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Thoughts on the fall...

Like most of my friends and associates, I watched the election results on the night of November 8th with horror and disbelief. Determined to focus on the immediate task at hand, the next morning I stumbled over to the small house that serves as headquarters of NOFA-NY Certified Organic, LLC, just up the street from the Binghamton, NY hotel where I had spent the largely sleepless night.

I was there to conduct an internal audit of this organic certification agency, which USDA requires them to do every year to maintain their accreditation. I felt like I was among friends in this tightly run and professional organization with a staff of smart and passionately committed women. The last couple of years has seen exceptional growth in their client base, on a par with the increase in organic producers and manufacturers nationally and a reflection on the quality of the service they offer.

Discussions in the office that week as well as in cyberspace revealed both uncertainty and outright panic about what this election will mean for the work we are all doing in the organic community. What lessons can we take away? How do we stand together against the multiple looming policy disasters?

A key observation made by several commentators when deconstructing how we got it so wrong is well summarized by my friend and colleague Marty Strange in a Facebook post: “If you look at the presidential election map (especially by county) you will see the blue Democratic vote huddled against the ocean on both coasts, and a vast interior sea of red, broken only by pockets of blue around major cities and some rural areas that are heavily African American, Hispanic, or Native American.”

The urban-rural divide was never so stark. A divide deepened by decades of federal farm policies that have driven out small farmers, erected barriers to Black land ownership, and impoverished rural communities. Few people realize that this trend has been a result of deliberate political decisions and not some inevitable thrust of history. As I discuss in Chapter One of Organic Revolutionary, in 1979 I testified at the “structure of agriculture” hearings held by Bob Bergland, Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of Agriculture. The resulting USDA report, entitled A Time to Choose, “posed the question of whether we wanted a centralized food system with larger and larger farms, industrial agriculture, and declining rural communities or a diverse, localized agriculture that included farms of all sizes and thriving small towns. Then we held an election in 1980 and are still living with the consequences of that choice.” The Reagan administration eliminated Bergland’s tentative overtures to organic agriculture and ushered in the farm crisis of the 1980’s.

Organic prospects - fears and fractures

The biggest organic community-related fear seems to be about the next Farm Bill, due for renewal in 2019. While the budget for the National Organic Program and other organic-friendly work within USDA has expanded significantly during the Obama years, it is hard to imagine that the incoming administration would be as supportive of the “O” word. Without the current across-the-board cost-share of up to 75% of certification fees for smaller operations, for example, how many farmers and small food enterprises will drop or delay their entry into the organic market?

The recent National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) meeting in St. Louis, MO did not hold any surprises, and continued as expected to kick the can of the organic “bioponics” issue down the road. A strategically timed protest by Vermont farmers demanding that USDA “keep the soil in organic” garnered some pretty good coverage by both the Boston Globe and the NY Times. However, the NOSB noted that the task force recommendations had largely just restated the arguments on both sides without really clarifying the question, so they sent the matter back to the Crops Subcommittee.

My take on it remains pretty much as I opined back in May. It also feels to me like my Vermont buddies are making a mountain out of a molehill at a time when there are huge mountains of concern for the very future of the planet trembling in front of us. In the end, I believe that the more organic produce is available, especially in urban areas where we should try to encourage local food and access to fresh produce, the more people will begin to understand that we don’t need toxics and synthetic fertilizers to feed everyone. And no, the allowance for some organic produce that is not grown in soil does not imply that organic food might no longer be grown in soil.

In another controversial decision, the NOSB voted to remove carrageenan, a food additive derived from seaweed, from the National List. The decision was based on the idea that equivalent organic approved alternatives to carrageenan are available—despite insistence from some organic manufacturers that they don’t work so well. Here’s what Bill Wolf had to say about it in his email newsletter, circulated in advance of the meeting:

Some of these decisions are fueled by boycotts led by angry leaders of so-called non-profit organizations. What is happening in our organic world has come to mirror the mean-spirited attacks in the current election campaign — whoever yells the loudest and angriest can trump our true interests. For instance, the Handling Subcommittee has recommended removing carrageenan even though the document concludes that there are not health and safety concerns. If this decision is influenced by the fear created that all carrageenan use is harmful, then this is a bad decision and bad precedent.

My plea to the organic community and my esteemed activist friends is this: Let the polarizing, “us versus them” mindset end with us. We desperately need to let go of the fantasy of organic purity, and learn to collaborate with those we may disagree with about minor questions. Here is some of the advice I offer to young food system activists in the Epilogue to Organic Revolutionary:

Much of the damage to the True Organic Vision, as I have tried to elucidate it, has been done by those who earnestly believe that organic food must be pure, and that ideological purity must trump political compromise. To overcome this belief, we need compassion for our own inner fascist. At this moment, it is critical to the health of our gaian respiratory metabolism that we freely share this vision with everyone. Even with those whose political views or position of extreme wealth and power we may despise.

I'm working on following my own advice in the aftermath of this election. Wishing everyone a peaceful, compassionate holiday and Solstice season from the Organic Revolutionary--


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