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5 Reasons Getting USDA Organic Certification Is Really Difficult

Food
Paul Asman and Jill Lenoble / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

As the only government-administered label that addresses farming practices, the organic emblem is vitally important. There literally is no other badge that carries as much weight. USDA certified organic-food sales topped $43 billion in 2016—emphasis on "USDA certified." Ask around at your local farmers market and you're likely to run into a few "all-but-certified" farms (for which there are no statistics). The reason? Organic certification is incredibly difficult. Here's why.


1. Transitioning takes three years.

If you have a conventional farm and you want to convert to organic, you're in for a lengthy waiting period. The National Organic Program requires three full years—36 months—of organic operations before a formerly conventional farm can call itself organic. That means for three years, that farm will be obeying all organic regulations, paying applicable fees (see below), and yet unable to use the organic label—or charge the premium price that organic foods bring. After a year, you can label your goods as "transitional," and the USDA is working on a better way to advertise this system, but at the moment, that waiting period likely means a farm is operating at a loss.

2. Certification isn't free.

You might think that a farmer wishing to do the right thing by operating within sustainable guidelines would not have to pay for the privilege. You'd be wrong. The average cost of certification—which requires visits from a USDA or USDA-accredited certification agent, extensive paperwork, and more—estimates the National Young Farmer's Coalition, is about $1,000 per year per farm. Some states have assistance programs for organic farms that can help reduce that number, but in the notoriously thin-margin world of farming, an annual fee can make all the difference.

3. The rules can be infuriatingly vague.

For example: The organic regulations demand a "buffer zone" between an organic farm and nearby conventional farms. How big does the buffer zone need to be? Good question! The regulations … don't actually say. They describe what the buffer zone must do (essentially block any runoff from a conventional farm into the organic farm), but it's left up to the individual certifier to decide whether a buffer zone is of sufficient size.

4. The paperwork can be onerous.

The USDA will inspect all organic farms once per year, and they'll want to see extensive paperwork, often much more in-depth than conventional farms would maintain. It's often recommended that organic farmers set asides time for this paperwork everyday, which could mean updating field notes, planting schedules, soil tests, fertility observations, projected yields and organizing receipts.

5. Neighbors aren't always friendly.

With organic farms at a distinct disadvantage of numbers—around 1 percent of all American farms—it's highly likely that an organic farm will be near, if not completely surrounded, by non-organic farms. That presents all kinds of difficulties. It's not at all uncommon for pesticide sprayed on nearby non-organic farms to drift on the wind over to an organic farm. That pesticide can damage organic farms, which can take a huge bite out of yields. Even worse, if that pesticide leaves a residue considered "too high" by the National Organic Program—usually around 5 percent of the EPA's maximum tolerance—an organic farmer can lose his or her certification. In that case, the organic farmer might have to start that three-year transitioning program all over again.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Modern Farmer.

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Protesters gathered outside US Bank and Wells Fargo locations around the U.S. to protest investment in the Dakota Access Pipeline on Dec. 1, 2016. This photo is from a protest outside US Bank in south Minneapolis, Minnesota. Fibonacci Blue / CC BY 2.0

By Jake Johnson

As a growing number of states move to pass laws that would criminalize pipeline protests and hit demonstrators with years in prison, an audio recording obtained by The Intercept showed a representative of a powerful oil and gas lobbying group bragging about the industry's success in crafting anti-protest legislation behind closed doors.


Speaking during a conference in Washington, DC in June, Derrick Morgan, senior vice president for federal and regulatory affairs at the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM), touted "model legislation" that states across the nation have passed in recent months.

AFPM represents a number of major fossil fuel giants, including Chevron, Koch Industries and ExxonMobil.

"We've seen a lot of success at the state level, particularly starting with Oklahoma in 2017," said Morgan, citing Dakota Access Pipeline protests as the motivation behind the aggressive lobbying effort. "We're up to nine states that have passed laws that are substantially close to the model policy that you have in your packet."


The audio recording comes just months after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law legislation that would punish anti-pipeline demonstrators with up to 10 years in prison, a move environmentalists condemned as a flagrant attack on free expression.

"Big Oil is hijacking our legislative system," Dallas Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network said after the Texas Senate passed the bill in May.

As The Intercept's Lee Fang reported Monday, the model legislation Morgan cited in his remarks "has been introduced in various forms in 22 states and passed in ... Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Missouri, Indiana, Iowa, South Dakota, and North Dakota."

"The AFPM lobbyist also boasted that the template legislation has enjoyed bipartisan support," according to Fang. "In Louisiana, Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards signed the version of the bill there, which is being challenged by the Center for Constitutional Rights. Even in Illinois, Morgan noted, 'We almost got that across the finish line in a very Democratic-dominated legislature.' The bill did not pass as it got pushed aside over time constraints at the end of the legislative session."

Reposted with permission from our media associate Common Dreams.

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