Insights by Goldie
Organic standards: A work in progress

Sound Consumer | January 2007

by Goldie Caughlan
Quality Standards Specialist

Last November in this column I recounted the growth of the organic foods movement over the past three decades, saluting the key role that idealistic organic advocates of the past several decades played as organic Change Makers — individuals and organizations that, consciously or not, effect change in societies by living the change they envision. (See Organic Change Makers’ manifesto, Sound Consumer, November 2006.)

Those hippie-farmers and their faithful earth mother devotees, like me and many others, raised our kids on whole, fresh foods from our own gardens and those from an expanding group of local, small-scale producers. The movement was central to our lives and we were aware this was more than a trend.

We knew that earth-friendly practices and coops and community-supportive systems could reform and eventually replace unhealthful food systems, offer meaningful work, and re-shape the world. OK, yes, we were very idealistic, but we also were realistic, pragmatic and grounded. A perfectly paired paradox.

We never imagined that by 2006 “industry” would become commonly paired with “organic” or that organic would be “mainstreamed” by corporate America. We would have wondered what was in your pipe if your pipe dream was that “in 2007 more than half of all organic food purchases in this country would be from supermarkets” including — gasp! — Wal-Mart.

My manifesto was responding to the not-so-funny happenings rumored down on the (organic corporate) farm or production plants. Author Michael Pollan (“Omnivore’s Dilemma”) dubs the vanishing independent organic farms and producers, re-emerging as subsidiaries of international conglomerates, as the new “industrial organic system.”

That’s a very different sort of food system than the interdependent community and regionally-based food chain that we envisioned, which, thankfully, many sustainable and organic community food activists nationwide are still working together to create.

The informative and important lead article this month (See Who owns organic?, Sound Consumer, January 2007) explores and underscores the concerns I’ve also addressed. It heightens my concerns and strengthens my resolve to watchdog these types and hold them strictly accountable.

In the same breath, I agree with the writer that, as we engage in these important analyses, we need to be prudent and mindful not to toss out the proverbial baby with any dirty bathwater. I say this as an elder, both in terms of my many years of experience in the organic movement and as an elder (ahem!) in fact. I have a considerable amount of historical and legislative history tucked into my memory chips.

Understandably, most organic enthusiasts today have only a surface awareness of the depth, width, breadth and transformative power imbedded in the principles and standards underpinning products covered by the familiar USDA Certified Organic label and seal.

Those principles, guidelines, rules and governing regulations are exceptional in all the world of food production today, because organically grown and processed foods absolutely are light-years ahead of anything from the dominant industrial food system — in terms of taste, nutritional quality, food safety and environmental protections.

That said, sure, the standards and regulations remain imperfect. Like every aspect of democracy, messy and exhausting pieces make up the whole. The written rules and standards are a living document, continually under construction in what has been an amazingly open, give-and-take (and a mostly civil!) process.

It was something of a miracle that the U.S. Congress ever passed the enabling legislation, the Organic Food Production Act (OFPA), and probably then only because it was rolled into a huge omnibus bill, the 1990 Farm Bill.

It sounds cynical, yet when omnibus bills — with hundreds of very different issues containing something for everyone — are considered by Congress, they’re more apt to be passed than if attempted separately. The detailed rules and regulations took another 12 years of intense effort.

This fledgling called the National Organic Standards, which causes such frequent gnashing of teeth (including mine), has been fraught with numerous controversies long before its conception in 1990 and after its birth as a national law in October 2002. Yet this wunderkind is barely out of the cradle!

We need to remain seriously engaged to raise this baby and participate in its further development. As with any promising youngster, the USDA Certified Organic Standards will need continuing protection and mentoring to develop to the fullest potential.

That’ll take collaborative effort on the part of all of us comprising the organic “village.” It’s a lot of work, but considering all other options, it’s absolutely critical work.

More about: certified organic, food industry concentration, organic food

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