Organic Farms Are Under Attack From Agribusiness, Weakened Standards
By Elizabeth Henderson
The certified organic label has helped save many generational farms and enabled people like me, who do not come from agricultural backgrounds, to become successful farmers. Organic farming has brought environmental benefits—healthier soils, freedom from toxic pesticides and herbicides—to 6.5 million acres in the U.S.
Organic shoppers are willing to pay a little extra for food that is free from chemical residues. But the organic label is in trouble after reports of fraudulently labeled food made national news. On top of that, agribusiness pressures and National Organic Program (NOP) actions have weakened standards. Yet at a time when farms are in distress, family-scale farmers need a label with integrity. They need a label that provides public support from people who understand that small-scale farmers are an endangered species.
Charles Wiriawan / Flickr
In the 1980s, I was one of the organic farmers who helped launch organic certification. Farming and non-farming members of the Northeast Organic Farming Association worked together to write standards for a label that identified the real organic food that non-farmers wanted to buy—for which they were willing to pay enough to keep the small farms in business.
In retrospect, it has become clear that we were very naïve. It did not occur to us to consider the many ways our clear, simple statements could be twisted by people who were willing to cut corners to increase their bottom line and steal markets by underselling the farmers who observed the standards faithfully.
To pass the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) in 1990—which established the NOP for organic food production on farms and in processing plants with a National Organic Standards Board of stakeholders to advise USDA, as well as a process for certification and accreditation—organic farming organizations and consumer and environmental groups allied with the Organic Trade Association, which was dominated by organic processors. At that time, there were few processed organic foods on the market, but since the NOP was implemented in 2002, sales of those foods have grown impressively. Cracks in our united front began to appear, as large conventional food corporations bought up independent organic brands and savvy players figured out how to scam the system.
The NOP standards require outdoor access for livestock, grass for ruminants and dirt for scratching for poultry. Shortly after the creation of the NOP, a chicken farm, where the chickens never walk outside but only access the outdoors by spending time on a porch, applied for certification. Today, most eggs with the organic label come from similar farms.
A bigshot with Organic Trade Association launched the first of the mega-dairies. The milk from these multi-thousand cow dairies is crowding family-scale dairies out of the market, causing heartbreaking farm closures by taking advantage of an obscure loophole that allows them to increase herd size quickly by using conventional (non-organic) heifers. These farms also cut corners on feed. Organic regulations require that 30 percent of feed by dry weight comes from pasture. Aerial photos of mega-dairies suggest that they do not have adequate pasture.
Despite clear language in OFPA requiring that organic farming be based on the maintenance and improvement of soil fertility, the NOP allows the certification of hydroponic produce. Hydroponic operations grow fruits and vegetables indoors, in greenhouses or hoop houses, or even large warehouses where all the light is artificial and the roots of the plant sit in a neutral medium with nutrients provided through the irrigation system. The acreage of hydroponic tomatoes and berries increases steadily, underselling produce from smaller farms and hoodwinking shoppers who have no way of knowing what they are buying.
Organic farmers and independent organic processors are deeply upset by these developments and are taking actions that the public can support.
Because family farms are so economically vulnerable, farmers who feel betrayed by the NOP do not want to undermine consumer confidence in the organic label on which so many farms depend.
Instead, there are three efforts underway to create add-ons to that label. The Real Organic Project will signal that products were grown in soil or raised on pasture. Regenerative Organic Certification will assure that products come from farms that build soil carbon to fight climate change, treat livestock humanely and use fair labor practices. The Agricultural Justice Project's Food Justice Certified label is already on a few products signaling that the farms pay living wages with decent working conditions.
For the health of our planet and agrarian justice—meaning fairness to family-scale farms to ensure their survival—consumers need to become co-producers, learning about why it is such a struggle for smaller farms to thrive, and acting in solidarity by paying fair prices, buying direct or seeking out meaningful labels.
Elizabeth Henderson farmed at Peacework Farm in Wayne County, New York, for more than 30 years. Peacework CSA was one of the first community-supported agriculture farms in New York State. She is a member of the Board the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) of New York, and represents the NOFA Interstate Council on the Board of the Agricultural Justice Project. Elizabeth is the lead author of Sharing the Harvest: A Citizen's Guide to Community Supported Agriculture (Chelsea Green, 2007), with a Spanish language e-book edition in 2017. She maintains the blog The Prying Mantis.
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The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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