Understanding the Organic Certification system is a tricky business, and one often on the receiving end of much skepticism. In this interview between Douglas Gayeton and Fred Kirschenmann, Fred explains the history of USDA organic certification, the trouble with milking 50,000 cows and why the story behind our food means more to some than third party organic certification.
Fred Kirschenmann is a longtime national and international leader in sustainable agriculture. He shares an appointment as Distinguished Fellow for the Leopold Center and as President of Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, New York. He also continues to manage his family’s 2,600-acre certified organic farm in south central North Dakota. He is a professor in the ISU Department of Religion and Philosophy and holds a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Chicago. He has held numerous appointments, including the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board and the National Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production.
Douglas Gayeton is a Californian farmer and an award-winning filmmaker, writer and photographer. Along with his wife, Laura Howard, he directs the Lexicon of Sustainability project. Together with The Lexicon of Sustainability and a community of partners, we are building a conversation around the ideas that can change people’s lives. Follow us as we uncover the list of the most important terms and principles of sustainability that can save our food system.
DG: You’ve done so much to help establish the method that we now use for organic certification. Could you give us a framework to understand how USDA certification for organics came to pass?
FK: It was a long process. I was on the National Organic Standards Board when we were given the responsibility to develop the rule for implementing the law. There were 17 people that were required to be on that board. It was a diverse group; four appointees were organic farmers, two were from the organic food industry, one from retail, one scientist, one from the environmental community, one from the consumer community. On most issues we came to a consensus, but there was difficulty when some of us wanted to include the focus on the health of soil in the requirements for certification.
Historically, managing soil for its self-renewing capacity was an important part of what “organic” was about. We developed a rule that managing organic farms for soil health was a requirement for certification. The board agreed to that, but when the National Organic Program staff submitted it to the USDA lawyers for approval they rejected it.
They said in a regulation you have to be able to answer things with a “yes” or a “no,” and requiring farmers to restore their soil to health is too complex to answer with a “yes” or a “no.” That’s how we ended up with the core requirement that you cannot use synthetic inputs except those that are on the approved synthetic list—that’s a “yes” or a “no.” And you can use natural inputs except for those that are on the unapproved list—that’s also a “yes” or a “no.” Today you can be certified as an organic farmer without paying any attention to the soil. You simply use natural inputs instead of synthetic inputs.
DG: Somebody said to me recently that one problem with organic certification is that it ultimately works to the benefit of large, industrial producers. Do you subscribe to that notion?
FK: It can tend in that direction, and it’s because of this: if you have to pay attention to restoring the health of your soil, you have a much more intimate relationship with your farm. But if all you have to do is insert natural inputs, you can do that on a scale that ultimately has no limits except for the kind of natural inputs you can get your hands on.
DG: I went through the South for a few months creating films for our project. About five days in, I realized that not one of the farms I had spent time on was certified organic. When I finally asked a farm if it was certified organic, the farmer said, “You must be from California.” He said instead of organic certification, they believe in the principle of “Local First, Certification Second”. Have you heard that principle before?
FK: I haven’t specifically heard it in that form but there is now more scepticism about certification, especially among growers, not only in the situation that you described, but also with very small growers because of the cost of certification. Small growers are more interested in developing trusting relationships directly with their customers. From their point of view, they don’t need the certification because their customers know them. Those are the kind of issues that the certification industry has to come to terms with.
When food producers get to a certain scale they lose that trusting relationship with their customer. Because of this, consumers increasingly want some sort of third party verification, whether it’s because producers are claiming their food is local, sustainable, natural, or organic. There is a lot of hype going on in the food industry. I’ve been in supermarkets where they have local cherries in a region where they aren’t growing any cherries, and you start asking, “Where do these cherries really come from?” And they say “Well, for us it’s local when it’s from within the state.” Sometimes it’s considered local if it’s within the United States and that’s not what consumers are expecting.
DG: Warren Weber has the oldest continuously certified organic farm in California. He said that one of the greatest things that happened to organics at the beginning was the rise of industrial agriculture, because small producers were forced to create a system that would distinguish them from the larger players. Now that these larger players have recognized that money can be made with certified organics, they’ve all moved into this space and therefore diluted this certification of its significance.
FK: I don’t know. Each of us has our own opinion about how this is going to play out. Seven or eight years ago I had a conversation with Richard Schnieders, the president and CEO of the Sysco Corporation at the time. He was telling me that the emerging market for Sysco was no longer about being fast, convenient and cheap. It was about what he called “memory, romance, and trust.”
First, he said if you want access to this new emerging market, you want to have a product that is so good that when your consumer eats it, they say, “Wow, where did that come from? I want that again.” The people who want quality food not only want a good tasting product, but they also want to feel good about it.
Second, he said they want a good story that comes with it. Some people want to know the animals are treated appropriately, some want to know there was good environmental stewardship all the way from farm to the table, and some want to know farm workers were treated fairly. You have to pay attention and provide a compelling story that comes with the food.
Third, he said they want a trusting relationship. People don’t want to worry about things anymore. If you want to be successful in the emerging market, those are the three things you have to pay attention to. I’ve talked to a number of people in the food business and they’ve all told me that’s the right description.