When organic certification began, each state set its own standards. In time it was decided one uniform code was necessary. The USDA began a nationally recognized certification program in 1990.
Consumers think organic means organic. No pesticides. No herbicides. Nothing unnatural. Simple, right? Unfortunately, no. It’s not that simple. The organic label has quite a bit of wiggle room. It also has its share of controversy.
USDA organic certification requires time and money. Farmers are required to maintain documentation, to pay for inspections, and to pay for labs to test their produce. While it’s still true that food with an organic label is a superior product with more nutrition than its conventional counterpart, some farmers say USDA certification doesn’t guarantee strict adherence to the standards that originally defined organic and the label itself has become misleading.
In an Internet letter to their customers, the Whistling Train Farm, a fully organic farm in Washington State, goes into great detail explaining why they have chosen not to be certified as a USDA organic farm. Among their reasons are a number of practices allowed that they don’t agree with such as: “The use of blood and bone meal from non-organic livestock as fertilizers. We don’t feel safe using these products because of the BSE risk.” and “A long list of allowed substances, including broad-range botanical pesticides.”
As the Coleman Farm explains, “Among other things, certification would require us to keep records of input and output for each crop. We would have to pay for farm inspections and lab tests of our produce. For a farmer growing a thousand acres of broccoli the time required is insignificant. We raise and market nearly two hundred products, many of which yield only a few pounds a year. We think the time and money that certification would require is better spent working our farm and serving our customers.”
Vernon Mullins, the Organic Program Manager for the Georgia Department of Agriculture does not agree with the claim that documentation is a time consuming task. “Certification requires documentation,” he says, “but this can be done in a spiral notebook, on a calendar, or in an Excel spreadsheet.”
The forms available for download do look a bit overwhelming, though it appears a careful and complete set up of documentation would go a long way toward simplifying on-going record keeping. Organic certification is definitely not for scatterbrained types or for procrastinators. Careful due diligence is required.
Mr. Mullins also tells us the U.S. government has subsidized the costs of organic certification through the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program, which was originally available for farmers in 15 states. A second program included in a 2002 farm bill made financial assistance available to every state. Though funds are currently exhausted, a new bill is in appropriations awaiting funding.
Is the certification too expensive? Too time consuming? Is it meaningless because the standards are slipping?
There certainly appears to be contradictory opinions. OLM is going straight to the source. We’re going to ask the farmers. Look for our survey results in upcoming months.