AOL News – If you’ve ever wondered exactly what that “USDA organic” seal actually means, you’re in good company. The U.S. Department of Agriculture itself has been asking the same question ever since it established the National Organic Program in 2002.
“Organic” is intended to mean agricultural products produced without hormones, pesticides, artificial fertilizers or other synthetic additives. But purists have long argued that the USDA standards contain numerous loopholes that have allowed factory-style farms to operate under the letter, if not the spirit, of the organic law. Now, both the industry and the government are grappling with how to bring meaning back to “organic.”
Fred Kirschenmann, a North Dakota farmer and distinguished fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, served on the National Organic Standards Board when it was establishing the standards for the USDA organic seal.
Early on, Kirschenmann argued that an organic farm shouldn’t be able to “degrade the health of the soil.” But when the board gave that to USDA lawyers, they told it to change the language. Any regulation, the lawyers said, needed to be able to be answered with a simple yes or no — something that can be difficult in the complex world of organic agriculture.
What the organic laws boiled down to were a list of inputs that an organic farm could and could not use. That led to many farmers getting their certification by practicing what some call “substitution agriculture” — changing the kinds of chemicals they added to the soil without changing the way that they farmed.
“You have organic farmers that don’t really use what would traditionally be used, what good organic practices would classify as good agro-ecological systems” Kirschenmann told AOL News. “They’re just using natural inputs instead of synthetic inputs.”
The confusion extends to livestock as well. For instance, organic cows and chickens were required to have “access to pasture.” For some that meant having free-range animals that got the bulk of their food from the outdoors. For others, it meant having a tiny door at one end of a gigantic henhouse.
In a report titled “Scrambled Eggs,” small farm advocate The Cornucopia Institute documented several certified organic egg farms keeping up to a million chickens in conditions that seem a long way away from a quaint little farmhouse.
For small farmers trying to raise animals in more humane and ecologically friendly conditions, having the government telling consumers that their products are equivalent to those from giant producers can make for tough business.
“We’re one of the few industries that have actually asked for strict regulation,” Cornucopia Institute co-founder Mark Kastel told AOL News.
Organic agriculture has boomed in the years since the adoption of the organic seal into a more than $25 billion-a-year industry. But Kastel and others argue that some of that expansion sacrificed the practices that were supposed to be essential to organic agriculture — and allowed big firms to squeeze out the small producers that helped to build the organic brand in the first place.
Proponents of tighter organic standards, however, agree that President Barack Obama’s undersecretary of agriculture, Kathleen Merrigan, and the USDA have been working to clarify some of that flexible language. Last year, they changed the “access to pasture” phrase to say that cows must be allowed to graze 120 days a year. And at a series of hearings in Madison, Wis., recently, producers, distributors, processors and consumers told the National Organic Standards Board what they thought was missing from the current certification standards.
For Kastel and others trying to establish a more exclusive organic seal, the hearings were a success: They declared that nanotechnology would not be allowed in organic products and that conventional hops would not be allowed in organic beer. In the contentious egg issue, he said that the board seemed receptive to farmers and consumers asking for stricter requirements for certified organic eggs.