What the Organic Industry is Really Like

By Peggy Miars, OMRI Executive Director/CEO

A number of people have told me that they believe strongly in organic ideologies, but not in certified organic food. I can certainly understand that perspective, but I get frustrated when I hear questions like, “Aren’t the organic standards being watered down by corporate interests?” In twenty years of working in the organic industry, I can say that has not been my experience.  Most of the people working on organic standards are truly committed to organic principles, and I commend them for the difficult decisions they face. Who would take on such a challenging role if they didn’t believe strongly in the founding principles of organic agriculture?

What I have witnessed is a consistent and not always friendly conflict between the ideals of availability and integrity. So many standards decisions come down to a choice between making more organic food available to more people, something that could be seen as benefitting larger companies, and restricting organic food to an ideal that is perhaps difficult to achieve on a larger scale. These two concepts are sometimes at odds, but they are certainly not mutually exclusive. Regardless, the compromises made have led to sour (organic) grapes on a number of occasions.

The organic standards for food produced on a commercial scale are hard to relate to, and certainly involve materials and processes that would not come into play if we were making the same food in our own home kitchens where traceability and supply chain dynamics are not involved.  From reading the organic standards themselves, it’s nearly impossible to discern what is and isn’t allowed in organic food. I have attended multi-day trainings focused entirely on understanding the standards! They are certainly not clear or accessible to most consumers.

The situation is made even more difficult when it comes to understanding the National List – the USDA list of substances allowed and prohibited in the production of organic food. Most of these substances are not ingredients, but rather tools such as fertilizers, health care aids and processing sanitizers that organic farmers and processors are allowed to use to make organic food. For example, synthetic zinc sulfate is considered an effective footbath for maintaining hoof health in cows. Zinc sulfate isn’t in our food, but it’s a synthetic tool that the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) recently recommended to be added to the National List, for footbaths only.

The National List is often the center of confrontations in the organic industry. Any additions to or removals from the list have to be carefully weighed, and each substance is re-evaluated every five years to determine whether there are suitable alternatives. In fact, the semi-annual NOSB meetings provide the venue for three or four day marathon debates, where oral and written comments are presented to the board concerning materials on the agenda. Commenters include certifiers, farmers, processors, companies that make fertilizers and other inputs, nonprofit groups and individual citizens. It is during these meetings that the NOSB votes to recommend changes to the National List. (See our post on the National Organic Standards Board for more information.)

OMRI always sends representatives to the NOSB meetings, not only to understand the votes but also to offer comments on specific materials. We never advocate for or against allowing particular materials. However, since we review the majority of products used in organic production, we rely on clear guidelines for what is and isn’t allowed. Most of our comments relate to whether proposed changes would be enforceable or how those changes might impact the marketplace.

What I have seen as a meeting attendee over the past eight years is that those who participate in the organic industry are careful about these decisions, and about organic food. I do not see the volunteer board making decisions so that corporations will make more money. The NOSB members weigh each decision carefully, and they have to make some really hard choices that I would not want to make. I’ve witnessed board members personally struggle with difficult decisions that are not black and white.

I have seen some really interesting debates at these meetings, and for the most part the debates are congenial and not personal. It is clear that opinions differ. However, there have been times when personal attacks and finger-pointing have taken place. All of the people at the meetings are passionate about the organic standards, so it’s not surprising that some people would have an intense response to a proposed change. However, I would hate for anyone to think that this is the norm, or typical of the NOSB debate process. We have all disagreed personally with an NOSB decision at one time or another, and it’s important that we voice our opinions. But opinions don’t make a person “bad” or “good” – they are just opinions.

If it were up to you, where would your interests lie? Before you answer, think about what the world would look like if large companies could never achieve organic status, because they just don’t have the tools to produce large amounts of food through one operation. Without the incentive of the organic label, would they use more toxic pesticides and hormones? Looking at it another way, are smaller farms at risk of being pushed out of the organic market because large companies are allowed to compete? Difficult questions indeed!

Peggy New

Peggy Miars has been OMRI’s Executive Director/CEO since 2010. She came to OMRI from California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), where she served for six years as the Executive Director/CEO. She holds a Bachelor of Business Administration degree from Western Michigan University and completed post-graduate courses in nonprofit management at Regis University in Colorado Springs. Peggy has worked in the organic industry for more than 18 years, previously in marketing and management positions with Earthbound Farm, Whole Foods Market, Granary Market, various nonprofit organizations, and her own marketing consulting business. She completed IOIA inspector training for crops in 2007 and has had further IOIA training in both the NOP and Canadian Organic Standards.

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