by Ephraim Payne

Weakening of certified label or push back against corporate industrialization of organic?

In the building heat of a sunny May afternoon, Steve Girard drives down a dirt road cutting across the slopes of his 141-acre hillside vineyard overlooking the rolling pastoral countryside of the Willamette Valley. Scanning row upon row of carefully pruned and trussed vines breaking into bud, Girard muses about the history of his vineyard and the changes he has fostered over years of careful stewardship. “Through my methods I have seen not only (increased) vine health, but incredible changes in my juice nutrient profile,” Girard says.  

Clad in a neat plaid shirt and slightly faded denim jeans, silver-gray hair swept back in a loose ponytail, Girard looks every inch the successful, eco-conscious winemaker you’d expect to find in the Pacific Northwest. But Girard’s Benton-Lane Winery doesn’t boast the USDA Organic label on its bottles, that by its owner’s careful choice. Girard remains unconvinced that organic’s standards, despite organic’s reputation for earth-friendly growing practices and a very marketable cache, fit his goal of husbanding the vineyard so that vintners a millennium from now might still make great wine from grapes grown on his soil. 

In an effort to enhance the nutritive quality of the food they grow and the health of the soil they depend on, individualistic small farmers like Girard are forgoing organic certification in favor of growing methods they say go beyond national organic standards watered-down at the behest of big agri-business. While this “beyond organics” movement has yet to coalesce around a central organization, campaign or guiding light, it has excited some food writers and activists while putting those invested in USDA Organics, the current environmental gold standard, on the defensive. Organic activists maintain a constant vigilance lest corporate interests further weaken the standards in an effort to better their profit margins. They question whether “beyond organic” claims are more holier-than-though rhetoric than verifiable advances in the quest to align modern farming with the ecology of place. 

To understand the motivations behind the beyond organic movement, an investigation into the organic food industry is in order. 

What’s wrong with organics? 

Farm country philosophers, responding to the ever-increasing industrialization of the food chain, have been developing earth-friendly, organic growing techniques since the 1920s. Central tenants in the organic philosophy include a rejection of man-made chemical pesticides and fertilizers and a reliance on crop rotation, diversity and concern for soil health. In the early years, small growers practiced organic farming at the margins of the agriculture community. Various states defined and regulated the practice independently. 

In order to regulate the growing organic industry, in 1990 Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA), which set up the National Organic Program (NOP) under the auspices of the USDA to develop, implement, and administer national production, handling, and labeling standards. Since that regulatory standardization, organics have become mainstream, and profitable, growing up to 20 percent in market share annually compared to conventional agriculture’s 5 percent increase. But that growth has come at a cost. As political scientist Lisa F. Clark of Frasier University writes: “(O)n one hand, organic agriculture is associated in the minds of consumers with small-scale, locally sustainable agro-food production; while on the other, it is increasingly becoming part of the global agro-food regime and agribusiness, which refers to large-scale, capital-intensive, agricultural corporations that incorporate supply, production and processing capacities into their business activities.” 

Across the country, many small farmers may use organic growing techniques but fail to seek certification because of the perceived hurdles of bureaucratic intrusion and cost associated with the process. The NOP requires prospective organic growers to track everything they do for three years before applying for certification. In a 2010 interview for the Natural Choice Directory, Willamette Valley grape grower Mark Nicholls said he would have to hire an additional full-time employee to complete the process, a cost he considered prohibitive. 

Joel Salatin, a Virginia-based author, cattleman and chicken rancher, has gained prominence as the most vocal critic of organic agri-business and proponent of the “beyond organics” movement. Salatin decries the politicization of organics growing that came with government intervention in his latest book, Everything I Want to Do is Illegal. He says that in his experience with the NOP certification process some farmers who qualified for certification were denied that certification for political reasons by a board filled with fellow farmers, and this before big agribusiness got involved. 

Internal political tensions caused by a recent controversy around the commercial introduction of alfalfa with genetically modified genes (referred to as GMO alfalfa) expose rifts within the organic movement. While GMO products cannot be labeled organic, activists have long worried that cross-pollination between widely-planted GMO crops like corn and organic feeder corn fed to organic dairy cows are contaminating organic-labeled milk with GMO residue. The Organic Consumer’s Association has pushed organic mega-labels to fight the introduction of GMO alfalfa, which in April 2011 the USDA decided to let farmers grow. But some big organic companies have pushed back, citing a low potential for alfalfa cross-pollination and NOP standards that allow for some GMO cross-pollination to occur. These corporate spokespeople say the real danger to organics is the potential for the anti-GMO campaign to make consumers think that food labeled organic may contain GMO ingredients and thus be much less desirable. 

This debate highlights a growing rift between organic purists and corporations that control the mainstream grocery business. Over the course of the last two decades, thanks to growing demand by a health conscious public for food free from toxic chemical residues, organic farming has transformed from an oddity practiced by small farmers at the periphery of American agriculture into a booming industry. Mark Kastel – cofounder of the Cornucopia Institute, which promotes economic justice for family-scale farms – estimates that organics earn $28 billion each year. 

Increasingly, those profits go to major agri-businesses – Hain Food Group, Tyson, General Mills, Unilever, Dean Foods, Danone and others – which have purchased well known, formerly independent organic brands including Horizon, Cascadian Farms, Muir Glen, Kashi, Morningstar Farms and Stoneyfield Farms. Critics say the corporate agro-giants are squeezing the small farmers, who developed the organics niche, out of the now-lucrative market. 

Perhaps even more detrimental to the organics label, these corporations have, in many ways, industrialized organic farming, which developed as an antidote to factory farms. Corporate organic farms can be many, many times the scale of family farms typically associated with organic growing and can rely on mono-cropping instead of more environmentally friendly crop rotation and on-the-farm biodiversity. 

The Cornucopia Institute has worked to highlight, in particular, the industrialization of organic egg production and dairies. Its investigations show that major organic brands, including Dean Foods’ Horizon label, house thousands of birds in indoor egg factories. These egg factories circumvent organic standards requiring that layers have access to the outdoors by constructing cramped, concrete-floored covered “porches” connected to the buildings by small openings that discourage use. 

Organic mega-dairies may house multiple thousands of cows and restrict access to pasture in violation of labeling standards. For example, in 2007 the USDA found Boulder-based Aurora Organics, the nation’s largest organic dairy, had violated numerous organic standards. Yet, in 2009, the Cornucopia Institute filed suit claiming the company had yet to clean up its act. On its website, Cornucopia keeps scorecards for organically certified dairies and egg producers, assisting consumers who want to make purchases in line with their ecological intentions. 

The industrialization of organic growing has weakened the appeal of the label for at least some knowledgeable consumers. As Salatin put it in a 2008 Mother Earth News article: “Weary of 6,000-hen confinement laying houses with 3 feet dirt strip being labeled ‘certified organic,’ patrons latch onto the ‘beyond organic’ idea.” To top it off, industrialization of the organic food chain has led to what some organic pioneers consider an abomination, processed foods bearing the USDA organic label. Noted author Michael Pollan lambastes this development in his New York Times bestseller, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. 

The growing global reach of the U.S. organic food market worries climate activists and others. Well-stocked supermarkets now contain organic label products from places as far-flung as Chile, New Zealand and even China. The economy of scale required to make food import possible further enforces the up-scaling and mono-crop propensity of off-shore organic factory farms. While these foreign crops may not have been grown with pesticides – and some worry that organic standards may not be as heavily enforced overseas – they require a heavy dose of fossil fuels to reach markets in the U.S., trading one type of pollution for an equally unacceptable one. 

Not only have corporations industrialized organic food production, critics claim the same corporations have worked to weaken the very organic standards that make their products so profitable. Early in the decade, the USDA’s National Organic Standard’s Board (NOSB) worked with agro-industry trade groups like the Organic Trade Association to develop National Organic Standards. As organic pioneer and author Eliot Coleman wrote in the newsletter for his Four Seasons Farm (Dec/Jan 2002) : “(T)oward that end the U.S. Department of Agriculture-controlled national definition of ‘organic’ is tailored to meet the marketing needs of organizations that have no connection to the agricultural integrity organic once represented.” 

Even before the USDA finalized its National Organic Standards in 2002, the Cornucopia Institute, the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) and other activists had battled to protect the integrity of organics certification from industry and Congressional assault. In a 1998 Save Organic Standards campaign, they convinced the USDA to block GMOs, irradiation and sewage sludge in organic production. In 2003 and 2004, advocates fought off attempts in Congress to weaken organic standards, including those for livestock feed and antibiotic use in dairies. 

But in 2005 the OTA championed a successful amendment to allow synthetic food additives and processing aids in processed foods bearing the organic label after a court ruled that the previously NOSB approved additives were inconsistent with the 2002 standards, according to the OCA. A May 4 Wall Street Journal article notes that wood pulp is one of the allowed additives. Food processors use cheap cellulose derived from wood pulp to enhance the texture, mouth feel and fiber content of foods such as Organic Valley’s shredded-cheese products, according to the article. 

Corporate acceptance, some say seizure, of organics labeling reaps a mixed-harvest for the environmental community. On the one hand, as Kif Scheuer blogs on the green news website Grist: “There’s nothing inherent in organic agriculture that prohibits industrialized farming.” But, he adds, that shouldn’t be a problem. “Vigilant protection of organic standards and oversight of organic practices is more valuable, and allows organic food production to grow and benefit more people.” 

In response, Grist’s own food writer Tom Philpott writes that industrial farming was not what the organic movement’s founder envisioned. Philpott argues that factory-scale organic producers are almost as dependent on off-farm inputs shipped from far away as conventional producers are. “Sir Albert (Sir Albert Howard, an early philosopher of the organic movement – ed.) imagined closed nutrient loops – small farms building their own soil,” Philpott writes. The proper response to corporate organic agriculture, Philpott, Salatin and others suggest, is a movement in support of small farms closely tied to local food chains that take a proactive approach to ecosystem sustainability and soil health. 

Going Beyond the Gold Standard 

Back at the vineyard, Steve Girard is getting excited now, standing next to a head-high pile of compost, digging the worn leather toe of his cowboy boot into the dark, crumbly material. “It’s still hot, probably about 100 degrees right now.” he says of the maturing compost, a decomposed heap of grape skins, stem, seed and vineyard cuttings mixed with cow manure, corn silage, rock dust and nitrogen-rich peppermint – all ingredients from farms in the neighborhood.  He takes a handful of the compost, crushes it, breaths deeply, offers it for inspection. Girard says this rich, tea-scented fertilizer allows him to enrich the vineyards’ soil biannually with 20 times as much nutrient as his vines consume. 

While composting is a cornerstone of organic farming, which disallows the use of man-made nitrogen fertilizers, Girard’s blend does not fit the organic bill, no matter how proud of it he is. Some of Girard’s ingredients, including the leftover plant material from his own vineyard, come from farms not certified USDA Organic. He could meet the standard by purchasing certified organic compost created who-knows-where and trucked in from any number of miles away. But the fact that these ingredients came from local farms, that the nutrient chain is short and connected to place, is of critical importance to Girard, as it is to others in the “beyond organics” camp. 

“I know these guys; I know where the ingredients came from,” says Girard of his compost suppliers and their own growing methods. Everything’s local; it’s right here. It just makes sense to me.” 

Connection to place and the local food chain – along with the intention that growing methods do not simply not harm the ecosystem, but increase biodiversity and soil health – are key tenants of Girard’s personal philosophy and the “beyond organics” movement as well. “I believe it’s more appropriate to the times,” says Girard of his growing method, which combines what he says are the best practices of the three green wine certifications: organic, biodynamic and sustainable. “The organics system, for me, is outdated.” 

The winemaker points out that the organic movement began to grow in the deadly shadow of DDT, one of the first and perhaps deadliest of industrial agriculture’s widely distributed synthetic pesticides. Organic philosophy dictates that everything synthetic is inherently bad and everything “natural” is inherently good, he says. But, in the 65 years since DDT, the chemical industry has created some “soft” chemicals less harmful to the ecosystem than widely-used, organic-certified solutions to pests and fungus. 

For example, in order to treat fungus outbreaks, organic grape growers commonly used compounds containing copper, which the EPA lists as bio-accumulative and toxic to fish, invertebrates, amphibians and plants. Girard says he would never use something that could build up in the soil and harm the long-term health of his vineyard. Instead, he uses a “soft” synthetic fungicide with a half-life of a day, which disrupts the fungus life-cycle and is undetectable in his soil within 24 hours. 

In addition to onsite composting, Girard emphasizes green manuring, cover crops and microrhizome cultivation to enhance his soil and encourage biodiversity. His integrated pest management practices encourage insect and avian predators; tall hawk perches built of reclaimed tree limbs lance up between the vine rows like so much post-modern sculpture.  

The nascent “beyond organics” movement encompasses farmers as different from one another as a southern cattle and chicken grower, a Willamette Valley winemaker and a Maine vegetable grower. That Maine farmer, Eliot Coleman, was once a guiding light in the development of organics. Author of The New Organic Grower, Four Season Harvest and The Winter Harvest Handbook, Coleman has written about organic agriculture since 1975, contributed to the scientific literature on the subject and hosted a TV series on the Learning Channel. While the NOSB developed USDA Organic standards, he sounded an alarm over the cooption of the movement he’d spent four decades nurturing. Writing in his farm newsletter in 2002, Coleman set forth a set of principals for what he called “authentic foods” that explain the theory of beyond organic growers as cogently as possible for such a diverse group. 

Growers, he writes, should both produce and sell “authentic foods,” cutting out corporate middlemen. These foods should be sold close to their place of production. Coleman suggests a 50-mile radius for whole foods such as milk, eggs, fruits, vegetables and meat products and a 300-mile circle for seed and storage crops including grains, beans, nuts, and potatoes. He posits that only traditional processed foods – cheese, wine, bread and fermented dairy products should be included in the new standard. 

In addition to food products, Coleman’s ideas encompass fields, barns and greenhouses, which should be open for inspection by customers at all times, thus allowing consumers to act as certifiers. Agricultural practices, under this theory, should “produce foods of the highest nutritional quality,” and nourish the soil “with farm-derived organic matter and mineral particles from ground rock” in order to mimic natural processes. This method also relies on cover crops and green manuring with crop rotations meant to enhance bio-diversity. 

The goal of going “beyond organics”, in Coleman’s words, is to produce “vigorous, healthy crops and livestock endowed with their inherent powers of vitality and resistance.” Instead of a symptoms-based, “pest negative” approach, he espouses a “plant positive” approach of pro-active corrective measures targeting the root causes of insect infestation, fungus attacks and weeds. He puts further emphasis, as does Salatin, on livestock husbandry methods centered on grass-based pasturing. 

Organics supporter Kastel agrees that such methods, pasture rotation specifically, have a measurable positive effect on the resulting food. “We know the eggs are more nutritious,” he says of eggs from birds pasture-raised Salatin-style. “We know they contain increased levels of beneficial nutrients.” 

Beyond organics, to what? 

A quick tour around the internet shows that, while farmer-advocates like Salatin and Coleman have clear ideas of what the term “beyond organic” means, untutored consumers may be easily confused. Several of the top websites that the search query “beyond organic” turns up have little or nothing to do with small farms, local food webs and growing practices that exceed the sustainability of USDA standards. These, instead, are websites for companies that sell dietary supplements of questionable provenance, including an as-yet-to-be-launched direct marketing or pyramid-marketing scheme fronted by “Makers Diet” guru Jordan Rubin, who critics point out claims various degrees from non-accredited institutions. Rubin declined to be interviewed for this article. 

The point is, as critics of the beyond organic concept say, without a standard setting organization or clear agreement around just what “beyond organics” actually means, the term is ripe for exploitation by the unscrupulous and has the potential to cause more problems then it solves. In 2009, Katie Kulla of Oakhill Organics, a USDA-certified organic CSA farm in Yamhill County, wrote an article for the Oregon Tilth. She defended organics from what she characterized as vague, negativistic criticism implicit in the term “beyond organics”: “(I)t positions the speaker above ‘organic.’ However, it is also a value statement lacking any specificity.” 

The Utne Reader condensed Kulla’s argument for its readers, highlighting the idea that organic certification is rigorous but not overly onerous: “A trained inspector can spot things that a consumer can’t,” federal reimbursements pay many farmers for a great deal of the cost of certification, the alternative to government controlled certification is an unregulated marketing term open to all and, lastly, the fact that agro-giants may apply the label inappropriately to processed food is not a good reason to surrender the term or dilute its meaning. 

“Ultimately, I find it not terribly useful to the consumer trying to understand what they are buying,” Kulla said in a recent interview about the term ‘beyond organic.’ As both a farmer and a consumer, she says, Kulla finds the organic label to be useful because the certification process is clearly regulated. However, she says, farmers espousing a “beyond organics” philosophy are sometimes unintentionally guilty of propagating misinformation about what is and is not allowed under USDA Organic certification. 

Kastel agrees with some of Kulla’s contentions. “Organics is still the default choice for many consumers,” says Kastel, noting the almost-universal, year-round availability of organic produce and its penalty-backed standards. “I’ll be damned if we just hand this over to a bunch of corporadoes to exploit,” he adds later. 

New Standard vs. Integrated Standard vs. No Standard 

Kulla, a once vocal critic of the “beyond organics” camp, has mellowed in her stance over time, saying that she no longer objects to fellow farmers using the term beyond organic, though she still finds it has a stinging, pejorative context for well intentioned organic-certified growers such as herself.  Conversely, the Oregon farmer says she does not feel represented by those responsible for setting organic standards and might not choose certification if she had to make the choice today, preferring instead to grow food much as she does now and count on her relationships with local consumers, not a government-certified label, to sell the nutritive and ecological value of her produce. 

If even critics of the “beyond organics” philosophy can come around to grudging acceptance, what’s next for the movement? Should proponents allow the status quo to continue? Should they develop an officially recognized label superior to USDA Organic? What about campaigning to add a size-based, location-oriented designation on top of the current federal standard? 

Kastel, with the experience of someone who has made a career of fighting for stringent standards, cautions against the pitfalls and costs associated with reinventing the wheel. He points out the multitude of preexisting ecological standards and catchphrases – including USDA Organic, free-range, sustainable and that undefined favorite of the greenwashing agri-corp: “natural” – already add to consumer confusion. And each label necessitates its own bureaucracy and associated costs. Better, he says, to strengthen existing standards than create new ones, at least in a perfect world. 

“If they don’t aggressively enforce (USDA Organic) standards, we might have to develop new standards,” says Kastel. “I don’t think we’re at that point, but it’s always a possibility.” 

At present, he says, standards may be less important than relationship building for small farmers pushing the envelope of holistic food production. Local food webs – farmers markets, CSAs and direct sale – are growing even faster than the organic shelves at local supermarkets. And that is where the bulk of the beyond organic effort should be directed. 

“In a lot of cases, the highest level practitioners (of farming practices) are outside the mainstream channel,” says Kastel. “They don’t need mainstream marketing channels; they’ve made their own.” 

Back in his office at Benton-Lane Winery, Girard waxes philosophical on his motivations for growing grapes the way he does. For him, it’s not a matter of convincing customers of his bona fides or justifying a premium for his wines. He evinces a supreme confidence that his relationship with customers and the strength of the vintages themselves will take care of all that. What Girard is more interested in, he says, is leaving this place better, more nurturing to grape vines than when he came here. Sure, he’d be happy to seek certification, if such a new ecological seal of approval fit the methods he’s currently using. If not, he’s just as happy to keep on growing as he does now. 

“Benton-Lane Vineyard will be making kick-butt wine a thousands years from now,” he says with a brassy grin, “whoever’s making it then.” 

Ephraim Payne is a freelance environmental journalist and editor specializing in forestry, fisheries and sustainable living.

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