Looking back, looking forward – anticipating the next 50 years

NOFA’s role in the Evolution of Organic

OFAC convening board, Leavenworth, Kansas, December 1989. Front (l-r): Faye Jones (MOSES), Kate Havel (CFSA), Judy Gillan (OFPAaNA & NOFA), Tom Forster (Oregon Tilth), Patty Laboyteaux (CCOF). Rear (l-r) Fred Kirschenmann (Northern Plains Sustainable Ag Society), Allan Moody (Ozark Organic Growers), Ron Gargasz (Biodynamic Assn.), Marc Ketchel (Florida Organic Growers)

NOFA has played a key role in the evolution of the organic movement and industry on practical, as well as philosophical and political levels from the beginning. We were among the earliest to establish an organic certification program in 1979, following models developed by Oregon Tilth (OTCO) and California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF). In 1984 our program served as the basis for the development of the first pilot program of the Organic Crop Improvement Association (OCIA), today a large international USDA accredited certifying body. NOFA also participated in the founding of the Organic Foods Production Association of North America (OFPANA), now known as the Organic Trade Association. In 1989 we helped organize the first gathering of US organic organizations, forming the Organic Farmers Associations Council (OFAC).

As the founding coordinator of our certification program, I have served as a NOFA representative to each of these organizations, in each case basing my proposals on information developed in consultation with NOFA members and advisors. There were controversies and disagreements aplenty, including the perennial tension between the “purists” who wanted the strictest possible standards and the “pragmatists” who wanted flexibility for those facing practical obstacles and still learning how to overcome them. As co-author of the first attempt to codify guidelines for organic standards across North America on behalf of OFPANA, the balancing act and consultation with NOFA leadership continued. In 1989 the debate over fundamental organic principles came to a vote of OFPANA’s membership in deciding to base future standards on the origin of materials (i.e. synthetic versus natural) rather than “agronomic responsibility” (how a given practice affects soil life, water, and other ecological qualities).

“The primary goal of organic agriculture is to optimize the health and productivity of interdependent communities of soil life, plants, animals and people.”

Although the NOFA leadership and I strongly (not unanimously) supported the “agronomic responsibility” position, we accepted the vote with the compromise that exceptions to the “natural versus synthetic” requirement should be made based on the impact of the material in question on soil life and several other criteria. This compromise was later enshrined in the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (OFPA), the law establishing the National Organic Program (NOP). The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), a politically appointed federal advisory committee, was given the responsibility to evaluate and make recommendations about the organic acceptability of any substance deemed to be synthetic.

The passage of the law, which NOFA helped craft and then lobbied to support, was developed by Vermont’s Senator Patrick Leahy and has been called a legislative miracle. The full story of how this came about and its importance can be read in Chapter 4 of Organic Revolutionary.  When I was recruited to join the staff of the NOP to help write the regulations in 1994, it was largely my experience working with NOFA and representing our organization that won me the job. My determination to represent and consult with NOFA members and other grassroots organic farmers was never flagged and was valued by my colleagues.

The NOP and the True Organic Vision

“The primary goal of organic agriculture is to optimize the health and productivity of interdependent communities of soil life, plants, animals and people.”

This is a summary of the definition of organic agriculture that I crafted as a new staff member of USDA’s National Organic Program. It is still among my proudest written statements and has been copied by numerous organizations since then—few of which credit USDA. After having spent several years revisiting and refining the meaning of organic agriculture for NOFA and various collaborators leading up to the passage of the OFPA, the assignment seemed laughable. The final document, entitled “Prologue: Moving Towards Sustainability” included the definition and seven basic principles.

The “True Organic Vision” as I describe in Organic Revolutionary, is first and foremost based on ecological systems thinking. The principles of ecological thinking certainly formed the basis for all the definitions that were crafted and refined by NOFA and others in the 1980s and more recently boiled down by IFOAM to four basic principles. It was rather disconcerting to realize, however, that the OFPA contained no definition or principles of organic agriculture to guide the development of rules and regulations, only a laundry list of do’s and don’ts, mostly don’ts. Most of it is based on the horrid dichotomy that declares all “synthetic substances” to be prohibited while anything deemed “natural” is mostly okay—with exceptions.

Health: Health is the wholeness and integrity of living systems. It is not simply the absence of illness, but the maintenance of physical, mental, social, and ecological well-being. Immunity, resilience, and regeneration are key characteristics of health.

Ecology: This principle roots organic agriculture within living ecological systems. It states that production is to be based on ecological processes, and recycling.

Fairness: Fairness is characterized by equity, respect, justice, and stewardship of the shared world, both among people and in their relations to other living beings.

Care: Practitioners of organic agriculture can enhance efficiency and increase productivity, but this should not be at the risk of jeopardizing health and well-being. Consequently, new technologies need to be assessed and existing methods reviewed. Given the incomplete understanding of ecosystems and agriculture, care must be taken. This principle states that precaution and responsibility are the key concerns in management, development, and on the labor of Black and Brown people and that land ownership remains almost completely in the hands of white people.

The legacy of slavery and genocide of Indigenous peoples has baked racism into the [food] system. The institutionalization of organic at USDA…has been a key factor in awakening more of the public to the failures of our [this] system.

The organic movement played a central role in the food revolution, and many commentators, such as a recent Civil Eats opinion piece, note that the changes needed to support resilience in the face of a warming planet and cascading health and environmental disasters must begin with radical restructuring of the food system. While many dismiss the organic movement as having been co-opted by Big Ag, the ideas of relocalization and food sovereignty that are the basis for much of today’s rising food activism were integral to the early organic movement.

The institutionalization of organic at USDA, despite its limitations, has been a key factor in awakening more of the public to the failures of our food system, and by extension, the rest of our economy. The benefits of the advent of USDA Organic to farmers of all kinds include vastly increased access to information and resources to help implement organic practices, access to credit and crop insurance, marketing assistance, and of course, more wide social, economic, and political transformation are useful for any farmer wishing to reduce the use of toxic soil and water damaging inputs. And not so incidentally, organic farmers and acreage are now counted in periodic ag census data. A prime motivation for accepting the challenge of working for the NOP was my determination that never again would an organic farmer walk into an Extension office and be laughed at.

The little green or black USDA Organic seal on a massproduced and mass-marketed product, whether food or fiber, has been a successful mass public education project. Even if all shoppers understand is the claim of “no synthetic chemicals,” finding any kind of familiar food item they want on the shelf at Walmart or Target, alongside the identical looking and tasting stuff that lacksthis claim, is a powerful message. Why is it, they begin to wonder, that we need these toxic materials that endanger our health, farmworkers, the water, and the air in order to have enough food? What else are we being told that we should question?

That said, the organic label cannot solve all the problems of the food system, and as the organic industry surpasses annual sales of $60 billion, the limits of the marketplace strategy stare us in the face. A focus on the market and consumer concerns, along with any number of hot controversies about what should or should not be eligible for the organic label, misses the bigger picture.

The complaints often aired about consolidation and unfair competition in the organic sphere are beside the point.

The same problems plague every other market-based endeavor and won’t be solved by restricting access to the organic market to only “real” organic producers. Add-on labels are harmless at best, but we can’t hope to solve the systemic and existential problems of the food system with marketing campaigns and new labels. The root cause of the problems we face lies in the capitalist system that demands growth, waste, commodification of the necessities of life, and impoverishment of millions to enrich the few (as well as other atrocities). My oft-repeated slogan is “You can’t dismantle capitalism with a marketing plan.”

In the short term, we know that the more acres are converted to organic production – and better yet, regenerative, resilient, agroecological, biodynamic, and most any other term that requires organic friendly practices – the more likely are we to avert the worst of the worst catastrophic suffering that has already begun.

As we consider the next 50 years of NOFA, let’s stop casting stones at the big guys who want to get into organic for reasons that may not be so noble. Let us instead focus on making the food system and the larger society work for everyone.

Looking forward – The work for this time: Multiple movements for planetary health and human liberation are blossoming, not only among the privileged advocates of the True Organic Vision. “Never let a good crisis go to waste” has become a catch-phrase of thesemovements. The most important work of our time is the patient laying of foundations and roadmaps for system-

The revolution needed is in progress, with no clear predictable outcome. What’s clear is that the old “normal” was leading us down a road of social and ecological breakdown and climate catastrophe. What’s increasingly clear to many is that as the disastrous impacts of our industrialized, centralized, global supply chain-dependent food system are more widely understood, the food system has become a crucial point of leverage to bring about the changes needed in society as a whole. Changing how we produce, distribute, and consume food is essential to restoring the health of people, communities, ecosystems, and climate.

So what is to be done? These are my best suggestions for where NOFA as an organization of organic farmers, educators, activists, and advocates needs to put our collective efforts to realize the potential for regeneration in this time of ongoing crisis, in no particular order:

Build and strengthen the social mycelium of organic advocates and practitioners– including the diversity of sizes and viewpoints represented. Work in coalition with those who share our interests, even if at times we disagree about strategies. Avoid the temptation to “other” anyone, even corporate agrichemical-GMO proponents. Keep the bigger picture in mind and refer back to fundamental principles rather than striving for purity.