The US government’s organic-agriculture program isn’t exactly where you’d expect to find a nest of corporate lackeys and anti-environmental actors. And yet, at a recent meeting of the National Organic Standards Board in Jacksonville, Florida, that’s exactly what Iowa dairy farmer Francis Thicke alleged.
“Big business is taking over the USDA organic program,” Thicke said, addressing his colleagues in a speech marking his retirement. “Because the influence of money is corroding all levels of our government.”
The organic sector has exploded in recent years, as millions of Americans have shown themselves willing to fork over a bit more money on the promise of pesticide-free, high-quality food grown by well-paid farmers. According to the Organic Trade Association, organic sales jumped to $47 billion in 2016, an 8.4 percent increase from the previous year compared with the stagnant 0.6 percent growth in the food market overall. This increase in market share means new opportunities for farmers who are passionate about growing using organic methods—but it has also attracted aggressive interest from multinational food companies eager to take advantage of the profitability associated with the organic label. Organic products, once relegated to the shelves of crunchy food co-ops, now feature prominently in the portfolios of every major food corporation: Coca-Cola owns Odwalla; General Mills controls Cascadian Farm, Annie’s, and Lärabar; and grocery giants like Walmart sell USDA-certified organic products in every region of the country.
Organic advocates warn that the leverage exerted by these corporations now threatens the very integrity of the organic label. They point to corporate pressure to ease certification guidelines and to a flood of “organic” products imported from countries with suspect standards. (Last May, The Washington Post reported that tens of millions of pounds of fraudulently labeled grains have come to the United States from other countries.)
The situation has become so dire that some organic farmers are now advocating abandonment of the National Organic Program altogether. Others, including Thicke, are working to develop supplementary standards. This April, a group of 15 fed-up organic farmers from around the country, including five former NOSB members, will convene in Vermont to start drafting stringent new standards for an alternative organic label.
“At this point, I can see only one way to bring the organic label back in line with the original vision of organic farmers and consumers,” Thicke said. “We need an add-on organic label for organic farmers who are willing to meet the expectations of discerning consumers who are demanding real organic food.”
The National Organic Program (NOP) was established as part of the 1990 Farm Bill. The original intent was to create a label that would protect consumers from the myriad companies billing their products as organic despite farming practices to the contrary. But from the beginning, the program was caught in a tug-of-war between big agricultural interests pushing for deregulation and smaller farmers fighting for stringent standards.
The most effective tool for accountability is the 15-member National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), which Thicke served on for five years. The all-volunteer board includes organic farmers, environmentalists, consumer advocates, a scientist, an organic retailer, and an organic-certification agent. The board’s main function is to recommend and draft organic regulations, which it does through an intensely democratic process marked by exhaustive public meetings and deep scientific evaluation. Crucially, it also oversees the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances in food production.
Because the NOSB’s process is so extensive—it took 10 fraught years for just the first round of national standards to be implemented—its decisions have stood the test of time. The NOSB defines organic farming as a set of practices that “restore, maintain, and enhance ecological harmony,” and a founding regulation mandated that only products made from more than 70 percent organic ingredients could feature the coveted O-word on their label. Faced with these strict guidelines, big business has historically sought to influence the board or dilute its regulations.
The ongoing battle between multinational food companies and small farmers began to tip in favor of Big Ag under President Obama. During his administration, the Department of Agriculture curtailed the NOSB’s deliberative process for overseeing the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances, making it harder to ban the conventional materials preferred by industrial operators. Some Obama appointees to the NOSB were also criticized for their connections to large agricultural interests. Carmela Beck, who was appointed to a farmer position on the board in 2012, did not “own or operate” a farm, as federal statute requires. Instead, she worked as the organic-program manager at Driscoll’s, the world’s largest berry producer, which has been the subject of consumer boycotts for alleged wage theft and hostile working conditions.
“We have industry actors being appointed to the NOSB as farmers,” Thicke told The Nation. “And while the NOSB has historically controlled its own agenda, it was during Obama’s presidency that the USDA ruled that they had to approve what we were going to work on. We weren’t happy.”
Now, under President Trump, the drive to satisfy corporate interests has accelerated. The administration has nominated anti-organic crusaders to key posts in the USDA—appointees like Sam Clovis, a right-wing climate-change skeptic with no background in science or farming, and Ted McKinney, a former executive in the agrochemical business. Trump’s secretary of agriculture, Sonny Perdue, has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations from Monsanto and other Big Ag players. Advocates note that his inner circle of special advisers at the USDA includes former lobbyists for groups like CropLife America (representing the interests of pesticide manufacturers) and Protect the Harvest (an anti-animal-rights nonprofit). Perdue’s first move as secretary was to delay the implementation of recently approved humane standards for the treatment of poultry and livestock—standards that had taken 10 years to finalize, largely due to opposition by industrial egg producers.
The signs of a corporate takeover are not limited to the president’s appointments. Trump’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2018 calls for “reduced regulatory activity” by the NOP, and it recommends cuts to the program’s already meager $9 million budget. And Trump’s USDA has made other recommendations that suggest a serious shift: curbing the NOSB’s signature transparency by replacing meeting transcripts with summaries, and ending the creation of new training materials for farmers looking to convert to organic methods.
Perhaps most significantly, Trump officials have telegraphed their intent to stop contracting with third parties for technical reviews regarding the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances, a change that current and former NOSB members say would undermine the exhaustive process now in place.
Dr. Jean Richardson, a former NOSB chair, said that contracted technical reviews are crucial in evaluating whether a material meets the criteria for use in the production of organic food. When the NOSB was forced to work off internal reviews, she added, members found that they were “dreadful” and “worth exactly what they cost: nothing.”
What makes the effort to defang the NOSB particularly ominous, advocates say, is that it has the support of key members of the Republican-controlled Congress. Last summer, Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS), who chairs the Agriculture Committee, hinted at his plans to reshape the organic program, declaring that the NOSB is racked with “uncertainty and dysfunction,” which has resulted in an “unreliable regulatory environment.” Roberts’s House counterpart, Republican Mike Conaway of Texas, has introduced legislation to defund a USDA program that helps subsidize the expensive transition to organic farming by qualified producers.
Emily Oakley, an Obama NOSB appointee, owns a 20-acre organic vegetable farm in Oklahoma. She said large agricultural interests are working tirelessly to sway policy.
“Many smaller-scale farmers are busy with the work of farming and don’t have the means to hire lobbyists to represent their interests,” Oakley said. “Larger agricultural businesses do. That creates a dynamic in which the voices that are before the NOSB tend not to be smaller-scale farmers, despite the fact that they comprise a majority of certified organic farms. The organic movement has become an organic industry.”
Michael Sligh, a veteran farmer who served as the inaugural chair of the NOSB and helped draft the first federal organic regulations, was even more blunt.
“These are perilous times, and we must all commit ourselves to ongoing vigilance,” Sligh said. “The best way to grow organic is by protecting [the label’s] integrity. Any attempts to lower standards to rapidly expand market share is a fool’s errand that will come back to haunt us. We are attracting big players to organic who do not share our values, and we need to hold them accountable.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated Francis Thicke’s position on the organic label; while he is in favor of an add-on label, he is not advocating for wholesale rejection of the NOP. The text has been corrected.