Certifiably Uncertified

A couple of years ago I was having a conversation with MOM’s Grocery Director about some products that we don’t carry.  She said something that caught my attention- that there’s a faction within the organic industry that considers itself “too cool to be organic.” A growing number of farmers and artisan producers feel like their products are “beyond organic”- and that going through the process of third-party organic certification is a wasted effort.

Kathleen Merrigan, one of the organic farming industry’s most stalwart supporters, retired last Friday, May 3rd.  As she departed, she wrote in the National Organic Program’s most recent newsletter about her biggest fear for the future of organics:

KathleenMerrigan“I could list out many challenges and opportunities facing organic agriculture, but as I head out the door, I want you to know the one issue that weighs heavily on my mind,” she wrote. “I meet too many young people who think organic status is insufficient or not relevant to them. They claim to be ‘beyond organic’, ‘natural’, better than organic, ‘authentic.’

“They worry about the paperwork, fees, and being regulated by government. We must change this trend. I wish I had an hour to spend with each one of these budding farmers to explain the history of the organic farming movement and why it is important to act collectively. What we have done together is bigger than any one person or organization. What we have done together has mattered.”

I can relate to these young farmers and producers.  As the owner of MOM’s, I’ve come across some regulations over the years that are rather ridiculous, seemingly created by bureaucrats who make a living out of over-thinking everything.  This results in a plethora of minutiae-based regulations that cater to the lowest common denominator.

However, I realize that no set of regulations is going to be perfect.  Some people and organizations will find fault with the organic certification process and standards, so they choose to throw the baby out with the bath water by not participating.  Even worse, some say the organic standards aren’t good enough, so they form a circular firing squad and actively attack the entire certification process.

For the organic movement to continue to grow, we are going to have to realize that perfect is the enemy of good, that not everyone can be pleased.  To be effective, we need to adhere to a common set of less-than-perfect standards.  Those who farm organically but opt out of the certification process are making it easier on themselves, but they are hurting our movement… the same movement that is able to exist because of these uniform standards and certification processes.

When shopping at farmers markets, roadside stands, or buying local or artisan products, please consider the value and power of collective action; give priority to those who go through the organic certification process.  They are selflessly investing in our industry.

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8 Responses to Certifiably Uncertified

  1. Kapperman, Christine says:

    I would love to post this blog to newhope360.com, if you wouldn’t mind us republishing it.

    Thank you very much,

    Christine Kapperman
    Editor-in-chief | Natural Foods Merchandiser
    New Hope Natural Media
    1401 Pearl Street, Suite 200| Boulder, CO 80302
    w: (303) 998-9384
    Follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Linked In
    You can find me on Twitter and Facebook.

  2. Catherine Turner says:

    The argument is the equivalent of saying licensing drivers is useless because of all the reckless immoral people who have them. I don’t want to drive on a road where drivers aren’t at least required to have a license. I don’t want food certified only by the self-appointed pure in heart.

  3. Varun says:

    Scott, how do you feel about Eden’s position on this, which is very much in the “not good enough” camp? I could point in particular to http://www.edenfoods.com/articles/view.php?articles_id=78 which sums up their position very elegantly.

    It’s a view that I’ve increasingly subscribed to as I hear of the latest loopholes introduced; for example, the use of chemical fertilizers if they are x% cheaper than organic equivalents is now part of the USDA Organic standard. As the standard becomes increasingly meaningless, I find myself applauding such companies, whether it’s defined as being “too cool for organic” or something else.

    • Mark Lipson says:

      @Varun would you please substantiate the statement about chemical fertilizers in the organic standards? I work at USDA and I am not aware of anything like what you refer to. The National Organic Standards Board is quite rigorous in what they recommend for allowance under the USDA Organic Seal, and USDA cannot approve any exceptions that have not been recommended by the NOSB. Before you propagate disparaging information that you have “heard” about the “latest loopholes,” please take the time to confirm the facts.

  4. Bill Samuel says:

    1. I think a better approach than just snubbing the USDA Organic Seal (at this point – it is getting so watered down with the control of USDA and the Federal Government by big corporate interests that at some point it may be the right thing for conscious producers to boycott it – note that already they are simply not enforcing it and you have faux “organic” producers like Horizon just warned and not forced to obey the rules – and you are abetting this effort by continuing to sell, with no notice of the falsity of the label, Horizon products as if they really were organic altho you know better), is to get the seal and then note steps beyond, hopefully with some reputable verification label.
    2. We do have the problem that the NOSP is oriented towards large commercial firms. At farmers markets there are lots of small producers who use organic methods but can’t say they are organic because they can’t afford the NOSB process, not to mention nonprofits like my church which grows food using organic methods and gives it away to the poor.

    • Scott says:

      Bill- you have quite a bit of misinformation. I would check your source(s). All you’re really doing is repeating what you’ve been told, without really knowing the inner workings of Horizon or the NOSB. Do you REALLY know what goes on in those 2 organizations (I do, as I know many of the people who are directly involved)- or are they guilty until proven innocent? If anything, the NOSB is not oriented towards large commercial firms, but rather zealots who use bullying tactics- and outright threats- to shut down the process.

      The Horizon Organics issue has been a contentious subject for over a decade, and it’s been brought to my attention repeatedly over the years. MOM’s does not sell “faux” organic products, as you state so carelessly as fact. If evidence had ever been presented that Horizon – or any other brand – was not compliant with organic standards, MOM’s would stop selling the affected products immediately. Apparently, even after years of allegations, rumors, and investigations, no one has that proof. Horizon is still certified organic. Horizon products still meet NOP standards, as evidenced by their 3rd party certification- just like Organic Valley, just like Trickling Springs, just like Natural By Nature, etc.

      You mentioned the cost of organic certification as being prohibitive. Again- what is your source for this information? fyi- there is a small farm exemption- organic farms with under $5,000 annual sales are not required to obtain third-party certification, if they follow national organic standards. Non-profits like your church CAN be considered organic without third-party certification -IF they are truly using organic methods.

      Organic Certification Cost-Share– Through the Farm Bill, some producers and handlers are eligible to receive reimbursement for 75% of certification fees (up to $750).
      The organic certification cost-share provides a lot of support for small producers. Farmers in many Mid-Atlantic states (including Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania) are eligible. Organic certification is not cost prohibitive (as best as I can tell, it’s less than $1000 on average). It is obtainable, and help is available. Yes, it’s harder than not being certified. Yes, there’s extra paperwork. Yes, organic farmers have to play by the rules. These are the things that need to happen for an organic industry to exist.

      Nothing is perfect, including the National Organic Program. If people who care about organic integrity can find the patience to work together (instead of resorting to the circular firing squad), we may be able to make it even better.

      • Scott says:

        btw, Bill- here is a reply from an executive at Horizon regarding the rumors and accusations of the past decade…

        “At Horizon, family farms supply 93 percent of our milk and the remaining 7 percent comes from two company owned dairies in Idaho (certified organic since 1994) and Maryland (certified organic since 1998) that balance our supply. In total, we work with more than 600 family farms across 23 states that either produce milk for Horizon or are in the process of converting from conventional to organic dairy production. Through the Horizon Organic Producer Education (HOPE®) program founded in 2001, we work to recruit, educate and promote family farms of all sizes. The value we place on family farming is also represented in our long-term sponsorship of Farm Aid, an organization dedicated to helping American family farmers thrive.”

        Before launching unfounded accusations against Horizon, consider how they may impact the 600 certified organic small family farms from which Horizon gets 93% of its milk (let alone, the larger ‘corporate’ dairy right here in Maryland). Hence, the circular firing squad…

      • Bill Samuel says:

        I attach a link to Cornucopia Institute’s summary on Horizon Foods – http://www.cornucopia.org/dairysurvey/FarmID_134.html Horizon has repeatedly refused to answer the survey questions Cornucopia gives to organic producers. What does it have to hide? Cornucopia Institute is a leading group dedicated to promoting organic production, and rates the various certified organic producers based on several criteria. It has a Board which includes several organic producers, environmentalists and a former member of the National Organic Standards Board. Why shouldn’t I trust it more than the corporate line of the nation’s largest conventional dairy producer (the owner of Horizon)?
        Below is Cornucopia’s summary of Horizon.
        Horizon (Dean Foods)
        Started by a syndicate of millionaires whose experience included organic groceries and conventional factory dairy farming, they quickly grew the enterprise, accessing venture capital and eventually selling stock in the company on Wall Street. Horizon, which is now the largest selling organic milk brand, was purchased by Dean Foods, a giant agribusiness, with almost $11 billion in sales, specializing in dairy products. Dean is also the largest conventional dairy marketer in the country.

        They operate two corporate-owned farms, in Maryland and Idaho. Their Idaho facility, milking 4000–5000 cows, was originally a conventional factory-dairy that they converted to organic production. It has, according to widespread industry reports, very little access to pasture. Unlike the majority of all organic dairy farmers in the United States, who concentrate on the health and longevity of their cows, caring for them from birth, the Dean/Horizon Idaho farm sells off all their calves. Later, presumably to save money on organic feed and management, they buy one-year-old conventional animals on the open market. These replacements likely have received conventional milk replacer (made with blood—considered to be a “mad cow” risk), antibiotics, other prohibited pharmaceuticals, and genetically engineered feed. Many practices on a farm of this nature put ethical family-scale organic farmers at a competitive disadvantage.

        In addition, Dean/Horizon purchases milk from other industrial-scale farms, some of which have a history of alleged labor abuses, and has reportedly been actively recruiting additional large farms. The company has announced plans to invest $10 million in additional farms in Idaho that will milk thousands of cows.

        Although the corporation purchases at least half its milk from hundreds of family-scale farmers (they lump together the large factory farms with these traditional family farms, there is no clear-cut way for us to determine the percentage). There is no reason to believe these smaller organic dairy farms are not conducting their business just as ethically as farmers shipping to other labels. In a series of meetings with Dean officers and staff, we presented an option for disinvestment in their factory farms and an ambitious alternative proposal to fund transition and start-up of more organic family farms to fill their needs. Thus far, they have rejected this alternative. The corporation did not respond to either of two letters requesting their participation in the study and Horizon’s corporate vice-president also declined another invitation to participate in the survey during a private meeting with Cornucopia staff.

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