In the era of climate change, organic agriculture is about to win—or lose—big.
In the era of climate change, organic agriculture is about to win—or lose—big.
February 14, 2022
Editor’s note: A version of this interview appeared in The Deep Dish, our members-only monthly newsletter. Become a member today to get early and exclusive access to our in-depth reporting on food and the environment.
In 2000, Matthew Fitzgerald’s family started growing organic grains on 200 acres in central Minnesota. At the time, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) had just finalized the federal organic standards and many of the surrounding farmers growing conventional commodity crops saw their system as a threat and a denigration of their own practices, he recalls.
Today, their neighbors are much more accepting. Fitzgerald and his parents have spent over 20 years building relationships in their region while a much broader cultural shift has also taken place.
In that time, Fitzgerald Organics has expanded to 2,500 acres and the family has started a consulting business to help other commodity farmers transition to organic. “Our farm has grown as the industry has grown,” Fitzgerald said.
Now, they’re transitioning another 144 acres with the help of the Perennial Fund, which is putting $10 million into expanding organic acreage and has already funded 10 farmers transitioning 5,700 acres. It’s one of a number of new efforts to increase the number of certified organic acres across the U.S. Last year, the Rodale Institute launched an initiative with Cargill, the country’s largest private agriculture company, and Bell & Evans poultry company to transition 50,000 acres of crops grown for organic animal feed. And just last week, Daily Harvest announced a partnership with American Farmland Trust and California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) to offer grants of up to $10,000 to more than 100 fruit and vegetable farmers looking to transition to organic.
Meanwhile, demand for organics continues to grow. The Organic Trade Association (OTA) reported that sales of certified organic products (from both food and fiber) increased a record 12.4 percent to $62 billion in 2020, and surveys show more shoppers than ever care about the environmental impact of their food choices.
The story of organics is one of a disruptive underdog industry that has been growing steadily alongside the old guard for ages and is finally approaching the mainstream. But as organic products make it into the hands of more consumers than ever before, it’s clear that the industry is also at an important inflection point and is struggling on many fronts.
While “USDA Organic” used to be the only label on the shelf that quickly communicated a promise of environmental sustainability, there are now many other certifications that serve as add-ons to that label, as well as labels offering competing benefits like low-carbon and regenerative.
In just a few years, conventional farm groups have swooped in and claimed the banner of environmentally friendly farming through “regenerative practices,” and an increasing number of private and government dollars for climate mitigation have begun flowing toward conventional farms using practices like cover crops and reduced tillage. Case in point: When Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack released a long list of climate-related actions his USDA took during its first year, the word organic did not appear once.
“We can’t say that the organic label is losing its luster because people are questioning it. They’re questioning it because they should question it.”
And while the USDA Certified Organic label is still the only one in the country that is regulated by the federal government with third-party certification, some consumers appear to have lost faith in the idea that the seal can guarantee that their food has been produced in a way that’s better for people, animals, and the planet. In November, The New Yorker published a lengthy investigation called “The Great Organic Food Fraud” that followed a Midwest grain dealer who sold a large volume of conventional grain as organic before he was caught and prosecuted. The story highlighted loopholes in organic inspection and came to conclusions such as, “there’s no way to confirm that a crop was grown organically.”
“It left the impression, almost, that the system completely failed,” said Laura Batcha, the CEO and executive director of the OTA. “The disappointment [I felt] when I read the story was really about the missed opportunity to look under the hood and do a real post-mortem on how it happened and what’s been done since then.”
Part of the reason The New Yorker and other outlets continue to publish pieces like it is the fact that some organic farmers have begun actively discrediting the USDA certification in its current state.
“We can’t say that the organic label is losing its luster because people are questioning it,” said Dave Chapman, an organic tomato farmer based in Vermont. “They’re questioning it because they should question it.”
Chapman is the executive director of the Real Organic Project (ROP), a nonprofit that offers a new, secondary organic certification to farms with practices in line with what he and others in the group see as “real” organic farming. Namely, it’s not just about the synthetic fertilizers and pesticides the farms don’t use; crops have to be grown in soil and animals have to be raised on pasture. To the farmers behind ROP, these components are the heart and soul of what organic means. They see the fact that the USDA has allowed hydroponic (soil-less) systems and large concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) to receive the certification as a betrayal of the movement. For the last two years in a row, ROP’s farms have doubled in number and the current network now includes 850 farms.
In their eyes, the root of the problem is that as organic gained market value, big companies wanted in on the profits and began finding ways to exploit the system, tilting the scales against the bulk of organic farmers, who operate small farms and prioritize biodiversity and soil health. For example, Costco and Walmart are now top sellers of organic food, and Cargill, Driscoll’s (which sells organic berries grown hydroponically), and Nutrien Ag Solutions (a major seller of chemical farm inputs) are all OTA members.
“They believe we need to build a big tent, and the bigger the tent, the [more likely it is] we’re going to change American agriculture,” Chapman said. “But I believe if you build a tent big enough for Godzilla, you’re going to change what’s happening in the tent.”
Batcha acknowledges there are disagreements among farmers, food companies, and organizations within organic, but she said it’s par for the course within a broad coalition and compares it to the way the Democratic party struggles to bring together progressives and moderates. But the differences within organic are further complicated by the fact that one of the partners in the coalition is a federal agency.
Laura Batcha of the OTA points out that organic is the only industry in which multiple stakeholders are arguing for more regulation, not less.
“From its inception, the law was so aspirational, and you’re taking these big aspirations and you’re trying to operationalize them in a partnership with the government,” Batcha said. “There’s a natural gap there.”
Despite all this, nearly everyone agrees on a few key things the USDA should do right now to ensure a brighter future for organic farmers, food sellers, and consumers. For starters, a rule that will strengthen inspections and tracking to prevent fraud is in final review at the agency. The other two rules that are most important to organic—one that closes a loophole hurting small dairy farms and another that will bring animal welfare standards in line with organic ideals—were moved forward under the Obama Administration and then stalled or withdrawn under Trump. Representatives of the National Organic Program (NOP) at the USDA told Civil Eats that both rules are “very high priorities” but would not comment on when exactly they might be finalized.
Batcha also pointed out organic is the only industry in which multiple stakeholders are arguing for more regulation, not less. In addition to pushing for rules that will make certification more rigorous, the OTA is lobbying Congress to pass a bill that would direct the USDA to act on future rulemaking more quickly and ensure certifiers are enforcing new standards consistently.
Still, policy change requires strong coalitions, and it’s unclear if this one can stick together around a common message. “With the emergence of interest in regenerative agriculture, the divisiveness within organic becomes more problematic,” said Kathleen Merrigan, who is now the executive director of the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems at Arizona State University and served as Deputy Secretary of Agriculture at the USDA from 2009 to 2013.
“Organic is the original climate-smart agriculture,” said Merrigan, who was also closely involved in drafting the original organic standards.
And yet, at this moment in the U.S, it’s not the climate-smart agriculture du jour. Part of the narrative gap is likely due to the organic industry’s own focus on “avoiding pesticide residue” in food as the key marketing message for years, based on survey after survey that showed people were motivated to buy organic out of concerns for the health of their families.
Whatever the reason, when the world started heating up and everyone started talking about sequestering carbon in soil, only the farmers knew that building organic matter had been a key tenet of organic farming since the get-go.
And equally important is how quickly the term regenerative was embraced in conventional agriculture, where powerful industry leaders recognized the pressure that the industry would face to reduce emissions and sequester carbon. The fact that regenerative practices like cover crops and reduced tillage can fit squarely into already established systems built around chemical inputs allows for speed and scale, and many farmers and advocates believe that those two factors are necessary to meaningfully move the needle. Some regenerative advocates also question organic farming’s ability to sequester carbon because many farmers rely on tillage to control weeds (but this effect has mainly been measured in the top layer of soil and research trials show organic soils may store carbon further down).
And so far, federal investment in climate-smart agriculture has supported the conventional regenerative track.
Secretary Vilsack has explicitly said the U.S. will not take any cues from the European Union’s plan for a more sustainable food system, which includes cutting farmers’ use of pesticides in half, reducing synthetic fertilizer use by 20 percent, and transitioning at least 25 percent of the E.U.’s farmland to organic production by 2030. The AIM for Climate initiative Vilsack launched at COP26 is so far primarily supporting industrial agriculture projects, none of which mention organic farming and at least one of which is in partnership with the pesticide industry’s trade group.
In an interview, NOP Deputy Administrator Jennifer Tucker and Senior Advisor for Organic and Emerging Markets Marni Karlin said the overall agency is committed to climate action and that “support for organic” is one of the many ways it is achieving that commitment. They also referenced additional cost-share payments for certification as an example of the kinds of support USDA is providing to organic farmers.
Karlin said one of her biggest priorities is “making sure that organic has a seat at the table in the big discussions that are happening throughout the department,” on issues like climate, equity, loan programs, and market development. At the same time, Tucker said she’s focused on both moving forward rules that are important to organic farmers and groups as well as putting “tremendous thought and resources” into improving compliance and enforcement alongside certifiers.
But neither Tucker nor Karlin could directly specify why organic had been left out of the climate initiatives outlined by Secretary Vilsack.
Way beyond the Beltway, out in the fields, some farmers are forging ahead to claim regenerative and its climate promises for organic farmers. Based in Boulder, Colorado, Mad Agriculture was created in 2018 to eliminate barriers that prevent farmers from adopting regenerative systems. The founders were on a clear climate mission, and after identifying financing as one of those barriers, they created the aforementioned Perennial Fund. Yet while their ultimate goal is to build diversified, regenerative farms, they identified organic certification as their baseline, and they’re using the bulk of the initial capital to help farmers finance the three-year organic transition period, explained Brandon Welch, the Director of Capital at Mad Agriculture. During this window, farms have to stop using synthetic chemicals but don’t yet receive higher prices for their crops.
Since such a large percentage of agriculture’s emissions come from nitrous oxide, “We wanted to focus on a form of agriculture that doesn’t use any synthetic nitrogen,” he said. Many of the farmers the group is working with, such as Matthew Fitzgerald in Minnesota, are thinking far beyond eliminating synthetics. “Our farmers are also cover cropping, they’re using a four-year [crop] rotation,” Welch said. “They also want to move away from the industrial corn and soybean system. They want to be growing other crops, they want to be growing food for people, and they want to do it in a way that’s improving soil health.”
So far, the 10 farms transitioning 5,700 acres represent half of the fund’s allocations, and Welch said he plans to distribute the other $5 million to farmers by the end of March. Eventually, Mad Agriculture’s ambition is to help transition half of the total land they’re working on to Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC), another add-on label to USDA organic (like the Real Organic Project certification) which includes stricter soil health, animal welfare, and worker rights provisions.
Buzz about ROC was bubbling up in 2019 and then seemed to quiet down for a while. But Elizabeth Whitlow, the executive director of the Regenerative Organic Alliance, which administers the certification, said the team has been making quiet progress over the last few years, just at a slightly slower pace than expected due to the pandemic. As of now, Whitlow said they have issued 45 ROC certifications to cooperatives that represent 27,000 farmers on 152,000 acres, largely in the global South.
However, Whitlow is convinced this spring is going to mark a turning point for the ROC label on farms in the U.S. Her team is bringing on five new certifiers, including CCOF, the industry leader. “We’re going to hit the ground running with them this year,” she said, explaining that many farms and wineries are waiting in the wings. Last year, Alexandre Family Farm became the first dairy in the U.S. to achieve ROC certification.
“Now it’s time to start looking outward and working on the consumer education part, and this is a really key moment for us, because there’s so much buzz about regenerative, but nobody really fully agrees on what it means,” Whitlow said. “For the Regenerative Organic Alliance, it means organic is the baseline, and you can’t be regenerative if you’re . . . still using chemicals, no matter how judiciously.”
While it’s not clear how many consumers know the difference between a label with a certification behind it and one without it, nearly everyone Civil Eats spoke to in or about the organic industry mentioned that at some point they expect that regenerative producers will eventually have to contend with the same kinds of consumer confusion and pushback that they themselves have experienced over the years.
While splashy headlines about “regenerative” can make organic seem like old news, “We’re 30 years ahead,” Batcha said. “All the other claims that have nothing behind them, nobody has any idea what they mean.”
Batcha is not alone. Many advocates feel that even if all the players rarely see eye to eye on what organic is or where it’s going, at least “the organic world has gone through establishing a clear standard and a process for inspection and certification,” said Merrigan (see more from her below).
Merrigan believes that’s a thread that has the potential to hold it all together. Plus, “Organic has always been a very divisive policy sub-sector to work in,” she added. “You have to have a steel stomach and quiet nerves to do it.”
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