Defending the US Organic Movement Against Corporate Capture
BY EDITH COUCHMAN
There is a general consensus among informed observers that industrialized, large-scale, corporate interests have managed to co-opt and distort the meaning of the USDA Organic label, particularly through their gradual domination of the National Organic Standards Board and the National Organic Program of the USDA. This capture is entrenched through many means, including extensive lobbying of and contributions to politicians, revolving-door employment circuits between agency officials and industry, and, of course, advertising that shapes and confuses public opinion and values.
Among the worst failings of the USDA Organic Certification Program is the fact that milk, milk powders, beef, poultry, eggs, and pork from animals raised in mega-dairies and Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) are being sold under the organic label. As most readers know, such operations subject animals, farmworkers, nearby communities, and the environment to unhealthy, unnatural, disease-promoting conditions. Such crowded, confined settings cannot qualify as organic in Europe. A second major flaw in USDA labeling is the fact that vegetables (such as tomatoes, peppers, & salad mixes) and all sorts of fruits and berries are now being classified as USDA organic despite not being grown in living soil. These container-grown or hydroponically raised crops are typically produced with chemically laced liquids. They are not deemed organic in Europe or wherever else international organic standards are being upheld. Growth in living soil is by definition essential for traditional organic production. (“Feed the soil, not the plant” is an organic mantra!)
As a customer and eater, I have been very discouraged to see hydroponic berries and vegetables, as well as CAFO-produced milk, eggs, and meat, gradually dominate the shelves in those small supermarket sections that claim to be organic. Amazon’s Whole Foods stores can try to turn ‘organic integrity’ into a tasteless joke about properly bagging produce, but the crowding out of true, small-scale, localized organic farming, food, and farmers is not a laughing matter. It has profound consequences for people and the planet. It is unacceptable that corporate interests are profiting from faux organics with a plethora of deceptive labels that delude the wealthy into thinking that, with their money, they are protecting their families from our country’s increasingly toxic food supply while also helping happy farm families raise charming cows and chickens. This occurs even as those same companies simultaneously market ‘cheap’ pesticide- and additive-laden food (with a different set of brand names) to the poor. Will such interests be allowed to co-opt the historic (actually Indigenous) concept of organic? Will they be able to reduce it to a farming method that merely utilizes fewer synthetic biocides? Will those of us living now allow organic to lose its foundational focus on meeting human needs for both nourishment and creative, right livelihood in ways that value and restore healthy, living soils; complex ecological connections; uncontaminated air and water; biodiversity; traditional culture; and just, reverential, and regenerative relationships among all the participants within the process?
In this regard, I’d like to applaud the mission and accomplishments of the Real Organic Project. As most of you know, this five-year-old initiative is doing outstanding work raising public awareness and rebuilding organic integrity with its Real Organic certification program and add-on label. I would encourage anyone reading this article to learn more about the Real Organic Project, to choose products bearing their label whenever possible, to join as a contributing Friend and/or to certify your farm with this farmer-led organization. Among the key requirements for the Real Organic label, in addition to fulfilling USDA organic requirements, are verification that the foods are raised in living soil and are not the products of CAFOs.
To conclude, I’d like to return to a concern that’s very close at hand - should we be worried about corporate capture of our regional and state organic institutions – our associations? As a participant for over 40 years in the natural/organic food movement, serving in capacities such as a general member, an event volunteer, a committee participant, a board member, and a paid staffer, I am sad to say that we do indeed have to be very alert for subtle and not-so-subtle efforts to co-opt our organizations’ decades of labor and vision.
To stave off such unwelcome situations, I would like to suggest a few questions that might help us to assess how well our particular NOFA is prepared to counter such forces. No doubt much better lists could be/should be developed, but hopefully, these queries can spur further thought, discussion, and action.
1. Is your organization’s general membership level increasing?
2. Are eaters, gardeners, and actual organic farmers well represented among the membership, staff, and board?
3. How involved is the membership in committee work and events? To what degree has such activity become the responsibility of paid staff people?
4. Are members encouraged to contribute to the organization’s communications and direction? How are such contributions ‘screened?” or allowed to percolate and influence?
5. What role does the membership play in governance and in the organization’s policy activities/directions?
6. How does the level of membership participation in programming today compare with that of ten or twenty years ago? For instance, what are the attendance numbers at conferences, on-farm tours, and workshops? (of course, online participation should be factored in - even though this represents a substantially different kind of engagement and potential for connection.)
7. How well-read are your newsletter, website, and social media posts?
8. Whose voices are being heard and who are we serving when our organizations commit resources? Are we including low-income eaters, families, children, youth, elders, gardeners, homesteaders, small-scale farmers, BIPOC, LGBTIA and Indigenous peoples, the hearing impaired, and the (Dis) Abled - among others?
9. How committed are staffers to the broader social/planetary implications of the organic movement? How does that commitment manifest in concrete actions?
10. What is the ratio of Executive salaries to those of entry-level staffers? Is everyone guaranteed a living wage and benefits? Are non-commodified benefits also incorporated as part of the work world of staffers?
11. Is the board a dynamic partner together with the membership and staff – or merely a ‘talking shop?’
12. How powerful is the board’s executive committee vis a vis the rest of the board, staffers, the ED, and the membership?
13. Is there a healthy and free exchange of ideas and energy between staff, membership, and board - or is such an exchange overly channeled and hierarchical? In other words, is your organization a network or very ‘top-down?’ Is decision-making consensual and transparent?
14. How dependent is the organization upon grants and sponsorships from for-profit corporations; from the financial sector (including non-member controlled lenders, insurers, and investment land trusts - or land trusts that could easily become investment instruments); law firms, individuals, and/or charitable foundations with opaque or questionable funding sources/affiliations; and organic input manufacturers (recalling that, ideally, organic is so hyperlocalized that all the inputs are generated and recycled in place – an almost impossible criterion since the food is exported out)?
15. Are folks with corporate connections able to ‘punch above their weight’ when it comes to influencing (slowing as well as directing) the organization’s activities, including communication, board, and policy work?
16. Who are the principal partner organizations – is there a broad span of allies reflecting the integrated and comprehensive vision (and potential) of localized organic practices?
17. What recourse does the membership have if the board and/or staff is not perceived as pursuing the mission?
18. Is the organizational atmosphere collegial, directed, collaborative - and in general, enjoyable and fun?