Celebrating 25 years of organic standards

By Catie Noyes

Farm and Dairy, 12/8/15

SALEM, Ohio — Organic producers, policy leaders and consumers agree the road to creating uniform standards for organic production was not an easy one. Even after the passage of the Organic Foods Production Act in 1990, the rules concerning organic production were disputed and would take several more years to sort out.

Twenty-five years later, the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association acknowledged this milestone in a teleconference, Nov. 30, by talking about the challenges of creating unified standards in organic production. Participants also shared their hopes for the future of the National Organic Program.

Before the law

“There was no ‘ah-ha’ moment for us,” said Mike Laughlin, a certified organic specialty crop farmer from Johnstown, Ohio, referring to his decision to go organic. He and his wife had been growing a few small plots of vegetables in their backyard, nothing large-scale at the time.

“When our farm became a reality, it was a simple choice to grow in a manner that protected and enhanced the earth and provided good clean, safe food for us, our children and our customers,” Laughlin said during the conference call. But finding the information they needed was a challenge.

“It was a different time,” Laughlin said. “A lot of information was hard to find.” That’s when Laughlin discovered the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association and found a group of like-minded individuals. Through the association, Laughlin was able to become certified organic under the criteria supplied by the OEFFA.

Having the OEFFA standards in place made Ohio one of the first states to develop rules for organic production, but it didn’t seem to be enough, said Laughlin. “It didn’t stop anyone else from saying they had an organic product. There were no rules to prevent that from happening.”

This began a push for more uniform U.S. standards.

Developing standards

“This was a very classic David and Goliath story,” said Kathleen Merrigan, former U.S. deputy secretary for the USDA who helped write the laws for the national organic standard that would replace the patchwork standards developed across the country in the late 1980s.

At the time, there was a distrust between farmers and the government. “Farmers had not been treated well by USDA historically,” explained Merrigan. So it was a surprise to see farmers coming to government’s door for help.  Legislation for the Organic Foods Production Act was signed into law on Nov. 28, 1990. Concerns for the language in the legislation would prompt more changes in the next 12 years.

The use of GMOs, irradiation and sewage sludge were all permitted in the original legislation, which ignited an uproar in the organic community, explained Liana Hoodes, National Organic Coalition adviser. There were over 325,000 comments submitted to the act’s implementation — “the biggest comment to any USDA rule at that point,” said Hoodes.

It wasn’t until 2002 that a final rule was published, establishing an intensive set of rules. “Back then, the organic standards were just two sides of an 8 1/2-by-11 sheet of paper,” said Laughlin, whose Northridge Organic Farm was one of the first Ohio farms to become certified organic under the new federal standards. “Now they’re more like a telephone book.”

Future

Even with a very prescriptive set of rules, all panel members agreed, the future of the organic industry looks promising. Organic products have seen an “astounding” growth, said Abby Youngblood, National Organic Coalition Executive Director, with sales reaching nearly $40 billion annually, which she said is about 5% of total food sales.

“I think organic is a key opportunity for those who are getting into farming,” she said. “In terms of profitability, on a per-acre basis, in many cases organic does offer increased profitability and a way for people to get started in farming.”

Research

But more organic research funding is needed, added Youngblood. “Only one-tenth of 1 percent of all agricultural research is dedicated in the (USDA’s) flagship research program to organic research.”

Kathleen Merrigan said she has seen practices led by organic farmers be adopted by a larger number of farmers who are not organic. “Investing in organic research is not just investing in organic agriculture, it’s investing in agriculture,” she said.

Her example was the use of rotational grazing on dairy farms, a practice she said was “pioneered by organic producers” and has since been widely adapted on a variety of operations both organic and non-organic — “because it makes sense.” The kinds of research that (organic producers) are calling for is a way to broaden our American agriculture portfolio, said Merrigan.