How do national standards benefit consumers? Where previously dozens of certifying agents with differing standards operated in the organic arena, now these same certifiers, accredited by USDA, will operate with one consistent standard, in every state. The requirement of certification for most producers protects consumers against fraudulent use of the organic label. Since most organic foods still have a price premium, the risk of fraud can't be discounted. Under the national organic standard, anyone knowingly misusing the organic label is subject to penalties.
Thus, a national organic standard offers consistency and continuity. The explicit details of the rule, along with requirements for a written audit trail and farm plan, also provide a level of transparency that doesn't exist in the conventional food system.
For some food production concerns, the organic label offers the only sanctuary. In the United States, where foods with unlabeled genetically modified ingredients (primarily corn, soy, and their byproducts) are profuse in the supermarket, the organic label is a concerned consumer's only guarantee that this technology is not present.
If there is a dimension to the national organic standard that concerns both organic farmers and organic consumers, it is the specter of yet another agricultural system that favors large-scale production at the expense of small, local, regional and community agendas. Even before the rule's finalization and implementation, the promise of a federally regulated national organic standard helped shape the market. Conventional food companies saw that organic was here to stay, and that its benefits drew premium prices in the marketplace. With appealing bottom-line numbers showing rapid growth in sales and volume, the organic marketplace began to see consolidation through acquisitions of smaller companies by larger ones, and then by some of the largest in the world.
The integration of organic practices into the conventional food industry can also be seen as a victory, of course. If organic foods and those who want them were once mocked, then ignored, then held in contempt, they are now seen as highly desirable. This means more organic crops being grown, more agricultural land being cultivated without chemicals, and greater choice and accessibility in the marketplace.
In turn, this may mean more consumers—and more diverse consumers—able to enjoy the right to know how their food is grown, to protect their children from potentially unsafe residues, and to support a food system that rejects chemicals as an absolute necessity. It may also mean more respect and funding for organic farming research, so fundamental to the evolution of successful farm systems and to our understanding of the full potential of organic methods.
The benefits of the national organic standard, then, are substantial. It provides a great deal of information about how food is grown, and better guarantees than any other established and widely available label for food production. But for some, the farming methods may be different, but the philosophical distinctions between organic and conventional food industries are increasingly blurred, and mandatory certification under USDA is no help at all.
The cost of certification is an obstacle for some small farmers who exceed the low $5,000 annual threshold for exemption. Indeed, according to the Santa Cruz, Calif.-based Organic Farming Research Foundation, most organic farms are still relatively small. Many of these growers feel the squeeze of a USDA-accredited certification requirement that adds to financial pressures. Without certification, these small farmers will lose the market advantage and lifeline that the organic marketplace has provided.
Because the national organic standard does have the capacity to evolve and for adjustments to be made, this is one area where farm advocates will be watchful as the practical applications of the National Organic Program take shape. If, under USDA, only larger organic farms can successfully participate, it's likely that many will demand that aspects of the program be re-evaluated to better accomodate small and family farms.
So what's a consumer to do? If your values include supporting small farms and rural communities, you'll still have to make the effort to choose foods from companies that share these values. The USDA Organic label is no guarantee that your purchase will do so (and as we've seen, the organic label alone has for some time now been a signpost to, but not an assurance of, small-scale farming). If you are concerned about the environmental consequences of increasing "miles to market," or the distance food travels, if you want to encourage local and regional food production over uniformity in the marketplace, if you want a direct relationship with those who grow your food-- these conditions are outside the scope of the national organic standard. Building local and community food security remains something we'll have to work for, create support for, and articulate through further legislation if that's the best way to effect change.
In short, we can have a great deal of confidence in the provisions of the national organic standard and the organic label, but we cannot abdicate our responsibility to know and understand where our food comes from to any food label. It may have been naive to ever imagine that we could, or that we'd want to. Wasn't that the root of the problem in the first place—that we were willing to put too much faith in labels rather than arming ourselves with information? That we allowed ourselves to be passive consumers, making food production invisible and assuming that industry and government had our best interests at heart?
As food consumers, we can no longer afford to be naive. Five to six billion pounds of pesticides are used each year, transforming our world and our habitats. Crop diversity is at an all-time low. Chemical-based industrialized farming has not successfully addressed the root causes of hunger and poverty. Risks of antibiotics and growth hormones, gross waterway contamination, and food safety issues plague the livestock industry. Fewer and fewer companies control more and more of the worldwide food production system.
Organic production is not the problem, but is a viable and very valuable part of the solution. The USDA Organic seal will help to make organic agriculture a more powerful force in the complex global food system. But in the journey to a better world, the national organic rule is not a be-all and end-all, but a tool that may be either productive and effective, ineffective, or misused.
Through the creation of the Organic Foods Production Act, we've seen that committed and thoughtful farmers, advocates, and consumers can have significant impact on how legislation is created and written. Through the experience of the first, calamitous 1997 proposal for a the national organic standard, the organic community has proven that it can organize to reverse attempts to relax long-held principles.
Now, as conscious and concerned consumers, we have the opportunity to exercise vigilance and act on our intentions. We can expect USDA to vigorously enforce its rigorous standard for the organic label and those who use it. We can work to protect small farms and ask government and the organic industry to make small farms a priority. We can participate in local food production, buy from local and regional producers, and support companies that in turn source from small and family farms. And we can buy organic foods knowing that, indeed, organic does mean something. The visionaries and pioneers who built the organic movement can take pride in having changed our food production system beyond all expectations.
Consumer choices and purchasing dollars helped build and will help shape the future of the organic foods system. Each of us has the responsibility to ourselves and to future generations to care about what we eat and how it's grown and produced. Only we—consumers, farmers, activists, eaters—can ensure that the tools and resources of the National Organic Program are wielded with integrity and care, and in ways that protect and restore our environment, our farms, and our future.