Cornucopia’s Take: The corporate takeover of organics began long before President Trump thought about running for office. Hydroponic production was allowed under previous National Organic Program director Miles McEvoy during the Obama administration, while the National Organic Standards Board was packed with corporate executives eager to grow their brands. Thus far, the Trump administration has shown no inclination to change what is already in motion.
There is one additional note about the story below. Francis Thicke has clarified his position on which he is quoted in the article:
“I did not advocate for ‘the abandonment of the National Organic Program altogether,’ as the article implies. I told the reporter clearly that the Real Organic Project is an add-on certification that will require certification in the USDA-NOP program. So, it is not about abandoning the NOP; it is about shoring up the weaknesses in the NOP due to the NOP selling out to the interests of industrial agriculture.”
Is the USDA the Latest Site of Corporate Takeover in the Trump Administration?
by Jasper Craven
Big Ag’s increasing influence has some farmers wondering whether it’s time to abandon the organic label altogether.
The US government’s organic-agriculture program isn’t exactly where you’d expect to find a nest of corporate lackeys and anti-environmental actors. And yet, at a recent meeting of the National Organic Standards Board in Jacksonville, Florida, that’s exactly what Iowa dairy farmer Francis Thicke alleged.
“Big business is taking over the USDA organic program,” Thicke said, addressing his colleagues in a speech marking his retirement. “Because the influence of money is corroding all levels of our government.”
The organic sector has exploded in recent years, as millions of Americans have shown themselves willing to fork over a bit more money on the promise of pesticide-free, high-quality food grown by well-paid farmers. According to the Organic Trade Association, organic sales jumped to $47 billion in 2016, an 8.4 percent increase from the previous year compared with the stagnant 0.6 percent growth in the food market overall. This increase in market share means new opportunities for farmers who are passionate about growing using organic methods—but it has also attracted aggressive interest from multinational food companies eager to take advantage of the profitability associated with the organic label. Organic products, once relegated to the shelves of crunchy food co-ops, now feature prominently in the portfolios of every major food corporation: Coca-Cola owns Odwalla; General Mills controls Cascadian Farm, Annie’s, and Lärabar; and grocery giants like Walmart sell USDA-certified organic products in every region of the country.
Organic advocates warn that the leverage exerted by these corporations now threatens the very integrity of the organic label. They point to corporate pressure to ease certification guidelines and to a flood of “organic” products imported from countries with suspect standards. (Last May, The Washington Post reported that tens of millions of pounds of fraudulently labeled grains have come to the United States from other countries.)
The situation has become so dire that some organic farmers, including Thicke, are now advocating the abandonment of the National Organic Program altogether. This April, a group of 15 fed-up organic farmers from around the country, including five former NOSB members, will convene in Vermont to start drafting stringent new standards for an alternative organic label.
“At this point, I can see only one way to bring the organic label back in line with the original vision of organic farmers and consumers,” Thicke said. “We need an add-on organic label for organic farmers who are willing to meet the expectations of discerning consumers who are demanding real organic food.”
The National Organic Program (NOP) was established as part of the 1990 Farm Bill. The original intent was to create a label that would protect consumers from the myriad companies billing their products as organic despite farming practices to the contrary. But from the beginning, the program was caught in a tug-of-war between big agricultural interests pushing for deregulation and smaller farmers fighting for stringent standards.
The most effective tool for accountability is the 15-member National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), which Thicke served on for five years. The all-volunteer board includes organic farmers, environmentalists, consumer advocates, a scientist, an organic retailer, and an organic-certification agent. The board’s main function is to recommend and draft organic regulations, which it does through an intensely democratic process marked by exhaustive public meetings and deep scientific evaluation. Crucially, it also oversees the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances in food production.
Because the NOSB’s process is so extensive—it took 10 fraught years for just the first round of national standards to be implemented—its decisions have stood the test of time. The NOSB defines organic farming as a set of practices that “restore, maintain, and enhance ecological harmony,” and a founding regulation mandated that only products made from more than 70 percent organic ingredients could feature the coveted O-word on their label. Faced with these strict guidelines, big business has historically sought to influence the board or dilute its regulations.
The ongoing battle between multinational food companies and small farmers began to tip in favor of Big Ag under President Obama. During his administration, the Department of Agriculture curtailed the NOSB’s deliberative process for overseeing the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances, making it harder to ban the conventional materials preferred by industrial operators. Some Obama appointees to the NOSB were also criticized for their connections to large agricultural interests. Carmela Beck, who was appointed to a farmer position on the board in 2012, did not “own or operate” a farm, as federal statute requires. Instead, she worked as the organic-program manager at Driscoll’s, the world’s largest berry producer, which has been the subject of consumer boycotts for alleged wage theft and hostile working conditions.
“We have industry actors being appointed to the NOSB as farmers,” Thicke told The Nation. “And while the NOSB has historically controlled its own agenda, it was during Obama’s presidency that the USDA ruled that they had to approve what we were going to work on. We weren’t happy.”