The case for USDA organic

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The Trump administration last spring withdrew a final rule that would have strengthened organic poultry welfare standards. Last week, we learned that the issue will have its day in court.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia last Tuesday agreed to hear a challenge by the Organic Trade Association (OTA) against the Department of Agriculture on this very issue. For some organic activists, the case is part of a larger battle to protect the meaning of “organic.” For others, the battle is already lost.  

{mosads}Bashing organic food is popular. I’m not surprised to hear fast food aficionados scoff at the price of organic eggs. In fact, I hear it more and more often from health-conscious and eco-friendly friends: “organic food means nothing.”

And I get why. U.S. organic food policy is far from perfect. Concerning news investigations report that hens raised to lay organic eggs live no different than their conventional counterparts, Big Ag dairy producers flout organic rules, and pesticide-laden corn and soybean imports are sold under fake organic certificates.

The thing is, critics spend so much time focusing on U.S. organic standards flaws or decrying when bad actors skirt the rules that they ignore a basic fact: USDA organic is the only mainstream certification for low-input alternative agriculture backed by federal regulations.

Farmers and food handlers jump through a lot of hoops to be certified organic. They develop a detailed “organic system plan” for a certification agent (aka certifier) which spells out how their operation adheres to organic standards. They undergo regular inspections to ensure they’re following the plan. Between inspections they are required to document every input used, from seeds to fertilizers, and report changes at their operation in real time. The paperwork is no small burden for folks who prefer to spend their time in a feedlot or field.

I’ve been researching organic food regulation for six years. I have yet to find evidence that regulatory failures and fraudulent organic food sales are anything but anomalies.

For a half dozen published research studies, I’ve analyzed data from a nation-wide survey of organic farmers, scrutinized the USDA’s organic operations database, and combed transcripts from interviews with certifiers, inspectors, consultants and National Organic Program officials.

The sum of this research indicates that organic regulation personnel, from certifiers to inspectors, work daily to ensure rigorous organic regulations enforcement; what the program likes to call “organic integrity.”  For example, less than one percent of surveyed organic producers say their certifier fails to strictly apply the regulations.

Furthermore, the USDA’s National Organic Program requires some organic businesses to undergo unannounced inspections (in addition to regular inspections) and product testing for banned substances, such as GMOs and synthetic pesticides. The program regularly suspends or revokes the certificates of operations that don’t follow the rules. When a business is believed to have sold conventional products as organic, the program can launch fraud investigations, and working with the Department of Justice, has even sent people to jail.

Other certification programs like Non-GMO, the Food Alliance, Certified Naturally Grown, and Biodynamic can’t do that.

U.S. organic regulation is not perfect. The National Organic Program has been grossly underfunded and understaffed since its implementation in 2002. Small organic family farms increasingly lose out to international agribusiness conglomerates. Moves like the organic poultry welfare regulation withdrawal mentioned at the beginning of this piece weaken organic standards stringency.

The solution to these flaws isn’t to reject USDA organic. The most likely alternative is a wild west of organic claims and we already know how that goes. At one point the term “organic” was as unregulated as “natural” is today. The result? In the words of Margaret Scoles, executive director of the International Organic Inspectors Association: “the [organic] industry went to the USDA…the organic community saw that there were cheaters and there was no way to stop a cheater.”

David P. Carter is an Assistant Professor of public policy and administration at the Public Affairs Program, Department of Political Science, University of Utah, and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network. 

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