Farm Policy Watchdog Stands by Organic Farmers. Will Secretary of Agriculture Perdue?

John Collins January 27, 2017

A chart depicting recent corporate agribusiness acquisitions in the organic sector. A high resolution version of this image, suitable for printing, can be found on the Cornucopia Institute's website or by clicking the link provided at the bottom of this post.

In the Unit­ed States, demand for organ­i­cal­ly pro­duced fruit, veg­eta­bles, meat, milk and eggs con­tin­ues to grow. Accord­ing to the Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture (USDA), organ­ic prod­ucts are now being sold in three out of four con­ven­tion­al gro­cery stores. In 2015, organ­ic food sales reached $43.3 bil­lion — a new record, but one that’s expect­ed to be sur­passed (again) as soon as 2016 con­sumer data is tal­lied and released.

This steady increase in demand for min­i­mal­ly-processed real food” — pes­ti­cide-free greens and meat from live­stock who spent at least some of their lives out­side eat­ing plants — has not gone unno­ticed by the nation’s largest con­ven­tion­al food com­pa­nies. In order to cap­i­tal­ize on the organ­ic trend with­out mas­sive­ly restruc­tur­ing their core enter­pris­es, food and bev­er­age cor­po­ra­tions have respond­ed by acquir­ing dozens of small­er organ­ic brands to mar­ket along­side their sta­ples. Naked Juice, Van’s and Annie’s Home­grown, for exam­ple, are owned by Pep­si, Tyson and Gen­er­al Mills respec­tive­ly. Often lost in the ensu­ing mar­ket­ing wars are the val­ues that start­ed the local, sus­tain­able food move­ment in the first place — a wide­ly per­ceived need for sys­temic change that includes, but also goes far beyond, the rejec­tion of pesticides. 

Matthew Hoff­man, a researcher, organ­ic farmer, author and Ful­bright Schol­ar, has spent the last 20 years involved in sus­tain­able agri­cul­ture. In a recent essay (pub­lished here on the Green­horns Irre­sistible Fleet of Bicy­cles blog) Hoff­man makes the case that, while hydro­pon­i­cal­ly pro­duced food may well be an impor­tant part of food pro­duc­tion now and in the future, the method should not be con­sid­ered organic…or even agri­cul­ture. He also recaps how organ­ics became part of a larg­er call for eco­log­i­cal sus­tain­abil­i­ty and eco­nom­ic sanity:

As a move­ment, sus­tain­able agri­cul­ture is a reac­tion against mod­ern agriculture’s ten­den­cy to do away with the com­plex nat­ur­al process­es and rela­tion­ships on which farm­ing used to depend.

The essen­tial dif­fer­ence lies not in any par­tic­u­lar set of tech­niques, but in the way the dif­fer­ent sys­tems are orga­nized. In the past, for exam­ple, plants and ani­mals were raised in the same place and fer­til­i­ty was returned to the soil in the form of ani­mal manure. Today, ani­mals are kept by the thou­sands in large build­ings in some parts of the coun­try, where their waste becomes a prob­lem, while oth­er parts of the coun­try are trans­formed into end­less miles of corn, treat­ed with syn­thet­ic fer­til­iz­er that pol­lutes the water­ways. In both places, coun­try­side and coun­try life disappear.

The pur­pose of sus­tain­able agri­cul­ture — viewed as a sys­tem, rather than a set of tech­niques — is to reor­ga­nize pro­duc­tion in a way that main­tains healthy rur­al land­scapes and healthy com­mu­ni­ties. Organ­ic farm­ing prac­tices are an impor­tant part of this broad project.

Hoff­man makes some impor­tant points. First, under­stand­ing and respect­ing how nature works was not always a rad­i­cal con­cept. Some­where down the line, the pur­suit of end­less eco­nom­ic growth required putting prof­its ahead of healthy food, mean­ing­ful work, land stew­ard­ship, water pro­tec­tion, ani­mal wel­fare, resilient com­mu­ni­ties, local economies etc. And the civ­i­lized” world fell for it.

The sus­tain­abil­i­ty move­ment, of which organ­ic agri­cul­ture is one part, formed in direct response to the com­pound­ing toll this sys­tem is tak­ing not just on the envi­ron­ment, but on human health and the qual­i­ty of our dis­con­nect­ed dai­ly lives. Like chang­ing how we gen­er­ate ener­gy, sus­tain­able agri­cul­ture faces an immense set of built-in chal­lenges and threat­ens the estab­lished order. Today, our hopes for a viable alter­na­tive food sys­tem are con­tin­gent upon the con­tin­u­ing eco­nom­ic suc­cess of small organ­ic farms. Part of that suc­cess will increas­ing­ly involve pro­tect­ing con­sumer trust in the integri­ty of the organ­ic label.

Defin­ing and defend­ing what organ­ic” means

The Nation­al Organ­ic Pro­gram (NOP), part of the USDA’s Agri­cul­tur­al Mar­ket­ing Ser­vice, is respon­si­ble for devel­op­ing nation­al stan­dards for organ­i­cal­ly-pro­duced agri­cul­tur­al prod­ucts. They’re also respon­si­ble for estab­lish­ing inter­na­tion­al organ­ic import and export polices as well as inves­ti­gat­ing and enforc­ing report­ed vio­la­tions of the reg­u­la­tions they devel­op. Accord­ing to the NOP, their stan­dards assure con­sumers that prod­ucts with the USDA organ­ic seal meet con­sis­tent, uni­form stan­dards.” High NOP stan­dards are good for the organ­ic com­mu­ni­ty. It’s in Big Food’s best inter­est to lob­by to keep USDA’s inter­pre­ta­tion of organ­ic” as loose as pos­si­ble. Occa­sion­al­ly, brands with earthy sound­ing names (pack­aged to con­jure bucol­ic images in the minds of met­ro­pol­i­tan gro­cery shop­pers) are not what they appear to be. 

Enter the Cor­nu­copia Insti­tute, a non-prof­it, organ­ic agri­cul­ture resource cen­ter based in Cor­nu­copia, Wis., that advo­cates on behalf of agri­cul­tur­al poli­cies that make sense for small-scale farm­ers while pro­tect­ing the sin­cer­i­ty of the organ­ic des­ig­na­tion. In addi­tion to pro­vid­ing con­sumers with food com­pa­ny score­cards and updates on nation­al farm pol­i­cy, the Insti­tute acts as an organ­ic indus­try watch­dog. Their mis­sion is to pro­tect eth­i­cal, fam­i­ly-scale farms from unfair com­pe­ti­tion and to pro­tect organ­ic eaters so that they can have con­fi­dence in the safe­ty and authen­tic­i­ty of their food.”

Farmer Mark Kas­tel, the Institute’s co-founder and Senior Farm Pol­i­cy Ana­lyst, puts it this way: Cor­nu­copia is adamant­ly non­par­ti­san, sup­port­ed by a diverse mem­ber­ship. We all unite in the con­vic­tion that shift­ing to eco­log­i­cal agri­cul­tur­al prac­tices, and eat­ing the very best food, pays div­i­dends for our fam­i­lies, espe­cial­ly our chil­dren, and soci­ety as a whole.” Below, excerpt­ed from a recent Cor­nu­copia update, Kas­tel explains why last minute Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion changes to ani­mal wel­fare farm pol­i­cy were too lit­tle, too late” and he explores what Trump’s pick for sec­re­tary of agri­cul­ture, Son­ny Per­due, might mean for organics. 

Unchart­ed waters

Perdue’s per­spec­tive on organ­ic food and agri­cul­ture is a mys­tery; he has nev­er pub­licly spo­ken about it.

Dur­ing his cam­paign, Pres­i­dent-elect Trump expressed his dis­dain for fed­er­al reg­u­la­tions and vowed to relieve reg­u­la­to­ry bur­den on busi­ness­es. So how will this apply to the Nation­al Organ­ic Pro­gram (NOP) at the USDA? The most con­ser­v­a­tive fac­tion in Con­gress, the Free­dom Cau­cus, has sug­gest­ed elim­i­nat­ing the NOP.

The NOP was estab­lished by an act of Con­gress, the Organ­ic Foods Pro­duc­tion Act of 1990. The organ­ic com­mu­ni­ty — farm­ers and con­sumers — actu­al­ly asked Con­gress for strict reg­u­la­tion. We want­ed the organ­ic label to mean something!

Ever since, large agribusi­ness, agro­chem­i­cal and biotech­nol­o­gy inter­ests like Mon­san­to, have been doing their best to dis­cred­it organ­ics and have appealed to politi­cians to pull the plug.

In the mean­time, organ­ics has grown into a more than $40 bil­lion a year indus­try. Many organ­ic brands have been pur­chased by major cor­po­rate food inter­ests rep­re­sent­ed by their own lob­by group, the Organ­ic Trade Asso­ci­a­tion (OTA). Cor­po­rate inter­ests have done their best to expand and weak­en the work­ing def­i­n­i­tion of organ­ic so it fits their indus­tri­al­ized food grow­ing and pro­cess­ing practices.

Which pow­er­ful lob­by­ing fac­tion in Wash­ing­ton will win out? Or will the swamp tru­ly be drained at the NOP and, once again, will the people’s” inter­ests be respect­ed and protected?

On the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion’s last minute changes to organ­ic policy…

Dur­ing its final days, the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion pub­lished two exceed­ing­ly con­tro­ver­sial rule­mak­ing ini­tia­tives as gifts to the OTA and busi­ness lob­by. First, over the objec­tion of cer­ti­fied organ­ic farm­ers, they have paved the path for a pro­pos­al from cor­po­rate lob­by­ists to tax farm­ers and oth­er par­tic­i­pants in the organ­ic indus­try to pay for pro­mo­tion and research (com­mon­ly called the organ­ic check-off). Then, on Jan. 18, after a years-long delay the USDA pub­lished a final rule pur­port­ed­ly improv­ing organ­ic ani­mal wel­fare. But unlike Europe, where organ­ic chick­ens are required to have access to 43 ft² out­doors, the USDA’s ane­mic rule only requires 2 ft² out­doors and as lit­tle as 1 ft² indoors. Even that is too much for the largest cor­po­rate fac­to­ry live­stock oper­a­tors. Sen­ate Agri­cul­ture Com­mit­tee Chair­man Pat Roberts (R‑Kan.) has told the Asso­ci­at­ed Press he will work with Pres­i­dent Trump to reverse the rule​.It was also announced in the wan­ing days of the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion that USDA Sec­re­tary Thomas Vil­sack resigned to take a lucra­tive job lead­ing the U.S. Dairy Export Coun­cil, a posi­tion that paid $800,000 last year. Ethics ques­tions are sur­fac­ing as Mr. Vil­sack, char­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly, pass­es through the revolv­ing door” after his agency approved five or six mil­lion dol­lars last year for the Export Council.

To view the USDA’s lat­est Organ­ic Live­stock and Poul­try Prac­tices rul­ing, click here. (Image: usda​.gov)

Cor­nu­copi­a’s list of things to do

It’s the chang­ing of an era in the White House and at the USDA, and Cor­nu­copia will con­tin­ue to care­ful­ly mon­i­tor and report on the agency’s activ­i­ties on behalf of all organ­ic indus­try stake­hold­ers. We will engage with the new Trump/​Perdue admin­is­tra­tion in an attempt to:

1. Spark vig­or­ous enforce­ment crack­ing down on con­fine­ment of organ­ic dairy cows, beef cat­tle, lay­ing hens, and oth­er live­stock in indus­tri­al set­tings. Lack of enforce­ment has dis­ad­van­taged eth­i­cal fam­i­ly farm­ers and betrayed con­sumer trust — an endem­ic prob­lem dur­ing both the Bush and Oba­ma administrations.

2. Seek a vig­or­ous inves­ti­ga­tion, and ongo­ing over­sight, of vast amounts of organ­ic ani­mal feed and food ingre­di­ents being shipped to the U.S. from Chi­na and oth­er non-rep­utable sources.

3. Reverse the arbi­trary and capri­cious pow­er grab (now the sub­ject of fed­er­al law­suits) that have under­mined the author­i­ty of the Nation­al Organ­ic Stan­dards Board (NOSB), the pan­el Con­gress set up to buffer organ­ic reg­u­la­tions from cor­rup­tion by cor­po­rate lob­by­ists. (Back­ground: The NOSB is a 15-per­son advi­so­ry com­mit­tee that makes rec­om­men­da­tions to the USDA regard­ing organ­ic food and prod­ucts. Mem­bers are appoint­ed by the sec­re­tary of agri­cul­ture to serve a five-year term. It is of the utmost impor­tance that seats on this board are filled by actu­al organ­ic farm­ers — not indus­try exec­u­tives mas­querad­ing on behalf of sus­tain­able fam­i­ly-sized farms. In 2016, the Cor­nu­copia Insti­tute filed suit against the USDA for its appoint­ment of two indi­vid­u­als with indus­tri­al agribusi­ness ties on grounds that Con­gress has reserved those seats for organ­ic farmers.)

4. Encour­age the USDA to keep its Obama/Vilsack’s promise to ban con­ven­tion­al replace­ment ani­mals that are facil­i­tat­ing the expan­sion of giant fac­to­ry dairies. (Back­ground via Ag Week­ly: The department’s Nation­al Organ­ic Pro­gram has been accused of facil­i­tat­ing the expan­sion of fac­to­ry farms” pro­duc­ing organ­ic milk, meat and eggs through the agency’s lax enforce­ment of exist­ing reg­u­la­tions… Some large indus­tri­al-scale dairy oper­a­tors sell all their baby calves at birth and replace them with con­ven­tion­al ani­mals that have been raised on conventional/​GMO feed, antibi­otics and oth­er drugs banned in organ­ic production.”)

5. Seek enforce­ment action ban­ning the ille­gal label­ing of soil­less (hydro­pon­ic) pro­duce as organ­ic. (You can also read: Do We Want Organ­ic Agri­cul­ture, Or Just Organ­ic Food?” by Matthew Hoff­man @ Cor­nu­copia News.)

Let’s see what hap­pens when farm­ers (not Big Food) decide what fed­er­al farm pol­i­cy looks like

Nobody’s ask­ing (rather, expect­ing) Son­ny Per­due’s USDA to start throw­ing fed­er­al wrench­es into the gears of the glob­al food machine. (See: Trump Nom­i­nates a Sec­re­tary of Agri­cul­ture (and, No, It’s Not Wen­dell Berry)”) How­ev­er, in vot­ing for Don­ald the reg­u­la­tion slay­er” Trump, mil­lions of Amer­i­cans — includ­ing plen­ty of farm­ers — are expect­ing to see their well­be­ing con­spic­u­ous­ly placed above the already wealthy and powerful. 

Farm­ing com­mands respect. Farm­ers have a long his­to­ry of ris­ing to the task of doing what it takes to keep the rest of us alive and well. Fac­to­ry farms have a much short­er his­to­ry of doing the oppo­site. Year after year, as demand for organ­ic food grows, a com­pelling eco­nom­ic case is being made for doing that which is also eco­log­i­cal­ly respon­si­ble. Sus­tain­able farm­ers in rur­al Amer­i­ca who are doing the hard work for the right rea­sons deserve all the sup­port they can get. 

Small farms are small busi­ness­es, but they are unique­ly out-sized, out-fund­ed and polit­i­cal­ly out-gunned when it comes to fac­ing off against their cor­po­rate coun­ter­parts. As Trump rides in on a wave of exec­u­tive orders, promis­ing trade deals that will put an end to the Oba­ma administration’s so-called war on pros­per­i­ty, he bet­ter make sure the reg­u­la­tions he’s rolling back are not just spe­cial inter­est hand­outs that end up mak­ing it even hard­er for small busi­ness­es to compete. 

Come to think of it, what’s the sta­tus of that Bay­er-Mon­san­to merger? 

(Source: Busi­ness Alliance for Local Liv­ing Economies.)

To view a larg­er ver­sion of the Who Owns Organ­ic” chart fea­tured at the top of this post, click here.

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John Collins is the edi­tor of Rur­al Amer­i­ca In These Times. He lives between Min­neapo­lis and La Pointe, Wis­con­sin, a vil­lage on Made­line Island in Lake Superior.
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