The legislation that we'll call the "organic standard" is more than 500 pages of specific detail, much of it most meaningful to growers and food processors. The good news is that USDA did in fact listen to the hundreds of thousands of consumer and industry comments that followed their first attempt at a national standard, released in late 1997. As a result, much of the revised standard, finalized in March, 2001, reflects consumer beliefs, at least in the broadest strokes, about what organic means. Some highlights:
Under the national organic standard, all growers and food processors who label their food organic must be certified by an independent third-party agent accredited by USDA. Very small producers (those who make $5,000 or less from an organic enterprise) are exempt from third-party certification to verify organic practices, though they still must abide by the organic standard if their goods are labeled organic.
Organic farming's greatest benefits are a safer, cleaner, healthier environment and more sustainable use of resources. By eschewing pesticides and using methods that promote soil fertility and strong ecosystems, organic farming helps protect our topsoil from erosion and our groundwater, air, and soil from chemical contamination. Organic farms are safer for workers and communities, and organic foods have been shown to have substantially less of the pesticide residues that may present real health risks, especially to infants and children. Through the conservation and protection of resources that are fundamental to organic agriculture, future generations will have better opportunities to survive and thrive.
Consumers have shown that these benefits are of value, and the certification process is intended to independently verify the practices that will generate such results. But does the new national organic standard really provide a foundation for sustainable organic principles? For many, the marriage of federal regulation and environmental protection through alternative agriculture seems like a doubtful pairing.
If you think that the organic movement and the federal government seem like strange bedfellows, you're not alone. But organic industry leaders, including farmers, actually sought out federal oversight, asking for rigorous regulation that would protect both consumers and farmers from fraud.
Organic certification began to take shape in the 1970s and 80s. Farmers and advocates organized private agencies, such as Oregon Tilth and California Certified Organic Farmers, to develop standards and create a framework for independent certification of organic methods.
Eventually, several dozen different private and state organic certification bodies provided third-party organic certification to growers, processors, manufacturers, a few retailers, and at least one restaurant (Nora's, in Washington, DC). While standards did tend to be similar, they were not uniform. And because not all organic foods were certified (though many natural products stores did require certification for organic products), it was sometimes said that organic "didn't mean anything."
Organic did mean something, though not exactly the same thing everywhere. It was widely understood by consumers to mean "no pesticides," but also to have a level of purity, integrity, and environmental wholesomeness that went beyond the simple omission of chemicals. As USDA discovered when the agency released its first proposal for a national organic standard in 1997, organic meant a great deal to those growing, manufacturing, and buying organic products, and they would fight for integrity and strength in the organic label.
The Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA), passed in 1990, dictated the development of a national organic standard. Sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt), OFPA was intended to protect the growing organic marketplace from those who wished to either outlaw the label altogether and those who wanted to create weak standards or use the term indiscriminately.
OFPA mandated the formation of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), a citizens' advisory board that would make recommendations to USDA for defining and regulating the organic label. With representatives from all sectors, including farmers, retailers, consumers, environmentalists, and food processors, NOSB labored for many years to arrive at a comprehensive set of policies to recommend to USDA.
In late 1997, USDA released its first proposed national organic standard to a watchful organic community. But in a stunning dismissal of NOSB recommendations, USDA proposed a standard that did not reflect organic principles as they had developed over the years, and that angered both consumers and farmers. Opposition focused on what became known as the "Big Three"—allowing genetic modification, irradiation, and the use of processed sewage sludge (biosolids) to be used in organic farming.
There were other transgressions as well, such as allowing antibiotics in organic livestock ranching. To the surprise of government bureaucrats who were accustomed to industries fighting against regulation, a large and very vocal segment of the population, including organic industry members, wanted restrictions for organic farming and foods that were stronger, not weaker.
USDA received an historic number of comments on their proposal (in part because, for the first time, comments could be made via the Internet). A write-in campaign called "Keep Organic Organic" united many somewhat disparate groups opposed to the Big Three in organic. USDA capitulated and began the process anew.
In late 2000, then U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman released a new proposal for the national organic standard, calling it the most rigorous organic standard in the world. Though not perfect—and, as we'll see, perhaps just now revealing some troubling aspects—the national organic standard, finalized in March, 2001, with an 18-month implementation period ending October 21, 2002, held true to much of what consumers and the industry expected and had aske for in response to the first proposal.