“Real Organic” Label Bites Back at Industrial Agriculture

When you think of organic food, you probably imagine a bucolic farm with happy cows out in the pasture and crops growing lush and healthy in fields free of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and other agricultural chemicals.

There’s a reason for that image: It was the original intent of the organic movement, which aimed to reclaim farming and preserve soil integrity. Unfortunately, the value of the organic label — now regulated by the USDA — has been undermined in recent years by the rise of what some refer to as “industrial organic.”

Now, “organic” includes confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), hydroponics and crops grown in industrial settings that don’t adhere to the spirit of the label. Backed by ferocious marketing, organic is big business, with consumers paying a premium for products labeled “organic.” Following the money, numerous major agriculture firms have entered the organic business, and small farms are getting fed up.

It’s not just the industrialization of organic food that’s worrying some food producers. They’re also concerned about changes they see at the Department of Agriculture, fearing that the protections they’ve fought for will erode. They argue that “USDA organic” is losing its meaning, and creating a maze of paperwork and finicky requirements that benefit big corporations, but present challenges for small farms.

And with big corporations entering the fray, organic certifications face some major changes. Companies are lobbying to increase yields and save money, not necessarily to protect natural resources or be kind to farm animals.

So small-scale farmers are proposing a solution, in the form of the Real Organic Project.

They’d like to get together as a group to develop farmer-driven recommendations for standards and practices that better reflect organic ideals. That includes better animal welfare protections, as well as the elimination of hydroponics and other steps to protect the integrity of the label.

Through a series of meetings, producers hope to develop guidelines and then explore next steps. Ideally, these would involve a reputable third party certification process, with the label designed as a supplement to — not necessarily a replacement for — the USDA organic label.

Some farmers think this initiative should go a step further. John Ikerd agrees that broad national standards are helpful, but he suggests bioregional certifications adjusted to fit the specifics of a region’s ecology and farming community. Ikerd says such certifications could supplement national labels and work through systems of cooperatives and mutual accountability in the community; farmers and community members could collaborate together on labeling and enforcing values. This could foster a deeper connection to the earth, as well as helping farmers build relationships with their communities.

The Real Organic Project team hopes to announce some preliminary findings later in 2018, laying the groundwork for developing a pilot program that will help them explore practicalities. By keeping the advisory committee tightly focused on small farmers and some consultants like scientists, they aim to develop a plan that promotes sustainable agriculture while increasing consumer choice.