The Sustainable Agriculture Continuum
Read Linley Dixon's National Organic Standards Board spring meeting reflection and testimony, where she paints a picture of a sustainable agriculture continuum, below.
The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) just finished their Spring meeting.
Twice a year, 15 members come together to vote on recommendations for what is allowed under “USDA Organic”. For the most part, their recommendations have been ignored by the USDA, but that was not the intention when the National Organic Program was set up.
Two days of public comment precede the votes. This gives citizens the chance to speak out. And it gives many companies the chance to lobby to have their “synthetic inputs” added to the approved National List for use in organic food and farming. The lobbyists often come from the chemical industries, the food additives industries, or anyone who stands to gain a buck by the approval of a new “input” for organic.
There is always a clash between the “organic industry” that lobbies wanting more and more inputs, and the “organic movement” opposing them.
The movement folks are nonprofits representing the farmers and consumers who want to keep a label that truly represents the principles that organic was founded on. Principles such as producing food with no additives. Or, fostering soil health and pasturing livestock to mitigate the need for synthetic inputs in agriculture in the first place.
Far-sighted people created the NOSB process to allow the public to continue to have a say in what “USDA organic” would come to mean over time. They understood that every input that is allowed in organic often disincentivizes a more sustainable way. And as many of our real organic certified farmers have experienced, allowing an input or a practice in organic that wasn't there before, often inadvertently mandates it, because it results in a cheaper way of growing food.
Lately, some in the organic community have started referring to these National Organic Standards Board meetings as “regulatory theater” …
…since the voices of the industry have had so much more power than the voices of the organic movement.
- Farmers are always in a distinct minority at these meetings.
- They don't have the time to attend and they don't have the money to hire a team of lobbyists.
- And so often the final recommendations are ignored by the USDA.
Nevertheless, Dave and I both commented in support of this Advisory Board's intended purpose and the appointed NOSB members that still represent us.
Here was my testimony to the National Organic Standards Board:
My name is Linley Dixon, co-director of the Real Organic Project and owner of an organic vegetable farm in SW Colorado.
Climate change is the environmental crisis of our time. It isn’t clear to consumers that organic is already a label that has so many climate benefits. This is because the National Organic Program has failed to uphold the language in the Organic Foods Production Act requiring farmers to maintain and improve healthy soils.
Right now, the USDA has allocated a billion dollars to “climate-smart” agriculture and many industries that are not worthy are claiming it.
You cannot be “climate-smart” unless there is SOIL to sequester carbon.
I’d like to share a story that an organic pioneer shared with me in my travels for the Real Organic Project because it has helped me to think clearly in spite of all of the lobbying from industry stakeholders. This organic farmer told me to imagine a continuum beginning with the most sustainable, carbon-sequestering farm on one end, and the most climate-destructive farm on the other and imagine that every operation falls somewhere along that continuum.
At the start of the continuum, the most sustainable farm is simply a farmer with a shovel and some seeds.
The more off-farm inputs added to the production, the further down that line away from perfect sustainability you’re going to go, until you get to the opposite extreme where you have a hydroponic or confinement livestock operation where all of the inputs, including the soil and all the fertility, or all of the feed for the animals, is sourced from off the farm.
Regardless of whether or not these inputs are allowed in organic agriculture, they all have a story of extraction, and to really be climate-smart, the farmer must sequester that carbon back into the soil. I’m not so naive as to think that all organic farms should just be a farmer with a shovel and some seeds; that's why we have a national list and an organic program.
But my hope is that this image of a continuum based on adding more and more inputs leading you further and further away from true sustainability can help you in your decision making.
As National Organic Standards Board members, you’ll have to draw an arbitrary line somewhere along that continuum for what organic means to you – guided by the law – the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990. We will all inevitably choose that line in a different spot.
Please use your esteemed position as National Organic Standards Board members to publicly fight for the excellent language in the Organic Foods Production Act that describes what organic farming is:
That we, as farmers maintain and improve healthy soils to mitigate the need for more and more inputs. Let’s remind the world why organic is always the best choice, especially in the face of climate change.
Thank you for your volunteered time.
To learn more about REAL solutions to the climate crisis, please join us for our Real Organic Book Club THIS coming Thursday.
Our guest, Paul Hawken, will be discussing Regeneration, at 6 pm EDT on Thursday, May 5.
The session is open to all members of the Real Friends. If you would like to join this engaging community of eaters and activists, farmers and authors, chefs and students, scientists and adventurers, please click here.