Whose Government Is It?
“I can think of several outcomes of Harvey v Veneman, some of which would require many pages to explain. But the main one was how easily the entire organic movement rolled over and allowed a handful of senators and reps to amend OFPA to defeat the principal reform of my lawsuit—the ban against adding synthetic ingredients to processed organic foods. If that ban had stood, the growth of the market would have been slower, but more firmly rooted in the superior quality of organic foods—-something which USDA is still at pains to deny. Which is why prosecution of organic frauds are rare: the bureaucrats in USDA and OTA do not believe there is any essential difference between the quality of organic compared with conventional foods, and residue testing is held to a bare minimum. Their slogan is ‘organic is about a system, not about a product', and the system consists of a trail of documents. But there is still something of value, especially the exclusion of GMO's.”
– Arthur Harvey in a recent letter.
As the COVID-19 rolls across the world, organic farmers are impacted in unexpected ways.
I am suing the USDA.
Many will say, “About time.”
Many will say, “Why bother? The wheel is fixed.”
In a future letter, I will talk about the lawsuit. I am one of six farmer co-plaintiffs with the Center For Food Safety, One Cert, and MOFGA. But for this letter, I thought I would look at earlier attempts to force the USDA to follow the law. How have those efforts worked out for the organic movement?
People have tried for many years to “change from within.” There is a group of organic advocates who attend every meeting of the NOSB (National Organic Standards Board) twice a year. They represent the underfunded, overworked, non-profits fighting for a saner food system. They have been doing this so long they know the names of each other’s kids and how their spouses are dealing with COVID.
They are dedicated champions who have followed a strategy of engagement for the last twenty years. It has not gone well for them. The best they can say is, “It would be even worse if we hadn’t been working so hard!”
Despite the passage of NOSB recommendations:
requiring that organic cows are eating organic pasture daily,
prohibiting the regular cycling of non-organic cows into an “organic” herd,
and prohibiting chicken CAFOs (confinement poultry operations that currently produce the vast majority of “certified organic” eggs in America),
none of these basic principles of organic farming have come to enforcement in the NOP.
So where do we go after the system fails us?
When the National Organic Program first proposed organic standards, they wanted to allow the use of sewage sludge, ionizing radiation, and GMOs. After receiving 275,000 consumer letters opposing this, the Big 3 were dropped in the finalized NOP standards in 2002.
The USDA bowed to an overwhelming citizen push to keep organic real.
It should be remembered that the USDA was always a reluctant partner with the organic movement. As USDA Secretary Dan Glickman said in 2000, “Let me be clear about one thing. The organic label is a marketing tool. It is not a statement about food safety. Nor is ‘organic’ a value judgment about nutrition or quality.”
No member of the real organic movement has ever agreed with this statement. No member of the USDA has ever disagreed with this statement.
The farmers and eaters in our movement have a radically different viewpoint on the meaning of organic. Everything in the culture of the USDA is oriented towards making “certified organic” a marketing term to be used by Big Ag and Big Food, their natural clients.
That is not the spirit with which the Organic Food Production Act (OFPA) was written. OFPA is the law that provides the guidelines for all the organic standards. Theoretically, if a USDA standard violates OFPA, it is subject to a lawsuit and eventual change.
So how has that worked out for us?
The first such lawsuit came in 2002. This was the very early days of the National Organic Program. An organic blueberry farmer from Maine named Arthur Harvey sued the USDA for allowing synthetic and non-organic ingredients to be used in “certified organic” products. Arthur was not a wealthy man; with not much in the way of financial resources. Still, he paid out of his pocket for the lawsuit. And he represented himself, without a lawyer. He was much like Jimmy Stewart in Frank Capra’s movie, “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.” Stewart plays Jefferson Smith, a country-boy idealist who is appointed to the Senate. He fights to a point of collapse against corruption in the government.
On appeal in 2005, Arthur Harvey actually won.
He didn’t win everything, but the court did rule that the use of synthetic ingredients in food processing for “certified organic” products should not be allowed.
“The basic principle of the law is that anything labeled organic has to be 95 percent organic and 100 percent natural. I think that's a pretty simple principle,” Harvey said in an interview.
The organic trade went crazy.
CBS News reported, “According to an industry estimate by the Organic Trade Association, the lawsuit will cost manufacturers $758 million in annual revenues.”
At the time, Arthur said, “As soon as you require a product to be manufactured from all-natural ingredients, it costs more. I don't deny that. They're in business to make money. If it's cheaper for them to get the rules changed than it is to use all-natural ingredients, well, that's the way they'll go.”
And he was right.
The Organic Trade Association went into action. They made a secret deal to attach a midnight rider to an appropriation bill that changed the law, rendering the Harvey lawsuit null and void. They managed to hold the vote when members who supported organic farming such as Tom Harkins and Patrick Leahy were absent.
It must be remembered that “the organic trade” is not a unified group. There were many members of the Organic Trade Association who opposed this action. They were not consulted.
The following is from a public letter signed by MANY in the organic movement, including 6 former and future NOSB members and over 200 organizations, including CCOF and OCA. The letter was organized by Jay Feldman, a future member of the NOSB and ongoing director of Beyond Pesticides.
“In late October 2005, the Organic Trade Association (OTA) successfully lobbied for a significant change to the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA). We, the undersigned are very disappointed in the process used to achieve this change and concerned about the outcome of this action.”
And then later:
“OTA’s decision to seek amendment to the OFPA was taken without consultation with OTA members (including many of us) and without consultation with other vital stakeholders in the organic community. Amendments to the OFPA were accomplished through closed-door deliberations, through efforts funded by a small number of OTA member corporations. Republican members of the House-Senate Agriculture Appropriations Conference Committee inserted the OTA amendment language after the full conference committee had adjourned. The process allowed no input from Democratic members who had objections to the amendment and had drafted compromise language.”
And from a later part of the letter:
“Congress received over 320,000 calls and letters from consumers, farmers, and businesses opposing OTA’s amendment. Those concerns were ignored by OTA and the members of Congress who carried their amendment. We find it troubling that many traditional Congressional allies for organic issues were disregarded.”
The point of all this is that all attempts at reform or compromise were ignored. The tactic for change was to add a “midnight rider” to an appropriations bill. Once inserted to a document that is thousands of pages long, it is an enormous deal to change.
320,000 Americans who sent in letters of protest were ignored. The Big Corporations didn’t like the court ruling, so they simply changed the law.
And they can do that.
As Liz Henderson recently told me, “The Harvey lawsuit was a fork in the road. The OTA response to Harvey's victory precipitated the formation of the National Organic Coalition. It showed the growing division between OTA and the organic movement. We could no longer trust the OTA to deal honestly and openly with us. We learned they were not going to play fair, and we must speak out.”
This was a turning point in the US organic movement. Prior to that moment, the organic farmers, eaters, and processors were part of a raucous family that squabbled behind closed doors. It was understood that we must keep a united front when dealing with the USDA, Congress, and the corporations that opposed us. We had differences, but they were small. Now they became existential. The time for silence was passing.
Senator Tom Harkin spoke from the Senate floor against the Appropriations committee vote:
“Mr. President, I am also concerned about this same quiet back door process used to amend the Organic Foods Production Act. …I urged the organic community to come together, reach a consensus on what was needed to respond to the court decision, and then come to Congress. Unfortunately, that did not completely happen, and some people were left out of the process. Again, behind closed doors and without a single debate, the Organic Foods Production Act was amended at the behest of large food processors without the benefit of the organic community reaching a compromise. To rush provisions into the law that have not been properly vetted, that fail to close loopholes, and that do not reflect a consensus, only undermines the integrity of the National Organic Program.”
For me, more important than the content of the Harvey lawsuit is the aftermath. It was the demonstration of how the largest players in the organic trade and the government ignore their responsibilities to the organic community. The law was written to protect the organic movement so that it could grow, so that farmers and eaters could trust one another. The goals were integrity and transparency.
My questions remain. Why doesn’t the National Organic Program represent the organic community? Why don’t their standards reflect the meaning of organic accepted by the world? Whose champions are they? And why are they not our champions? Whose government is it?
From the movie “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.”
“I guess this is just another lost cause, Mr. Paine. All you people don't know about lost causes. Mr. Paine does. He said once they were the only causes worth fighting for, and he fought for them once, for the only reason that any man ever fights for them. Because of just one plain, simple rule, “Love thy neighbor,” and in this world today, full of hatred, a man who knows that one rule has a great trust. You knew that rule, Mr. Paine, and I loved you for it, just as my father did.
“And you know that you fight for the lost causes harder than for any others. Yes, you'd even die for them, like a man we both know, Mr. Paine. You think I'm licked. You all think I'm licked. Well, I'm not licked and I'm going to stay right here and fight for this lost cause even if this room gets filled with lies like these, and the Taylors and all their armies come marching into this place.
“Somebody'll listen to me–some—…”
– Mr. Smith collapses on the Senate floor in exhaustion.
I was unaware of Arthur Harvey’s lawsuit in 2005 when all this was happening. I was working very full time on my farm and raising my kids. It is my guess that most organic farmers in the US do not know this story. I had heard of Arthur's work organizing blueberry harvesters in Maine, but I did not follow national organic politics.
Many organic farmers are still totally unaware of his heroic effort. Farmers mostly struggle for survival. It is a tough business. We aren’t very political and we aren’t very organized. We are drawn to individual action over group action. Maybe that is why we became farmers. In school, our teachers might have said: “Doesn't play well with others.” And we are mostly too busy to keep track of the ways in which we are used and taken advantage of by corporate forces.
I wonder what happens when the farmers start paying attention?