Finding and Protecting Real Organic Food Going Forward

[This article was previously published in the spring issue of The Cultivator, Cornucopia’s quarterly newsletter.]

by Linley Dixon, PhD, current Associate Director of the Real Organic Project

The Country Hen is one example of a
certified organic industrial-style egg
producer. Their porches, shown here, are
approved as “outdoor access” by their certifier
and the USDA’s NOP.

“Farmstead,” “local,” “sustainable,” “artisanal,” “family-farmed,” “free-range,” “grass-fed,” even “CSA”… Every time people in the good food movement come up with words to market their superior products, corporate agribusinesses start using the same language!

One word we all thought would be safe from Big Ag’s routine co-opting is “organic,” because it is protected by federal law.

The humble beginnings of what is now a $50 billion industry lie in small, diversified family farms. In the 1980s, many pioneering organic farmers lobbied the government to harmonize the variable organic standards that had resulted from a hodgepodge of private certifiers.

At the time, many in the organic movement were skeptical of the government’s loyalty to organic integrity over agribusiness interests. Conversely, conventional farmers lobbied against the label out of fear that it would make their chemical-intensive practices look bad.

Nevertheless, the creation of the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) was thought to be a big win for the family farmers that led the movement. Recent events have, unfortunately, vindicated the original skepticism of the USDA’s commitment to protect the real organic farmer.

Now, as more industrial operations gain organic status, the skeptics’ fears of government caving to agribusiness are being realized faster than ever.

Though agribusiness interests have had some influence on the NOP from the beginning, the current situation has caused pioneering farmers to pick up their broad forks and fight back.

The certification of soil-less operations was a tipping point for many farmers, although poultry porches, CAFO dairies, and documented fraud at U.S. borders have all added fuel to the fire.

A complacent NOP has nearly crippled ethical organic farmers and certifiers. Without enforcement behind the regulations, “organic” has begun to lose its status as the gold standard of food labels.

Thousands of legitimate organic farmers still depend on the organic label for their financial success—the same label that continues to inexplicably grace fraudulent products and imports.

Authentic organic farms are facing a real crisis as wholesale prices for organic grain, produce, milk, meat, eggs, and fruit drop below economic sustainability.

If you’re not a farmer, but an eater, this is your fight as well. None of us are going to go back to eating conventional food with its well-documented environmental, human health, and animal welfare consequences.

So then, how will authentic organic farmers differentiate their superior practices from industrial, monoculture, and CAFO operations, now operating under the same label?

Some local farmers have abandoned the organic label altogether, choosing to rely on direct-marketing, where transparency is greatest.

Others are contemplating a number of “add-on” labeling ideas that would depend on varying degrees of independent oversight, including “Regenerative Organic,” “100% Grass-Fed,” and “The Real Organic Project.”

Pioneering organic farmer Eliot Coleman summed up the situation, “I just see no way that organic can be rescued from such competently done and well-funded industrial thievery unless we have the energy to start all over again, and I see that as a daunting task.”

Cornucopia Board President and Organic Valley beef producer, Helen Kees, reacted to the crisis, “I’m a farmer; I’m used to curve balls. I have no choice but to fight back.”

In the meantime, as the fight for the true meaning of organic plays out, consumers and farmers are joining together to differentiate the “two organic labels.”

Please consult Cornucopia’s organic brand scorecards and buyers’ guides to identify the very best food for your families, and vote with your forks on the side of organic integrity.

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