The Organic Certification Process: Early Beginnings

History of Organic Agriculture series- Part 3

USDA Organic Certification Seal Oct 6, 2009. I’ve devoted the first two installments in this series to exploring the dual wellsprings that gave rise to organic agriculture. Organic Agriculture: Its Origins and Evolution delved into Sir Albert Howard’s pioneering vision of organic agriculture as a self-regulating system of integrated crop and livestock production that provides optimal nutrition for organisms, including humans, on their journey through life. In Industrial Agriculture and the Organic Alternative: Rachel Carson’s Contribution, I introduced the more contemporary concern, brilliantly articulated by that noted marine biologist and author, that the reckless release of toxic synthetic compounds into the environment threatens to undermine the Earth’s ecological balance. The convergence of these two tributaries by the early 1960s led to a small but spirited torrent of dedicated farmers and supportive consumers who rejected a mainstream food supply increasingly driven by mass production, saturation advertising and convenience preparation.

How would consumers seeking chemical-free fruits and vegetables, brown eggs and bulgar wheat find the precious yet rare commodities they prized? One solution was to grow them personally and many people tried, with varying degrees of success, to go “back to the land” and start farming. Another solution was to pool resources with like-minded souls and procure bulk orders from trusted farmers for communal distribution which fostered the modern cooperative grocery/health food store movement. But becoming a farmer meant sweaty full-time work and joining a coop led to messy group dynamics and lots of left over brown rice. Alternative-minded farmers and consumers alike began imagining a simple yet reliable shorthand that would readily identify food raised and handled as naturally as possible and ideally with no chemical inputs. J.I. Rodale had been popularizing the term “organic” to describe such production systems through his publications and research institute since the 1940s. With this pedigree, “organic” was widely synonymous with natural farming systems and a numerous regional farmer groups (calling them “organizations” at this point would be stretching it) were using it as a marketing claim by the late 1970s.

Despite a perpetual cold shoulder from the land grant agricultural establishment and the commercial food industry, organic agriculture grew steadily if silently during the 1980s. Each regional farmer group developed its own set of standards that specified the conditions with which a farmer must comply for their farm and the food it produced to be certified, labeled and sold as organic. These standards began with the basics of Howard and Rodale – small scale systems emphasizing natural fertility sources including compost and cover crops, crop rotations, and crop diversity – and grafted on the Carson commandment – no synthetic inputs, especially pesticides. The pioneering farmers of this era deserve high praise not only for developing ways to produce under what were generally thought to be impossible conditions but for also building the credibility and market value of their distinct brands. By the end of the decade, there were at least thirty organic certification programs operating across the United States with some – especially in California, New England and the Upper Midwest – developing sizable consumer loyalty.

How were these nascent organic certification programs capable of guaranteeing potential customers that certified products had indeed been grown and processed in accordance with the proclaimed standards? It takes something more than the threat of bad karma to deter us from acting selfishly when we think no one is listening. The answer then, and to a considerable degree to this day, was similar to Ronald Reagan’s approach to negotiating nuclear disarmament with the Soviet Union: “Trust, but verify”. The certification process is predicated upon a comprehensive and ongoing dialogue between the farmer and their certifying agent. In a nutshell, the two parties agree on an organic system plan that commits the farmer to managing their operation in compliance with the standards. Compliance with the organic system plan is documented through an annual on-site inspection with follow-up as warranted, although the certifying agent can also conduct unannounced inspections. Detailed paperwork is fundamental to smooth certification and over time the certifying agents – who then and now tend to be the exacting types you would imagine would be drawn to this work – became highly efficient. In an oft-repeated phenomena, a member of the original farmer group who proved the most capable at the certification process stepped away from farming and took on an independent role in certifying their former peers. One cannot say that deliberate misrepresentation has not occurred, but the nearly forty year history of organic certification in the United States reflects has been overwhelmingly transparent, honest and accurate.

Anyone involved in business (or a relationship, for that matter) knows that success brings with it a whole new set of challenges and the organic community was clearly experiencing growing pains by 1990. More and more consumers were drawn to organic foods, but the plethora of independent certification programs (several states had joined the existing pool of farmer-based and for-profit certifying agents) created confusion around the generally slight but occasionally significant differences between their standards. This problem was magnified for food processors who wanted to combine ingredients certified by different programs into a single certified product such as corn chips or soup but were constrained by the lack of reciprocity. Amidst growing concern among established farmers and certifying agents that newcomers could seriously dilute or outright misrepresent the meaning and integrity of their hard work, organic agriculture literally went prime time overnight. In late 1989, the CBS news program 60 Minutes covered findings from the Natural Resources Defense Council that the widely used agricultural chemical Alar left carcinogenic residues on apples. In pre-Internet days when 60 Minutes was among the country’s most widely watched and trusted news sources, the story triggered a classic Rachel Carson backlash and Americans knocked down doors to get “chemical-free food”. Having become in a sense too big to fail and too small to keep going it alone, the organic community accepted what many continue to see as a Faustian bargain: they turned to the federal government to create a single standard and certification program to regulate use of the term “organic”.

Next time: we’ll explore how this relationship was consummated and what fruits it has borne.

  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.


  1. Leon says

    Wow what an amazing series of articles. Thank you! I found this blog while searching for information on the USDA certified organic seal. I was looking for this information in preparation of an article to be posted on my new blog about nutrition and health. The article will be posted soon. I am new to blogging and trying to build an audience. So if you have the time please give us a visit. Here is a link to our organic category.

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