Ever Wonder How Farms Become Certified Organic? It Ain’t as Easy as You Think
Demand for organic food is growing, all over the world. Many consumers want an assurance that they can trust a food source, and so many growers are becoming certified organic, so that the consumer can be sure that their product is the real deal. But what does “certified organic” really mean? Most of us have an inkling, but not many people know the details. Organic certification is different in every country, and not so long ago, it used to be based on local trust of a farmer in our country. The USDA “certified organic” standards did not come about until 2001.
The bare bones of becoming certified organic for a farmer are:
(1) Avoid most synthetic chemical inputs (e.g. fertilizers, pesticides, antibiotics, food additives, etc), genetically modified organisms, irradiation, and sewage sludge.
(2) Use farmland that has been free from synthetic chemicals for a number of years (often, three, or more)
(3) Keep detailed records of production & sales
(4) Separate organic products from non-organic products
(5) Allow periodic on-site inspections
(6) Pay a fee of $400-$2000 per year to maintain certification.
That last point can really hurt the small farmer, and some growers choose to opt- out of the certification because they don’t think they should have to line the pockets of a rich CEO with their hard-earned money. Those farmers who have established a trusting bond with their community find that they don’t need to prove themselves with a certification. And recently, the USDA has lost trust among those consumers who read up on current events.
In a June 2004 article, OM organics stated that “USDA-certified organic farms could use fertilizers and pesticides that contain ‘unknown’ ingredients, and USDA-certified organic dairy cows could have been administered antibiotics or fed non-organic fishmeal – made with synthetic preservatives or contaminated by mercury and PCBs (a known carcinogen).” Some people believed that this negated the whole reason for organic certification.
Many farmers, consumers, and original founders of USDA-certified-organic were upset about this, making the organic farming industry the first in US history to insist on stricter regulations for itself. And so in May of 2004, the USDA retracted these controversial rulings. However, left intact was one ruling that many people found disagreeable: “The USDA announced they would no longer regulate non-agricultural products labeled as “organic.” Any seafood, body care products, pet foods, fertilizer, and clothing, no matter how they are produced, could be labeled ’organic’.” (OM Organics, June 2004)
The average consumer is unaware of this; if we buy a carrot labeled organic, it is certified organic. If we buy some shrimp that is labeled organic, it means nothing.
At many farms, including mine, we put into action many careful and environmentally-conscious habits that go above and beyond the certification requirements, such as using local compost, using trellising/mulching materials that are sustainable and bio-degradable (no black plastic, no metal poles), among many other things. A small-scale, organic grower, certified or otherwise, is likely to have become an organic grower out of a feeling of social responsibility; they want to earn a living that is untarnished by harmful ways. They do not need to be regulated, but as the organic market grows, the size of the organic farm can also grow, and something like a USDA certification becomes a marketing tool for a larger-scale farm. The large farm can afford to pay for certification, and can benefit from subtle loopholes, such that the USDA allows. The large farm is motivated by profit, and is likely to put the smaller farms out of business, thus providing the organic consumer with a lower-quality product, with the same certified-organic label.
Many small, organic growers are upset by the fact that they are not allowed to use the word “organic” on their product, because it has been monopolized by the USDA. Even if they are adhering to all of the requirements, if they do not pay the USDA for certification, they are left out. Many of these farmers will use the term “naturally grown,” or, “authentic.” There is a non-profit organization called Certified Naturally Grown that is geared towards small organic growers who cannot afford organic certification, but who still maintain a high standard for growing food organically, and who follow all regulations put forth by the USDA, and then some. The main difference between the USDA national certified organic program and the Certified Naturally Grown program is that the USDA inspects an endless pile of paperwork provided on a regular basis by the farmer, whereas in the Certified Naturally Grown program, the farmer has his farm inspected by other farmers, and has to undergo regular pesticide/chemical fertilizer tests. So, in a way, the naturally grown people are doing a more thorough inspection than the USDA, while not imposing financial barriers on the farm. Moreover, under USDA regulations, a farmer is not allowed to save his own seeds (one very sustainable practice), but must obtain seeds from a certified organic seed supplier, unless the farmer wants to apply to become a certified seed supplier, and pay more money for more certification. Many people find this complicated – if a grower adheres to organic growing regulations, how could any portion of his crop, including seeds, be anything but organic? It seems like the USDA is just trying to squeeze more money out of more growers, even if it means putting a cap on a sustainable practice, such as seed saving.
All of this is a result of a growing demand for environmentally sound practices – meaning that people are becoming more conscientious of food sources, which is good. But as the organics market gets bigger, we must remain conscientious, and have a solid understanding of what the regulatory effort is really doing. Having standards is good, but the best way to determine the integrity of a farm is not to trust a label from a faraway source, but to go to the farm, meet the farmer, and look at what they’re doing, eye to eye. Establishing trust within a community is the essence of the organic movement.
–Elly Vaughn is a Contributor to The Free George.
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