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Genesis of the USDA’s National Organic Program

History of Organic Agriculture series- Part 4

How the Federal Government came to regulate the organic industry
Part 4: My previous column on the history of organic agriculture wrapped up with a look at the burgeoning national market that emerged during the 1980’s. Counterculture back-to-the-landers and die-hard traditionalist farmers were raising crops and livestock without agro-chemicals and growing numbers of consumers were eager to buy, even when the produce had a few spots. Organic agriculture was becoming pretty big business, considering that the people making it happen had started out with little more than determination. The organic community – meaning the extended family of farmers, certifying agents, natural food merchandisers, environmentalists and consumers – recognized that some harmony and reciprocity between the dozens of regional certification standards was needed to avoid a Tower of Babel. Even greater was the fear that if the meaning of organic remained up for grabs, johnny-come-latelies could swoop in and dilute its meaning or wreck the process through outright fraud.

The only authority that could provide the national oversight that the organic community sought was the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The obvious reservations about strange bedfellows were compounded by memories of an earlier courtship between the two parties. Bob Bergland was President Carter’s Secretary of Agriculture and wondered what was behind the anecdotal reports trickling in that organic agriculture was environmentally sensitive and energy efficient, yet still productive. In 1979, Secretary Bergland appointed a study team of senior USDA researchers who spent a year doing due diligence with, in their words, “organic farming leaders, editors, spokesmen and practitioners.” Robert Rodale, who had stepped into his father’s shoes as editor of Organic Farming served as a key contact and coordinated a detailed survey of almost 700 farmer subscribers. The study team released their highly favorable conclusions entitled, Report and Recommendations on Organic Farming (PDF) in July 1980 and it quickly became the USDA’s most frequently requested publication. After the Reagan Administration entered office six months later, the publication went out of print and organic agriculture went back to the equivalent of non-person status within USDA.

The organic community shrugged off Reagan’s cold shoulder – after all, what did they agree with him about? However, as the value of organic agriculture grew during the 1980s, the scales began to tip and it became apparent that a working relationship with Washington, DC was a necessity. As the saying goes in Washington, you’re either at the table or on the menu. Most fortuitously for the organic community, their initial contact in the quest for official recognition was a bright and open-minded Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry staffer named Kathleen Merrigan. (Full disclosure: Dr. Merrigan was later responsible for bringing me to work both in Washington and at the USDA, but I’ve forgiven her for that.) Over the two decades that followed, Merrigan (now Deputy Secretary of Agriculture) would lead the organic agriculture charge inside the Beltway and do more to shape the successes and failures of the USDA’s role in the process than any other person.

The first fruit of the new partnership between the organic community and the USDA was the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) of 1990 which remains the legal foundation of the federal regulations governing organic food. The OFPA was quite a victory because it authorized the USDA to establish and enforce a consistent national standard for organic crops, livestock and processed foods while ensuring that the organic community who have a significant voice in the process. Most importantly, it directed the Secretary of Agriculture to appoint a fifteen member National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) to include prescribed numbers of farmer, processor, certifying agent, scientist, consumer and environmentalist representatives. The NOSB is responsible for advising the Secretary on establishing standards and otherwise implementing the certification program but has an even greater power. While organic agriculture is predicated on a systems approach, many day to day decisions that its practitioners face involve working some type of material into the process, such as fertilizers, livestock medications and even, yes, pesticides. The rule of thumb in organic agriculture is that natural materials are allowed unless prohibited and synthetic materials prohibited unless allowed. Courtesy of the OFPA, only the NOSB can determine which synthetic materials may be allowed and under what conditions, giving the Board tremendous discretion over how organic agriculture is practiced.

Two other provisions in the OFPA are worth noting. One, the USDA sets the standards for organic crop, livestock and processed food production, but the responsibility for monitoring compliance with those standards is delegated to accredited certifying agents. This mechanism enabled the pre-existing certifying agents (including private non- and for-profit operations as well as state run programs) to keep their hands in the game; they simply dropped their own standards and started working with their farmer and processor clients to comply with the new federal ones. This has proven to be a major attribute of the OFPA since it brought the tremendous institutional knowledge of the certifying agents (the co-stars of the organic scene all along) into the federal program without USDA having to train its own certification inspectors and review committee personnel. To this day, the major present-at-the-creation certifying agents continue to enforce compliance with the USDA’s standards. Based on the USDA’s performance of the duties it is responsible for, one could argue that the continuous transfusion of real-world understanding via the certifying agents has kept the entire program alive.

The second point to note – while allowing specific NOSB approved synthetics in organic crop and livestock production, the OFPA categorically prohibited the use of synthetic ingredients in organic processed foods. This provision was agreed upon by the organic community at a time when the processed foods market was modest and the products available were relatively simple to work with. However, very quickly certain organic interests realized that it would be impossible to produce large volumes of commercial grade processed food without the processing aids, stabilizers, and other neat tools that food technologists (yes, a real term) were adept at creating. Soon after the NOSB began meeting in 1992 its members began approving synthetic ingredients for use in organic processed foods and the USDA went along with this blatant violation of the OFPA in finalizing the organic regulation. For constitutionalists, it is an insightful lesson in how the Executive Branch (USDA) can readily frustrate the will of the Legislative Branch (Congress). As with a parent telling a child what to do, the interpretation and implementation of the order can often veer dramatically from the original intention. A persnickety blueberry farmer from Maine named Arthur Harvey eventually took the USDA to court and won a repeal of the offending allowance for synthetic substances in organic processed foods, but this decision was quickly rendered mute when Congress re-wrote the law to allow them. Today, the list of synthetic processing aids and additives in organic foods can be just as long and tongue twisting as you’ll find in the conventional product.

You may be wondering, how did the OFPA get to be so groovy and then survive the great sausage grinder we know as Capitol Hill? Working with the support of her boss Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Kathleen Merrigan spent two years in continuous dialogue with the organic community to craft the bill. Replicating the organic standards themselves was the easy part since the existing models were simple and succinct. For example, livestock standards were just emerging and were typically no more detailed or elaborate than good haiku. The real genius in the OFPA was creating a mechanism to enforce a federal regulation that so meaningfully incorporated public participation – ever hear of a civilian telling the Pentagon how to fight the war? However, all this work stood a good chance of being for naught since Representative Jaime Whitten, Chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture had zero interest in organic agriculture and refused to let a companion bill move through that chamber. Courageously, a young Congressman representing Eugene, Oregon named Peter De Fazio stood up on the House floor and proposed amending the 1990 Farm Bill then under discussion by tacking the Leahy plan on whole hog. It was audacious to say the least to challenge Chairman Whitten who was referred to as the permanent Secretary of Agriculture since those appointed by the President came and went. However, in a sign that the times were indeed a changin’, the House approved the DeFazio amendment – the only floor amendment to make it into the Farm Bill that year.

Next time: We’ll pick up the story next time by looking at USDA’s faithfulness to its new partner and the creeping sense of buyer’s remorse that the organic community has lived with since the marriage was consummated.

  1. Organic Agriculture: Its Origins, and Evolution Over Time
  2. Industrial Agriculture and the Organic Alternative: Rachel Carson’s Contribution
  3. The Organic Certification Process: Early Beginnings
  4. Genesis of the USDA’s National Organic Program
  5. The Organic Community, the USDA, and the Morning After
  6. U.S. Adopts National Organic Standards: Victory for All, but…
  7. The Waste Land: Organic Agriculture during the Bush Years
  8. A loosening of the Organic Standards: Synthetic Substances
  9. Organic Agriculture and Organic Certification: Not So Ying and Yang
  10. Organic Certification Standards for Poultry: An Insider’s Look
  11. The History of Organic Agriculture: Final Installment

Mark Keating has worked in the natural, sustainable, organic and local food movements since 1982. His work experience includes stints in commercial food service, farm labor, retail sales and marketing, state and federal civil service, non-profit advocacy and academia. While at the USDA between 1999 and 2004, Mark helped draft the national organic standards for crop and livestock production and spent two years working to develop and promote farmers markets. An inveterate believer that naturally raised and locally distributed food offers the best opportunity for human health and planetary survival, Mark lives in the Kentucky Bluegrass with his wife and their daughter.

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