The summer has been busy on the farm and has kept me from my favorite pastime – writing! As I’ve been outside working I’ve conjured up all kinds of topics of discussion in our land of confusion called farming. I know, I keep intending to bring the subject of genetics into my next discussion but there are things that keep leading me astray.
A recent article in the New York Times, “Has Organic’ Been Oversized” written by Stephanie Strom on July 7th captured my attention and I’ve been thinking of little else.
What disturbed me the most was the admission by Alexis Baden-Mayer, political director at the Organic Consumers Association saying “I understand that there are very few 100 percent organic businesses left…”. If a consumers association readily admits what has been whispered among us farmers out here trying to the right thing I have to ask myself what’s the point in trying to produce under a label that has been bastardized like the rest of our food system. Is it any wonder that farmers and consumers are confused?
Becoming organic certified is an expensive and time consuming prospect for a farmer. In doing so, farmer’s intention is to produce food for consumers that is free of GMO’s, additives, chemicals, and the list goes on. Traditionally organic has had the implied meaning of food in its purist form.
In 1990 our government set into motion the Organics Food Production Act requiring the U.S Department of Agriculture to develop national standards for organically produced products and to assure consumers that agricultural products sold as organic meet consistent, uniform standards. A National Organic Standards Board was created to make recommendations in the development of organic standards and certification. The 15 member board was to be representative of interested parties: farmer/grower; handler/processor; retailer; consumer/public interest; environmentalist; scientist; and certifying agent. Okay, that sounds easy enough!
At the time organic products were a niche market being produced by farmers labeled as left over hippies and the production and sales didn’t put a dent into the mainstream food market. I distinctly remember in the mid 90’s meeting many of these so called “hippie farmers”. Being part of the industrialized food production world my mindset was not in the same mode as theirs and I wondered why in the world they would create so much more work for their selves on the farm when chemicals could take care of most of the work.
The organic markets began to develop and grow. By 2011 organic products demanded premium prices, consumers had become more aware of where their food was coming from and how it was being produced, and organic food was a $30 billion dollar industry. Consumers wanted better food without all of the junk.
Enter the “big boys” and let the bastardization party begin! Like Mr. Potter in the NY Times article I believe that the “so called organic food” needs to be challenged. I want to know where the protection is for the farmers who are doing all of the right things to be truly organic and where the protection is for the consumer to be totally assured that they are getting the real deal. According to the NY Times story – “Pure, locally produced ingredients from small family farms? Not so much anymore.”
Some believe that the organic standards are being watered down; green washed, and corrupted by corporate agribusiness giants who have entered the organic markets and are industrializing it. When I hear comments from the big boys saying that the demand is greater than the supply and that the demand requires the scale that only they can provide I say “look out”! Faux organics are here and confusion abounds.
This past year, I had reason to question organic and its relationship to raising chickens. I became aware of the fact that if I were to put 10,000 chickens into one of my chicken houses, feed certified organic feed, and allow them access to the outdoors, I could have an organic farm. I didn’t need to worry about the land around the chicken houses because no chemicals had been used over the past 3 years and I could easily fence in a “sun porch” for outside allowance and nothing said that the chickens actually had to go out.
In my mind organic was about much more than just what was fed to the chickens. 10,000 chickens crammed into a confinement house conjured up memories of the days of industrial production. What type of product would I be producing from animals living a miserable existence having only a look at the outdoors but never really experiencing it? The waste created from that many chickens would have to go somewhere.
A friend laughed at my irate comments over this and told me to go to the meeting of the National Organics Standards Board and express my thoughts. Then told me “come back and tell me if they heard you or if they even cared”. Something like – let me know how far you get. I knew it would be a waste of time. After reading the NY Times article and Mr. Potter saying he had done exactly as my friend suggested I do and got nothing but being allowed to speak for 3 minutes and then a “thank you”, I realize that this issue is much bigger. Assuring the integrity of organic food won’t come through government process it will only come from consumers knowing their farmer and seeing how their food is produced.