone in the surrounding communities. Requirements for organic certification could be clearly posted on the farm. Employees and visitors could be encouraged to talk with the farmer about any concerns and to report potential unresolved violations to the cooperative.

Obviously, a bioregional organic certification program would result in a proliferation of organic labels. In fact, that would be the primary intent of the program. Authentic organic production should reflect the ecological and social diversity of the environment within which the farms function. The nation is not uniform or standard, and thus, any set of uniform standards cannot define a system that is truly organic.

As with basic human rights, advocates of organic food production should work to define a common set of minimum enforceable standards that apply nationally — perhaps internationally. Again as with human rights, individual farmers and bioregional groups of farmers should be encouraged to raise their organic standards well above the national minimums. The resulting organic food markets might not be as economically efficient, at least in terms of costs of production, but they would have the ecological, social, and economic integrity of authentic organics.

(“Perspectives on Organic Standards” was first published on John Ikerd’s blog and is reposted on Rural America In These Times with permission. For information about John’s work, or to subscribe to his blog, click here.)

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John Ikerd was raised on a small dairy farm in southwest Missouri. He received his BS, MS, and Ph.D. degrees in agricultural economics from the University of Missouri. After working in private industry, he spent 30 years in various professorial positions at North Carolina State University, Oklahoma State University, University of Georgia and the University of Missouri before retiring in early 2000. He now spends most of his time writing and speaking on issues related to sustainability with an emphasis on economics and agriculture. He currently resides in Fairfield, Iowa and is the author of several books including Essentials of Economic Sustainability, Sustainable Capitalism, A Return to Common Sense and Crisis and Opportunity: Sustainability in American Agriculture and A Revolution of the Middle.
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