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.)

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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