U.S. Adopts National Organic Standards: Victory for All, but…

[Editor’s Note: This is part six of Mark Keating’s 11-part series of the origins and evolution of organic agriculture; how the organic community and the USDA eventually came together to create the national organic standards; their subsequent implementation, and the fallout felt through to the present day.]

“Democracy is the worst form of government you can live with, until you’ve tried all the rest.”—Winston Churchill

How the Purity of Product Came to Triumph Over the Integrity of Process
Part 6: The USDA rolled out its first proposal for national organic standards in late 1997 and within weeks the verdict was decisive: universal repudiation, to put it mildly. The Department typically received scores, maybe a few hundred public comments on its draft regulations. The torrent of comment on the organic standards poured in by the thousands per day and ultimately exceeded 275,000 with maybe 4 having anything complimentary to say. A realist by nature, USDA Secretary Dan Glickman found religion and promised to do right the next time around. Indeed, the Secretary was so sensitized by the backlash that he committed the USDA to issuing a second draft proposal for additional comment before finalizing the standards.

Reflecting his good faith, the Secretary appointed the widely respected Kathleen Merrigan as Administrator of the Agricultural Marketing Service to lead this initiative. When asked what made the concert promoter Bill Graham special, Grace Slick of the Jefferson Airplane commented that “He was one of them and he was one of us.” Merrigan (now the Deputy Secretary of Agriculture) earned similar standing; she was solidly connected in DC as a whip smart Hill staffer who gained the trust of the grassroots community while drafting the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) (PDF). The USDA also brought in Keith Jones, a savvy veteran of the Texas Department of Agriculture’s successful certification program to run the day to day operations of the National Organic Program (NOP). The Secretary made it clear that he wanted the job done and done right before he left office at the end of the Clinton Administration. Once he signaled support, the mid- and upper-level bureaucrats who had gone through the motions for five years on the first proposal became much better at returning phone calls and solving problems.

What did the organic community find so objectionable in the first proposal? Pretty much everything. The provisions for managing crops and livestock seemed paper-thin and lacked the rigor and complexity that people associated with the private and state certification programs. For example, livestock could receive 80% organic feed and still be certified when existing certification programs had raised the bar to a 100% requirement. Provisions for confining livestock were so vague that the public concluded that USDA couldn’t think outside the factory farm box. The crop standards featured an “order of preference” approach that allowed farmers to implement less desirable practices if preferable ones proved too difficult. Was USDA suggesting that organic meant settling for less than the best? The proposed standards also seemed riddled with deficiencies and loopholes that increased the risk of prohibited synthetic substances slipping into the system.

Beyond concerns that the standards were flimsy, organic veterans were very disturbed by what they saw as a power-grabbing USDA exceeding its statutory role, especially at the expense of certifying agents. The so-called farmer-based certification programs had legitimate Founding Father/Earth Mother status in the organic community and the OFPA was supposed to protect their authority and autonomy. Instead, the USDA’s proposal imposed firewalls that would drive working farmers out of the certification review process. Additionally, certifying agents would lose the right to use their private seal to certify to additional requirements. This struck many as a blatant infringement of their registered trademarks and commercial free speech rights but the USDA insisted that private seals would undermine the principal benefit of a consistent national standard. All in all, the USDA’s first proposal validated the deep-seated fear that the Department was incapable of wrapping its mind around the zen nuances of organic production and certification and was not at all receptive to advice from those who could.

Without a doubt the greatest perceived transgression in the USDA’s first proposal was its supposed allowance of genetic engineering, irradiation and sewage sludge in organic farming. The presence of these quintessential bête noires confirmed that USDA had sub-contracted writing the standards to Monsanto with the intent to either kill organic agriculture outright or make it a new corporate profit center. Vitriolic references to the “Big Three” came to dominate public comment and spearhead an avalanche of form letter responses. Working Assets members alone submitted an amazing 30,000+ comments through the check-off option that the company included on monthly statements. Much more significant than the form letters, though, were the100,000+ unique comments, often exceptionally detailed and constructive, that the USDA received. These comments as well as the reconvening of the National Organic Standards Board in early 1998 paved the way for unprecedented public participation in the regulatory process as the USDA began putting together its next attempt at national organic standards.

In retrospect, it’s easy to see the exercise in group think that the fallout from the first proposed standards became. USDA screwed up the job? Sure, that sounds just like them, so throw out everything they suggested. Who’s in charge now? We’ve got a quarter million experts to tell us what to do. Power to the people! The first proposal was too loose and leaky? We can screw those standards down so tight that no prohibited substance will dare show its face on an organic farm! This unfolding dynamic revealed an especially problematic fact about organic agriculture and the certification process: not many people understand how they genuinely work, though a great many people like to think that they do. In a nutshell, organic agriculture entails the flexible application of biological and mechanical practices that nurture soil, plant and animal health by mimicking a natural system. Certification attests that the system that the farmer adopts is consistent with organic principles and will protect the natural resources on and beyond the farm. However, the public comments demanded a more rigid, absolutist approach with all the dos and don’ts spelled out in the standards. This mindset risked placing the purity of the product ahead of the integrity of the process.

Lost in the rush to judgment on the USDA’s proposal was the fact that it more closely resembled existing certification standards and practices than the imaginary understanding sought by many commenters. The USDA proposal had some egregious flaws but most were surgically correctable, such as raising the organic feed requirement to 100%. The crime of the century known as the Big Three turned out to be over-hyped, too. The USDA had indeed suggested allowing two genetically modified materials, but dropping them from the subsequent proposal was sufficient to correct that mistake. Regarding sewage sludge and irradiation, the USDA wasn’t advocating their use but simply seeking comment on the feasibility of allowing them. The NOP staff knew well that allowing either would be a non-starter with the organic community, but other federal entities including the Office of Management and Budget exercised their prerogative to raise the subject for public comment.

If ignorance drove the public response to the “Big Three”, then denial accounts for its reaction to the proposal’s crop and livestock production practices. Organic consumers often have excessively idealistic and pastoral notions about what the standards require and prohibit. While many groovy things happen on organic farms, there are also practical considerations dictating that farmers do what is necessary to get their work done, hopefully profitably. That doesn’t mean that standards are ignored when the going gets tough, but it illustrates why the order of preference approach was not so alien. It reflects an understanding that if we can’t always do what’s best, we should at least do the best we can. In the system of continuous improvement paradigm that supports organic agriculture, doing the best we can at all times is more important than doing the best thing at any one time. The ongoing relationship between the farmer and the certifying agent with the standards providing guidance is what allows an organic farm to progress over time.

Burning the USDA’s first proposed rule for national organic standards at the stake didn’t sink the regulation that ultimately emerged, but it definitely pushed the results away from process certification towards product certification. The second proposed rule published in March 2000 and the final rule (the one we live with today) from December that same year were solid organic standards but they became much more prescriptive and restrictive. For example, NOP staffer Grace Gershuny – an experienced organic certification specialist – contributed a historically accurate compost standard for the first proposal that was straight-forward and perfectly workable. Bathwater and baby alike went out the window and the final rule contained (and still does) a one-size-fits-all quantitative protocol that not one individual commenter requested or that had ever been used in the history of organic certification. The rule also incorporated scores of categorical prohibitions against using prohibited substances that have made material evaluation a nightmare since we know that it’s impossible to prove a negative. Democracy in action? Yes, and we can only console ourselves with Winston Churchill’s observation that “Democracy is the worst from of government you can live with, until you’ve tried all the rest.”

Despite the bumpy ride, Secretary Glickman and the senior leadership of the USDA were smiling ear to ear at the unraveling on the USDA national organic standards on December 21, 2000. The organic community was smiling, too – leadership from both the grassroots community and the Organic Trade Association were on hand to praise the standard as the highest in the world. The general vagueness of the first proposal had been thoroughly clarified, the tangible shortcomings upgraded and the Big Three, especially any genetically engineered product or ingredient, were categorically prohibited. The pendulum had swung hard from a process standard towards a product standard, but the newly collaborative relationship between the organic community and the USDA augured well for its implementation. It had been a long, hard (though remarkably entertaining and frequently amusing) slog from the day when an earlier Secretary of Agriculture had suggested that conversion to organic agriculture would result in mass starvation.

There was little comprehension that day how significantly the outcome of the Gore v. Bush case that had been decided across town nine days earlier would sidetrack the implementation of the new initiative.

  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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