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The Organic Community, the USDA, and the Morning After

History of Organic Agriculture series- Part 5

Our previous look at the history behind organic agriculture delved into the grassroots community’s courtship of federal recognition and the consummation of that relationship with the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) in 1990. Today’s discussion will pick up in the light of the morning after and the reservations – felt to this day – whether hooking up with Uncle Sam turned out to be as advantageous as hoped. A healthy match between the two has always been a tricky proposition, given the USDA’s top-down approach to decision making and the organic community’s commitment to consensus process. The relationship is further complicated by the fact that though the OFPA affords the organic community considerable influence over the definition and practice of organic agriculture, it also ensures that the USDA ultimately retains the upper hand. Ceding ultimate responsibility for organic agriculture to the USDA has yielded a measure of the consistency, credibility and recognition sought by the organic community. However, these gains have come at the expense of twenty years of turbulence with a partner at times prone to indifference and capriciousness, to say the least.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, since the USDA took no meaningful action concerning organic agriculture after OFPA’s passage until December 1997. (I did mention something about indifference, didn’t I?). It’s important to consider the internal changes that organic agriculture underwent during this interval, and especially the significant consolidation in the production, processing and marketing sectors. For the first wave of self-identified and subsequently certified organic products that became commercially available during the 1960’s and 70’s, the reputation behind the name on the label was integral to success. Budding enterprises such as Walnut Acres, Arrowhead Mills and Eden Foods gained a foothold in the markets for whole grains, rice and other staples because the people who ran them were recognized as leading practitioners and advocates of organic management. This process repeated itself during the 1980s for perishable products and canned and frozen foods as start-up ventures such as Pavich Grapes, Organic Valley, Cascadian Farms and Muir Glen garnered valuable consumer confidence. Many of these organic pioneers had been told not long before that they could never grow food without using agricultural chemicals and now they were supplying such food to national markets! The association with grassroots producers and processors who were frontline partners in confronting “the system” was an essential part of the branding that secured a sizable and growing market share for organically produced foods by 1990.

Two reasons why “the system” became (and remains) “the system” are its ability to capitalize on new consumer trends and to respond aggressively to competition. These forces triggered dramatic concentration within the production, processing, distribution and marketing of organic agricultural products even as the overall market grew rapidly during the 1990s. The conventional food establishment didn’t set out to beat or join the organic upstarts during this period; subsuming them was a much more practical business strategy. Their tactics included wholesale acquisitions, such as the purchase of Horizon Dairy by Dean Foods in 1998 and Cascadian Farms and Muir Glen by General Mills one year later. In another approach, large conventional producers – particularly in the cut-throat fresh produce market – ventured into organic production and used their deep pockets to eliminate veteran competitors. For example, wholesale produce buyers across the country received a standing offer from a California agribusiness giant to undersell Pavich on organic grapes by one dollar per box, resulting in the latter’s bankruptcy. The increasing control over the organic marketplace exerted by corporate agribusiness coincided with a pronounced increase in sales of highly processed certified convenience foods such as snacks, “heat and eat” meals and a confectionary concoction re-defined as health food called soy milk. Keep in mind that the market growth in these high margin pseudo-foods depended upon overlooking the OFPA’s prohibition on synthetic ingredients in processed foods, something in which the most certifying agents, the NOSB and the USDA were equally complicit.

As a result of this growth and diversification, the organic community of the 1990’s came to epitomize the big tent metaphor. The traditionalist farmers and the back-to-the-land newcomers who had launched the movement were well represented as were the experienced grower-based certifying agents that had grown up to serve them. Senior among these organizations were California Certified Organic Farmers, Oregon Tilth and the state chapters of the Northeast Organic Farming and Gardening Association. However, these present-at-the-creation types found themselves with lots of new company as corporate food processors and marketers (particularly Whole Foods) and both state and private certifying agents emerged as both their peers and competitors. Non-profit consumer and environmental groups including Consumers Union, the Humane Society of the United States and the Environmental Working Group were also active contributors to grassroots organizing and Washington advocacy. With the annual growth in organic products consistently hitting 20 percent by the mid-90’s, the contradictions underlying these alliances – for example, processors and retailers historically stomp on producers and non-profits rarely cozy up with multi-nationals – were easy to overlook. Bonds between these new bedfellows were thoroughly galvanized on December 21, 1997 when the USDA went public with its first proposal for national organic standards and everyone in the organic community hit the roof over what they saw.

Before looking at the USDA’s initial proposal for organic standards, let’s review how they reached their decisions. True to the requirements of the OFPA, Secretary of Agriculture Edward Madigan appointed members to the NOSB in 1992 including several organic stalwarts including Chairman Michael Sligh, Michigan beef producer Merrill Clark and Gene Kahn, founder of Cascadian Farms. The NOSB met regularly, worked assiduously and by late 1995 submitted a detailed outline to the Secretary for setting organic standards and managing the USDA’s accreditation of certifying agents. The draft standards and procedures recommended by the NOSB were a middle-of-the-fairway synthesis of prevailing certification practices. They included basic requirements for crop and livestock production based on natural principles, room for give and take between producers and certifying agents to agree on the specifics and a narrow allowance for synthetic materials in both production and processing. Working with a miniscule budget, the National Organic Program (NOP) within USDA struggled to keep pace with the NOSB, though it wisely hired a veteran expert on organic standards named Grace Gershuny to translate organic speak into federal regulatory language. After the NOSB wrapped up its work, the NOP spent two years working out a comprehensive draft that included a detailed description of the context in which various issues needed to be considered. During this period the NOP also solicited input from federal peers including the EPA and FDA who exercised statutory authority over key elements of the organic standards such as regulating pesticides and food additives.

As mentioned before, it’s hard to overstate how poorly the organic community reacted to USDA’s first proposed rule for national organic standards released on December 21, 1997. “Betrayed”, “A flagrant distortion”, “Written by Monsanto”…there seemed to be no limit to the vehemence of the criticism. Nothing links people like having a common enemy, and there was nobody that the organic community (still largely a bunch of outsiders) could more readily perceive as an enemy than the USDA. Specifically, the organic community saw the crop and livestock production standards as pale imitations of accepted practice and riddled with compromises and loopholes. The community also objected to draconian constraints on certifying agents, the longtime co-stars of organic agriculture who were facing a desultory future completely under the thumb of federal dictate. Think what Rachel Carson would say about that! Perhaps the most incendiary aspect of the proposed rule was the consideration it gave to sanctioning the use of genetic engineering, sewage sludge and irradiation in organic production – this went unthinkably beyond the pale. The groundswell of public rejection to the USDA’s proposal began rolling in about 24 hours after its release and about 275,000 negative comments – more than 100,000 of them unique individual statements and not form letters- were ultimately received. In an interesting historical footnote, the NOP would receive an internal USDA award for its efficiency in receiving this mountain of comment and making it available to the public electronically – it was a groundbreaking success for using the Internet in conducting federal rulemaking.

The most important political commodity in Washington is cover, or the ability to say that you did the right thing regardless of how badly the venture you were engaged in turned out. With 275,000 people calling him out, there would be no cover for Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman and to his credit he didn’t try to scamper to find some. Secretary Glickman acknowledged that the USDA had failed badly and he committed the Department to doing the right thing before the Clinton Administration came to an end. In his first move to restore confidence in the Department, he appointed the enormously respected Kathleen Merrigan as Administrator of the Agricultural Marketing Service with a mandate to get the job done right. The NOSB was reconvened and began meeting three times a year and significant new resources flowed into the rejuvenated NOP. (Your author snuck into a position with the NOP under the “new resources” ruse.)

The people’s voices had indeed been heard, and in our next chapter we’ll examine the problematic nature of getting what you ask for from your government!

  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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1 Comment

  1. James Bernau says:

    Amazing how Mark forgets that the companies like Muir Glen and Horizon Dairy expanded. Then after becoming large enough to be considered corporate buisness, they sell out to other corporate buisnesses. If the original organic producers cared, they would have stayed small taking care of their local business. Once a business gets large enough for the owners to become wealthy, they lose the vision, not the new owners (corporate greed).