Organic Consumers Association

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How the USDA Came to Adopt the Organic Standards

[Editor's Note: This is part six of Mark Keating's ongoing history of the origins and evolution of organic agriculture; how the organic community and the USDA eventually came together to create the national organic standards; their subsequent implementation; and the fallout felt through to the present day.]

“Democracy is the worst form of government you can live with, until you’ve tried all the rest.”—Winston Churchill

How the Purity of Product Came to Triumph Over the Integrity of Process

The USDA rolled out its first proposal for national organic standards in late 1997 and within weeks the verdict was decisive: universal repudiation, to put it mildly. The Department typically received scores, maybe a few hundred public comments on its draft regulations. The torrent of comment on the organic standards poured in by the thousands per day and ultimately exceeded 275,000 with maybe 4 having anything complimentary to say. A realist by nature, USDA Secretary Dan Glickman found religion and promised to do right the next time around. Indeed, the Secretary was so sensitized by the backlash that he committed the USDA to issuing a second draft proposal for additional comment before finalizing the standards.

Reflecting his good faith, the Secretary appointed the widely respected Kathleen Merrigan as Administrator of the Agricultural Marketing Service to lead this initiative. When asked what made the concert promoter Bill Graham special, Grace Slick of the Jefferson Airplane commented that “He was one of them and he was one of us.” Merrigan (now the Deputy Secretary of Agriculture) earned similar standing; she was solidly connected in DC as a whip smart Hill staffer who gained the trust of the grassroots community while drafting the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) (PDF). The USDA also brought in Keith Jones, a savvy veteran of the Texas Department of Agriculture’s successful certification program to run the day to day operations of the National Organic Program (NOP). The Secretary made it clear that he wanted the job done and done right before he left office at the end of the Clinton Administration. Once he signaled support, the mid- and upper-level bureaucrats who had gone through the motions for five years on the first proposal became much better at returning phone calls and solving problems.

What did the organic community find so objectionable in the first proposal? Pretty much everything. The provisions for managing crops and livestock seemed paper-thin and lacked the rigor and complexity that people associated with the private and state certification programs. For example, livestock could receive 80% organic feed and still be certified when existing certification programs had raised the bar to a 100% requirement. Provisions for confining livestock were so vague that the public concluded that USDA couldn’t think outside the factory farm box. The crop standards featured an “order of preference” approach that allowed farmers to implement less desirable practices if preferable ones proved too difficult. Was USDA suggesting that organic meant settling for less than the best? The proposed standards also seemed riddled with deficiencies and loopholes that increased the risk of prohibited synthetic substances slipping into the system.

Beyond concerns that the standards were flimsy, organic veterans were very disturbed by what they saw as a power-grabbing USDA exceeding its statutory role, especially at the expense of certifying agents. The so-called farmer-based certification programs had legitimate Founding Father/Earth Mother status in the organic community and the OFPA was supposed to protect their authority and autonomy. Instead, the USDA’s proposal imposed firewalls that would drive working farmers out of the certification review process. Additionally, certifying agents would lose the right to use their private seal to certify to additional requirements. This struck many as a blatant infringement of their registered trademarks and commercial free speech rights but the USDA insisted that private seals would undermine the principal benefit of a consistent national standard. All in all, the USDA’s first proposal validated the deep-seated fear that the Department was incapable of wrapping its mind around the zen nuances of organic production and certification and was not at all receptive to advice from those who could.

Without a doubt the greatest perceived transgression in the USDA’s first proposal was its supposed allowance of genetic engineering, irradiation and sewage sludge in organic farming. The presence of these quintessential bête noires confirmed that USDA had sub-contracted writing the standards to Monsanto with the intent to either kill organic agriculture outright or make it a new corporate profit center. Vitriolic references to the “Big Three” came to dominate public comment and spearhead an avalanche of form letter responses. Working Assets members alone submitted an amazing 30,000+ comments through the check-off option that the company included on monthly statements. Much more significant than the form letters, though, were the100,000+ unique comments, often exceptionally detailed and constructive, that the USDA received. These comments as well as the reconvening of the National Organic Standards Board in early 1998 paved the way for unprecedented public participation in the regulatory process as the USDA began putting together its next attempt at national organic standards.

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