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Industrial Organic Farming Comes of Age

by Jim Goodman
Wisconsin dairy farmer

(Friday, Jan. 21, 2005 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- When the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) implemented the National Organic Program (NOP) in 2002 the intent was to standardize the requirements and production practices that would define exactly what constitutes organic farming. While many have been farming "organically" for generations, consumers wanted a consistent definition and legal assurance for their organic purchases. Needless to say the definitions and requirements were difficult to establish and not without controversy. While most would understand organic to mean animals raised without the use of antibiotics, supplemental hormones etc. and plants grown without pesticides or use of genetic engineering (GE), there were many minute details that had to be applied universally to organic farming and processing. All in all, it was not a bad idea.

The existing organic community feared the NOP would be a means to bring large-scale farming into a system that had long been the dominated by small-scale family farmers. Producing more organic food and bringing more land under organic cultivation was seen as a good thing, but narrowly defining it as a production practice only and one with weakened standards as well; that was not acceptable. Those who question this narrow definition feel that large "industrial" or "factory farms" cannot provide the environmental protection, ethical animal care and consumer connections that small family farms can.

Recently the NOP has come under fire for inadequate enforcement of it’s own standards. A complaint was recently filed with the USDA against the 5300 cow Aurora Organic Dairy in Colorado (Chicago Tribune, January 10, 2005). It alleges Aurora’s pasture is nothing more than a dirt lot, basically devoid of any edible grass, a situation prohibited by the NOP; a situation generally associated with conventional large-scale farming.

Nutritionist Joan Dye Gussow’s 1996 article "Can an Organic Twinkie be Certified?" asked whether organic food should simply mirror the existing food system, with it’s highly processed sugary junk food; or should it be something more. Should it also reflect the socially responsible farming practices that were traditionally part of organic and family farming? Should organic standards mandate that cows, ruminants and grazers by nature, be allowed to do what comes naturally? Should chickens that by their nature forage for insects and grass be allowed to do so, or can both be raised organically in confinement if they are fed organic feed?

It seems that the parallel system is here. Many traditional junk foods are now available in "organic" versions; large herds like Aurora Dairy do not allow their cattle to graze and many organic chickens grow and lay eggs without the ability to forage naturally but are instead fed diets supplemented with synthetic chemicals and basically raised in confinement. A petition submitted to the USDA on January 07, 2005 by Organic Valley and Tyson Foods specifically requests the NOP to continue to allow the feeding of synthetic methionine (an essential amino acid traditionally obtained from a foraged diet) beyond the October 2005 prohibition date.

Are large organic producers using the NOP to transform organic farming into Industrial Organic Farming? It would appear so. Granted it is difficult to incorporate ethical standards and societal values into government regulations, but it seems medicine, consumer protection and social security have at least tried to do so. The advocates of large-scale organic farming say they want to provide affordable organic food to American consumers. Nonsense. Promoting large scale farming with the intent of providing cheap food whether in an organic system or in a conventional one, is precisely what has and will continue to drive small family farms out of business; the parallel system, parallel results. Given a living wage, consumers have shown they will buy nutritious food, organic food, and farmers, if paid a living wage for what they produce, will stay in business.

So wouldn’t it be more ethical for Aurora Dairy, rather than citing misleading reasons for their size and failure to graze their cattle, to really farm organically and graze their cattle at least seasonally? Wouldn’t it make more sense for Organic Valley and Tyson foods to find ways to really raise their chickens organically as opposed to petitioning the USDA for exceptions to the legal standards?

We can continue to go down the path of the "Organic Twinkie" and the parallel organic food system, but now might be a good time to stop. Stop and realize that like health care, social security and protection of the environment, food production has to have ethics involved, not just profit for industrial farmers.

Jim Goodman operates a 40 cow organic dairy farm near Wonewoc WI.