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, including Thicke, are now advocating the abandonment of the National Organic Program altogether. 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.”