Silver celebration: Organic enthusiasts mark food law’s 25th anniversary

Sup­port­ers cel­e­brated the 25th an­niver­sary of the Or­ganic Foods Pro­duc­tion Act last week. Lead­ers re­flected on how far the move­ment has come in the past few decades dur­ing a vir­tual press con­fer­ence hosted by the Ohio Eco­log­i­cal Food and Farm As­so­ci­a­tion, one of the na­tion’s first pro­mot­ers of or­ganic food.

Signed into law in 1990, the OFPA was a bat­tle be­fore and af­ter im­ple­men­ta­tion.

Liana Hoodes, Na­tional Or­ganic Coali­tion ad­viser, said prior to the OFPA there was no na­tional stan­dard for or­ganic farm­ing.

“It’s im­por­tant to re­mem­ber the de­vel­op­ment of the law came from farm­ers and con­sumers, joined by en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists and in­dus­try in the very be­gin­ning,” she said.

Kath­leen Mer­ri­gan served as head of the Agri­cul­tural Mar­ket­ing Ser­vice from 1999 to 2001 and is known as the chief ar­chi­tect of the present-day or­ganic stan­dards. She later served as Deputy Sec­re­tary of Agri­cul­ture from 2009 to 2013.

Prior to the OFPA, Mer­ri­gan said a deep mis­trust had grown be­tween or­ganic farm­ers and gov­ern­ment. With growth in the or­ganic sec­tor, farm­ers were con­cerned or­ganic stan­dards would be wa­tered down, so they went to the U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture for help.

Mer­ri­gan said the USDA orig­i­nally tried to work with la­bel rules but de­cided the is­sue needed leg­is­la­tion. Govern­ment of­fi­cials, farm­ers and or­ganic stake­hold­ers part­nered to write the bill.

“I think that part­ner­ship, that col­lab­o­ra­tion, is em­bed­ded in the law through the con­struc­tion of the Na­tional Or­ganic Stan­dards Board,” she said.

Even af­ter the draft bill was writ­ten, the group had trou­ble get­ting it passed. Sen. Pa­trick Leahy, D-Vt., the Se­nate Agri­cul­ture Com­mit­tee chair­man, in­tro­duced the bill in a cham­ber with a Demo­cratic ma­jor­ity. While the Se­nate went along with the bill, Mer­ri­gan said, the House was a dif­fer­ent story.

“When I look back on that time, this is a very clas­sic David and Go­liath story,” she said.

Mer­ri­gan said the USDA had trou­ble find­ing a Con­gress­man to in­tro­duce the leg­is­la­tion be­fore Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., agreed to spon­sor it. He was not on the House Ag Com­mit­tee and had an up­hill bat­tle be­fore the bill passed and Pres­i­dent Ge­orge H.W. Bush signed it into law.

After pas­sage, the law was slow to get off the ground, ham­pered by a lack of ap­pro­pri­a­tions for USDA staff and the Na­tional Or­ganic Stan­dards Board to de­velop the rules.

The first draft rules were fi­nally pub­lished in 1997, but con­tained what Hoodes de­scribed as a “head­line grab­bing” al­lowance of three con­tro­ver­sial things: GMOs, ir­ra­di­a­tion and sewage sludge.

Hoodes said grass­roots groups pulled to­gether and the draft rules re­ceived 325,000 com­ments in an era be­fore In­ter­net sub­mis­sions. Hoodes said the com­ments rep­re­sented the most sub­mit­ted on a USDA rule up to that point.

Dur­ing Mer­ri­gan’s ten­ure at USDA, the rules, which she de­scribed as “a phone book” thick, were re­fined and pub­lished in 2002.

Mer­ri­gan said while food safety was the mo­ti­va­tion at the time of the OFPA’s pas­sage, en­vi­ron­men­tal health, sus­tain­abil­ity and farm struc­ture have ben­e­fited.

“I think we have seen in time that we are ready to start go­ing be­yond that ini­tial food safety, con­sumers driven to or­ganic be­cause of con­cerns about pes­ti­cide residues,” she said. “Now, con­sumers in the mar­ket­place are reach­ing for the or­ganic la­bel be­cause of a whole host of at­tributes.”

Abby Young­blood, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Or­ganic Coali­tion, said or­ganic food sales have grown to $40 bil­lion, rep­re­sent­ing 5 per­cent of U.S. food sales.

“We have seen re­ally as­tound­ing growth in a short pe­riod of time,” she said.

How­ever, re­search fund­ing has not kept up. Young­blood said just one-tenth of 1 per­cent of the re­search in the USDA’s flag­ship pro­gram is ded­i­cated to or­ganic sys­tems. She said more fed­eral fund­ing is needed for or­ganic re­search to help farm­ers breed seeds bet­ter adapted to chang­ing cli­mate and or­ganic sys­tems.

Young­blood said farm­ers are ben­e­fit­ing from the OFPA by or­ganic farm­ing prac­tices and price pre­mi­ums. It also of­fers a way for be­gin­ning farm­ers to start a ca­reer.

“Or­ganic is a key op­por­tu­nity for those who are get­ting into farm­ing,” she said. “We know that if we want to con­tinue to pro­duce food do­mes­ti­cally, we need to have more farm­ers and we need to at­tract young peo­ple to the pro­fes­sion.”

Young­blood also said the OFPA laid the foun­da­tion for a much more demo­cratic and trans­par­ent food sys­tem.

“It is this op­por­tu­nity that cit­i­zens have to par­tic­i­pate in the process and to en­gage in help­ing to de­cide what that or­ganic la­bel means,” she said. “It’s re­ally so im­por­tant and so ex­cit­ing, be­cause we know that we can keep build­ing the or­ganic la­bel. It’s not static, and it can keep chang­ing and adapt­ing to re­flect new pro­duc­tion meth­ods.”