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Michael Sligh: Stay the Course on Organic Standards

Michael Sligh, farmer, author, founding chair of the National Organics Standards Board and director of the Sustainable Agriculture Program at RAFI-USA, takes the long view. “This is a crisis of success!” he insists, talking about the split in the organic industry caused by last fall’s amendment of the Organic Food Production Act. “We wouldn’t be in this position unless we had been more successful than any of us could have dreamed ten or fifteen years ago!”

Sligh has been with the organic movement a long time. Growing up on a West Texas ranch, he heard his grandfather and uncles argue about farm policies from a tender age. His grandmother, however, ran the kitchen garden according to the principles of a guy called J. I. Rodale who put out a magazine called “Prevention”.

So when Michael left home he rented land in Florida and started growing organically. All through the 1970s he farmed on his own as well as getting involved in certification and becoming a farm inspector for a local certification program. In 1983 he went to work for RAFI at a time when that organization was turning its focus from share croppers and farmers’ coops to policy issues such as farm credit, the spread of genetic engineering, and preventing privatization of plant biodiversity. Through RAFI he got involved in Oregon Congressman Jim Weaver’s ill-fated 1984 effort to set up an organic program, and again when Vermont’s Senator Pat Leahy tried in 1990.

“I was quite worried that if we gave too much power to the USDA then it would be a program that wouldn’t work on the ground out in the countryside” he recalls. “The founding legislation was very innovative and unique in federal legislation. It created a mandate of power sharing – that the NOSB would have statutory authority over the National List was a very important piece that was put there on purpose. So was the fact that we envisioned peer review of the USDA’s accreditation so there was this citizen oversight of the accreditors who look over the certifiers’ shoulder who look over the farmers’ shoulder. And Congress admonished the USDA not to reinvent the wheel but to work with the existing architecture that was out in the countryside. The USDA was so opposed to the legislation that they testified against it. It was a bit of a shotgun marriage when it finally passed.”

Sligh was the founding chair for the first three years of the NOSB. None of the members knew each other very well, there was no budget or resources, and the first thing they had to do was panhandle within the department to get the money to have meetings.

“A lot of people think you just go and pass a law and everything is fine” he sighs. “But it is the implementation of laws where the real work is. This was a bit of a cultural clash for the USDA from the get go. It was a department that had already made a commitment to big business and biotech. For organic to be embedded there was a bit of a problem -- there they were, in charge of implementing a program that was diametrically opposed to the big business, biotech approach they supported.”

The key mistakes around synthetics occurred early on, Michael recalls. “The farmers put a few categories of exemptions for synthetics used in growing in the legislation -- things like pheronome traps and mechanical pesticides. Processors used that argument to get their own list, too. If the farmers were given a short list of synthetics, people felt it was only fair to give the processors one, too. It was sold as somehow not a permanent thing. But in fact the processors began to build their industry around those synthetics. I think we underappreciated how how slippery a slope it was!”

“A minority on the board,” Sligh continues, “thought we should not even vote on it as it was not in the law. But the USDA said they would take it up with their counsel and they thought there was a way to resolve it, and wanted us to make recommendations. A majority of the board wanted to do that and the disagreements were papered over. There was also the understanding that after five years these provisions would all sunset and expire unless people who wanted them would come and repetition for them. Well, that didn’t turn out to be the case, they didn’t sunset.”

Asked what advice he has for long-time organic advocates who are outraged at the OTA amendment, he urges them to “stay the course”.

“We shouldn’t squander all the work and time we’ve put into it thus far. We shouldn’t lose pride in organic, it’s not too late!”

Michael points to the work of those in Europe who are taking long term views of where they want the organic industry to be in 10 or 15 years. They’re developing national organic action plans, coordinating governmental programs to bring new farmers into organic production while preserving the price premium for those already doing it, setting organic production goals and figuring out how to meet them.

“Organic is becoming the conventional system,” he asserts. “It’s happening before our eyes. We’ve had 7 of the top 15 multinationals come in and buy the top 23 organic brands in the last 5 years. That’s a huge change of who we are.”

“So new people are flocking into organics and education work has to expand. We’ve had a number of young NGOs and leaders emerge who were not at the table in the 1980s.We need regional dialogs over the next year or so to figure out where to go next. We need to strengthen civil society’s voice, as well as the voice of organic farmer groups. Extra label claims – fair trade, renewable energy, just employment practices -- can add value and differentiate food. We need to keep pushing forward the way we did in the past, confident that consumers will continue to follow our lead.”