Organic Consumers Association

Campaigning for health, justice, sustainability, peace, and democracy

Early Beginnings of the Organic Certification Process

I’ve devoted the first two installments in this series to exploring the dual wellsprings that gave rise to organic agriculture. Organic Agriculture: Its Origins and Evolution delved into Sir Albert Howard’s pioneering vision of organic agriculture as a self-regulating system of integrated crop and livestock production that provides optimal nutrition for organisms, including humans, on their journey through life. In Industrial Agriculture and the Organic Alternative: Rachel Carson’s Contribution, I introduced the more contemporary concern, brilliantly articulated by that noted marine biologist and author, that the reckless release of toxic synthetic compounds into the environment threatens to undermine the Earth’s ecological balance. The convergence of these two tributaries by the early 1960s led to a small but spirited torrent of dedicated farmers and supportive consumers who rejected a mainstream food supply increasingly driven by mass production, saturation advertising and convenience preparation.

How would consumers seeking chemical-free fruits and vegetables, brown eggs and bulgur wheat find the precious yet rare commodities they prized? One solution was to grow them personally and many people tried, with varying degrees of success, to go “back to the land” and start farming. Another solution was to pool resources with like-minded souls and procure bulk orders from trusted farmers for communal distribution which fostered the modern cooperative grocery/health food store movement. But becoming a farmer meant sweaty full-time work and joining a coop led to messy group dynamics and lots of left over brown rice. Alternative-minded farmers and consumers alike began imagining a simple yet reliable shorthand that would readily identify food raised and handled as naturally as possible and ideally with no chemical inputs. J.I. Rodale had been popularizing the term “organic” to describe such production systems through his publications and research institute since the 1940s. With this pedigree, “organic” was widely synonymous with natural farming systems and a numerous regional farmer groups (calling them “organizations” at this point would be stretching it) were using it as a marketing claim by the late 1970s.

Despite a perpetual cold shoulder from the land grant agricultural establishment and the commercial food industry, organic agriculture grew steadily if silently during the 1980s. Each regional farmer group developed its own set of standards that specified the conditions with which a farmer must comply for their farm and the food it produced to be certified, labeled and sold as organic. These standards began with the basics of Howard and Rodale – small scale systems emphasizing natural fertility sources including compost and cover crops, crop rotations, and crop diversity – and grafted on the Carson commandment – no synthetic inputs, especially pesticides. The pioneering farmers of this era deserve high praise not only for developing ways to produce under what were generally thought to be impossible conditions but for also building the credibility and market value of their distinct brands. By the end of the decade, there were at least thirty organic certification programs operating across the United States with some – especially in California, New England and the Upper Midwest – developing sizable consumer loyalty.

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