ChewsWise Blog

ChewsWise Blog

Is American agriculture really efficient?

Last week, I attended the Sustainable Foods Institute, hosted by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. As in the past, the session-packed affair of panels and keynotes did not disappoint, even though the outlook -- for fisheries, for food production, for humanity in general -- was pretty sobering.

Among the speakers was Jonathan Foley, a professor of ecology and director of the Institute of the Environment at the University of Minnesota. He gave a big picture view, noting that agriculture is not only the single biggest factor in global warming but obviously crucial to feeding a growing world. If there was one surprising takeaway, it was that the highly efficient machine of American agriculture -- and modern agriculture in general -- doesn't measure up to the hype. As Foley stated, "yields from the Green Revolution have stagnated and what we're doing isn't sustainable anyway."

This discussion of how to feed the world often begins and ends with the question of whether we're maximizing crop production per acre of land -- something American farmers do quite well. But what yield doesn't tell us is whether that land could be used even more efficiently to produce more calories of food. Foley pointed out that crops such as corn and soybeans which are then fed to livestock -- or cars -- amount to a grossly inefficient use of land resources. "The elephant in the room is the cow," was the way he put it.

Measured this way, it takes 32 pounds of corn to produce a pound of fillet mignon -- a 3% conversion rate of the calories in feed. (He specified that he was talking about muscle meat, not the leftover parts of the animal that are rendered.) What happens to the other 97% of the calories? It is wasted by this grossly inefficient calorie producer --  the cow. Only 15% of the the Midwest's grains are consumed by humans. "We throw away five-sixths of what we grow," he said. This isn't a rap on farmers, for they are doing precisely what the market or government signals them to do and are quite good at it. The question Folely was raising was whether the entire aparatus is the best way to produce calories for growing populations on a finate amount of land.

Now, I have, on occassion, enjoyed a good steak, but if was clear from his presentation that if the world feasted on steak, as growing numbers of people are doing, there would not be much of a world left. (He also noted that this equation would be different for a cow raised on pasture, since forage grasses cannot be directly consumed by humans. The measurements were less dire for dairy, eggs and poultry which are more efficient at converting feed to calories.) 

While farmers and researchers focus on improving yield, the entire equation is actually stacked against the efficient use of land because the process in the end is so wasteful. He noted that 10 percent of the world's cropland is in GMOs and yet even those yields have stagnated. And since these crops grow animal feed (corn and soybeans) and fiber (cotton), "they're not feeding the world's poor," he said.

Water is another wasted resource, with the differences in efficiency between Israel and India differing by 100-fold. Recall that highly efficient modern drip irrigation was developed in Israel because water is such a scarce resource.

Foley also noted that organic farming still represented a minute fraction of agricultural production, and suggested a middle way in which organic methods would be used but augmented by targeted use of chemical inputs, not unlike taking medicine when you're sick. The better path is to stay healthy, only relying on medicine when needed. He likened the modern model of agriculture to a constant IV drip, an apt metaphore considering the use of sub-therapeutic antibiotics in animal feed.

"I want organic to be the default farming method if we can pull it off," he said, but he noted that no one has a monopoly on the discussion. Useful solutions will have to come from both conventional and organic methods (which I've seen in the adaptation of organic methods by conventional farmers because they can be cheap and effective). 

The bigger issue, though, is that forests are being razed to grow crops, especially in Brazil and Indonesia. This burning of forests is by far the greatest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions that agriculture emits -- and agriculture alone accounts for 30-40% of greenhouse gasses. Transport of food doesn't even come close. If this land is then used to grow soybeans, as it is in Brazil, these dramatic emissions are created in order to feed this inefficient livestock machine, which is another potent contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. 

So what might be a better use of land?

"Potatoes," said Charles Mann, the author of 1491 and its sequel, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created (I highly recommend both books) in another talk. Not only do potatoes produce more food calories per acre than wheat and corn, but unlike most of the corn crop, potatoes are also eaten by humans. That made me wonder whether diets could change enough to alter the current food paradigm. In the following slides, in which Mann laid out the globalization of food trade 400 years ago, it was clear they already had. Potatoes originating in Peru were the direct cause of Europe's early 19th century population boom, the Irish potato famine notwithstanding. The sweet potato even reached China, where it is now widely eaten. Staple diets, in other words, can and do change.

If Foley, though, was implicitly pointing to a more vegetarian diet, he did not explain how we would get there. That he gave us only two decades to fix the current dire state also left me scratching my head about how such rapid change could be achieved. I doubt whether people with the money will forgo a steak for a potato (they tend to want both), unless there is a dramatic reworking of incentives. But it was clear from Foley's talk that those sorts of cultural changes -- rather than simple agricultural science aimed at boosting yield -- will need to be part of the equation. "The choice is between the world we've had and the world that should be," he said. But he left open the question of how we will actually get there.

- Samuel Fromartz


Where yields fall short: in measuring sustainability (a response to @MarcGunther)

When measuring the productivity of farming, yield -- or output per acre of land -- is the metric that is often trotted out. And when this measure is used, organic farming usually falls short since it can’t match the yields of conventional agriculture. From there, it’s a short jump to conclude, as my friend Marc Gunther does, that organic methods will take more land to produce an equivalent amount of food, especially when population is increasing. The upshot, “organic food is not as green as you think.”

The problem with this argument is not that the yield calculations are wrong. The problem is that yield studies are inappropriate by themselves in measuring what’s “sustainable,” in determining what might “feed the world,” and which methods actually end up using more land in a particular situation. That’s because farming does not occur in a vacuum where yield is the sole measure of success.

Consider that the conventional farming methods that achieve higher yield require costly fossil fuel inputs in fertilizers and pesticides (the environmental impacts of which fall outside of yield studies), that they require highly mechanized tools that replace labor, and may rely on intensive irrigation from increasingly scarce water resources. Measured against the methods in most of the world -- 80% of the world’s workers are still farmers -- I have no doubt that the highly intensive model would produce a higher yield. But are those methods available or even appropriate to farmers in areas where food is most scarce and population growth the highest?

In some cases, those methods have proved disastrous, beause the technnology can’t be easily transposed from Iowa to Africa. One person who has looked closely at the issue, and who is also a conventional farmer in Illinois, the philantropist Howard Buffett, writes (pdf):

Commercial investment often focuses on increasing crop yields while governments emphasize expanded trade. The ultimate key to food security, however, is affordability and access to the proper food—neither approach has effectively addressed these issues in developing countries. The current situation mandates looking beyond crop productivity.

A narrow focus has dictated global agricultural policy over the past 30 years—it has failed, leaving millions hungry. Productivity in one part of the world cannot address land tenure, infrastructure, governance, investment protocol, culture, human capacity, research and development, gender disparity and a myriad other regional issues. Decisions and investments specific to individual countries—not the yields of another country half a world away—will always be the primary drivers of food security. (Emphasis added). 

As others have pointed out -- including the authors of the Nature study on which Gunther's post was based -- yield studies ignore two other imporant parameters: farmer livelihood and environmental impact, or the downstream effect of agriculture. If intensive agriculture pushes farmers off the land or leaves them indebted, what does that mean to livelihood? Of course, higher yields may produce more farm income -- except in situations where it does not.

I would add another consideration: that is, how appropriate and accessible are farming methods, especially when considering feeding the world. If the methods that produce the highest yield in Iowa are irrelevant in Zambia, does measuring relative yield even make sense? 

As just one small example, deforestation in Africa is a huge issue, since more land is cleared to plant crops. But as soil is depleted, fertilizers are used in ever larger amounts, contributing to even more intensive mining of the soil, loss of fertility and the burning of forests in the race for continued yields. In this situation, the question of which yield is higher, organic or conventional, is not even relevant. The question how can you achieve the highest yield without denuding the soil given methods that are accessible. Organic methods -- such as crop rotations, adding compost to the soil and even non-organic ones, such as judicious use of fertilizer -- might be best. But how does this fit into the what’s-the-highest-yield debate? It doesn’t, which shows the limitations of the question, even when considering the impact of farming on land use.

Indeed, this sole focus on yield takes on an almost religious ferver that drives attention from other issues that might raise yield far higher, such as addressing pre- and post-harvest food waste, which cuts productivity by up to 40%. Crack that nut and you will achieve more gains in efficiency and productivity than any improvement in farming could ever hope to offer -- and with technology that's currently available (think decent grain storage facilities, roads and transport). Yield by iself is too often relied upon as the sole yardstick to determine whether farming is "sustainable," will "feed the world," and is, in fact, green. To base decisions on that metric alone is myopic.  

Watershed? Former organic farmer to oversee California pesticide regulations

In what would have been unimaginable even two years ago, a former organic farmer who once headed California's largest organic certification organization was appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown as head of the state's Department of Pesticide Regulation.

Brian Leahy was assistant director in the California Department of Conservation. He now enters a department that has long been viewed as accommodative to pesticide interests

I first came across DPR when I wrote about a powerful soil fumigant known as methyl bromide in my book Organic Inc. Looking over publicly available documents, it was clear that the department interpreted its own toxicity findings in a liberal manner in order to let the spraying of this neurotoxin continue. Only subsequent law suits forced it to retreat and revise its fumigation protocal. 

But as methyl bromide was phased out under a UN treaty, one of the substances proposed to replace it -- methyl iodide -- was even more toxic. California DPR approved the cancer-causing substance in December 2010 against the concerns of its own scientists and those on an independent panel, prompting a ferocious uproar by environmental and consumer groups. 

Whether Leahy's appointment by Brown proves a game-changer on the future of methyl iodide remains to be seen. But it's clear that with the growth of organic farming in the state, what was unimaginable has now come to pass. And California -- at least when it comes to pesticide regulation -- is highly influential nationally. 

So it will be very interesting to see how this all plays out.

Leahy, by the way, served as executive director of California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) from 2000 to 2004. His appointment requires state senate confirmation. 

- Samuel Fromartz


Organic farming and the yield myth

You've heard the line often -- organic farming can't feed the world because it is so inefficient, producing 50 percent less than conventional methods. Then you hear the kicker -- "that's why it's only for rich people."

As Tom Philpott over on Mother Jones points out, there's been more than a few studies exploding this myth. He links to a couple, but one influential one he didn't mention was published in Science a number of years back -- a long-running Swiss study I talked about here in relation to energy use

Now comes yet another, from the Leopold Center at Iowa State University, which found that yields of conventional and organic farming were largely the same in a long-running trial.  

Averaged over 13 years, yields of organic corn, soybean and oats have been equivalent to or slightly greater than their conventional counterparts. Likewise, a 12-year average for alfalfa and an 8-year average for winter wheat also show no significant difference between organic yields and the Adair County average.

What the study also found was that organic fields were far more profitable, because of the premiums paid for the crops as well as lower costs for chemicals and fertilizers. (An early study looking at this was carried out by the University of California Santa Cruz back in the 1990's on organic strawberries -- it too found organic more profitable). 

This point is crucial, for another argument often heard about organic is that rotations mean far less production of a particular crop (you can't grow corn every year for instance). For a farmer, however, that doesn't matter. What matters is making enough money to keep farming the next year. Rotations are profitable in another sense as well -- they prevent depletion of soil nutrients. 

I don't expect this yield debate to be resolved anytime soon, but in many ways it's beside the point. Yield and production won't alone solve world hunger. India, which was ground zero for the Green Revolution, currently has a malnutrition rate for children under 5 of 48 percent. That's double the rate in sub-Saharran Africa which missed out on the Green Revolution. Figures like that have nothing to do with yield. They have everything to do with policies that bring food to people who most need it.

Let me just say it, buy this book: "Tomatoland"

image from

Over the past few years, a slew of food books have appeared on everything from oysters to oranges, Twinkies to beans. Heck, I'm even writing one about grains and bread, which explains my relative absence here recently. But in Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit, Barry Estabrook takes what might appear to be a narrow subject -- tomatoes, grown in Florida -- and spins it into a much bigger and disturbing tale (or more accurately, indictment).

You might not know, for example, that these tomatoes are grown in nearly sterile sand devoid of anything resembling soil, thus requiring copious amounts of fertilizers and toxic pesticides; or that these pesticides have been doused on workers, causing pregnant farmworkers to give birth to babies without arms or legs and leading to multimillion-dollar lawsuits. Or that Immokalee, Florida, the heart of the industry, has become ground zero for contemporary cases of slavery. 

It might be easy to go overboard and bludgeon this story to death with a heavy handed "J'accuse!" but thankfully Estabrook is too good a writer to fall prey to such tendencies. Instead, he lets the details speak for themselves and they prove devastating. I will not forget the quote he gets out of the US Attorney prosecuting these cases of enslaved tomato pickers, asserting that anyone who has eaten a winter tomato from Florida has eaten fruit picked by a slave. "That's not an assumption," the prosecutor says, "that's a fact."

Estabrook told a version of this tale in the now-shuttered Gourmet magazine, but here he has the room to dig deeper. Some magazine stories when expanded in books look like fabric that has been stretched way too thin, but that's not the case here. There was obviously more digging to do, and amazingly, the stories didn't seem hard to find. They just kept coming because the abuse was so widespread. Estabrook has chosen well, citing, for example, court depositions in which well-meaning tomato company executives, when pressed to explain the pesticide poisoning incidents, tie themselves up in semantic knots.

Thankfully, though, Estabrook doesn't leave us to swear off tomatoes forever and tells how the industry has, with much cajoling, lawsuits, industry pressure, boycotts and highly publicized stories of abuse, finally begun to get its act together. He also spends time with these growers who appear like the eager entrepreneurs they are -- perhaps too eager to be all that concerned about the messy details of their business. 

He also presents alternatives, not only in new tastier tomato breeds the industry has sworn off, but in different methods of tomato farming such as organic. Then there are the social improvements in areas like farmworker housing. Of course, the growers will always claim that anything which raises costs will simply push production overseas, or in this case, to Mexico, where it will take another Estabrook to uncover other abuses. But I would imagine that consumers might actually want a U.S. tomato, even from Florida, especially if it wasn't the product of slavery. It might take a Madison Avenue whiz to craft that into a marketing message, however.

If I have a quibble with the book, it's this: the slavery abuses were largely carried out by contractors, who were also immigrants. The behavior was obviously condoned by the tomato companies -- it was too flagrant not to be -- but it wasn't entirely clear what drove these contractors to act this way. Was it simply their twisted version of the American Dream in a community where laws were ignored? Just getting ahead any way they could? Or were they part of a larger criminal enterprise (it appears they were, loosely). It was just a question that lingered.

Now, you might think this isn't the best book to read on your summer vacation, sitting on the beach or in the country thinking about what you're going to eat in the evening. But I would beg to differ. The book is a great yarn. I devoured it in all of two days. More importantly, it will make you think about all the choices we make in how we produce the food we eat. And you'll never think of a tomato as "just a tomato" again.

- Samuel Fromartz

In China, censored report shows political elite get special access to organic food

Although organic food from China has gotten a bad rap lately, apparently it's not too good for top party officials. A friend sent a link to this dispatch, which shows that top Chinese government officials have access to food from special organic farms, as well as farms tested for water quality and chemical residues. The report, from the paper Southern Weekend, was pulled from its web site by authorities shortly after it appeared and other Chinese media were ordered not to reprint it. 

Here's how the report from the paper Southern Weekend begins:

Surrounded by two-metre high walls and watched over by five security guards, the “customs shed” would be a struggle to find without the help of local people. You would be even less likely to realise that it supplies vegetables for Beijing’s customs authorities. The site – full name Beijing Customs Vegetable Farm and Country Club – covers 200 mu of land (around 130,000 square metres) in the outlying Beijing district of Shunyi.

According to an informed source, the farm has been working with the Beijing customs authority, its sole customer, for 10 years. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning, a customs truck comes to the farm to pick up a load of at least several thousand kilograms of produce.

This is just one of many examples of food being produced specifically for government use. Southern Weekend understands that the customs authorities are not the only department to have a farm in Shunyi, and that some provincial level departments also source their food this way.

These foods, grown to government order, are genuinely green, and safety is put first....



Organic fertilizer fraud -- an in-depth look

I have a story posted over at Grist this week, California Schemin', on fraud in the organic fertilizer market. The issue has not gotten a lot of attention because, unlike pesticide residues, it doesn't end up on your food. But the scope of the fraud was truly mind-boggling. This story was in the works for months and delayed by internal staff changes at Grist. I was happy it finally saw the light of day. 

Here's the intro:

It's no secret that the organic food industry has seen explosive growth, taking only a mild drubbing through the recession and then continuing its ascent. At the heart of that growth has been trust -- consumers are willing to shell out more bucks for organic because the food's been grown without synthetic chemicals, with that claim verified from farm to market.

Yet two major cases of federal fraud have been filed in the past six months, rocking the California farming world and alleging that probably millions of pounds of produce sold as organic over several years weren't worthy of the label.

So why haven't you heard about this? Because the shady practices came from a side of the farming world that few shoppers think about: the fertilizer industry. And the real dupes weren't consumers but organic farmers.


California Recipe: Strawberries with a dose of Methyl Iodide

image from

Several years ago, looking into the differences between organic and conventional farming methods, I focused on strawberries as a case study.

At the time, conventional growers depended on methyl bromide, a potent neurotoxin that is injected into the soil to kill pests and diseases. The applicators wore full body suits with gas masks. The ground was covered in plastic to help keep the toxic gas contained. These fields looked like something out a futuristic moonscape, covered in plastic with workers in full hazmat suits. It was just one of the many toxic chemicals used in the conventional strawberry regime. I described all this in a chapter of my book Organic, Inc. Many people told me that after they read that chapter they never bought a conventional strawberry again.

Methyl bromide was always particularly controversial. Law suits were filed because of drift of this pesticide to nearby public schools on the central coast of California, the heart of the strawberry industry. The issue for the courts: Was the drifting chemical at sufficiently low levels to be safe?

You had the usual sides drawn, with growers who feared losing a cherished tool and farmworker and environmental advocates worried about toxicity. The result was that the state set what it considered a "safe level" of use, with widened buffer zones and requirements on when the chemical could be sprayed. But I found the evidence of a "safe level" less than convincing. Knowledge about the effects of chronic exposure to the chemical were not iron clad and a panel that explored the issue was split. 

Organic growers avoided nearly all chemicals and relied on crop rotations, beneficial insects and vacuums to suck up the bugs. (A  NY Times article explains organic methods here). Though their yield was lower, organic farmers were successful because of the premium paid for organic. 

Methyl bromide eventually was phased out under a UN treaty, because it contributed to a hole in the ozone layer. Growers got extensions for years to keep using the chemical but they knew the end was in sight and so turned to other chemicals. Methyl iodide was the most promising, though even conventional growers told me that they thought the chemical was more toxic than methyl bromide. Its saving grace -- no ozone depletion in the atmosphere.

This week, California, which has among the most rigorous pesticide regulations in the nation, approved methyl iodide for use. This came despite the unanimous findings of its own scientific panel against approval of the chemical. California Watch quoted a member of this panel.

"It is my personal opinion that this decision will result in serious harm to California citizens, and most especially to children," wrote panel member Theodore Slotkin, a professor of pharmacology and cancer biology at Duke University.

But the state overruled the panel and found that, based on a risk assessment, the pesticide could be safely used. In doing this, they followed 47 states. Had they outlawed it, California growers no doubt would have argued they were no longer competitive.

Like methyl bromide, methyl iodide is most hazardous to those who use it in the fields and to those who come into contact with its drift. It does not linger, like other pesticides, on the fruit itself. I wonder, if the state or even the EPA, would have thought differently about the pesticide, if there was a consumer risk. Farm workers and farm communities tend to be abstract and distant -- we don't know who these people are. Often, because they are immigrants, they remain silent. We don't attend the schools abutting the fields. I just wonder, if we did, whether the outcome would have been different.

- Samuel Fromartz

Image source: UW Farm blog, "New Study Weighs in on Organic vs. Conventional Debate"

Billions of Bugs Fly By in the Sky

NPR had a fascinating story today about how many bugs live up in the sky -- "a vast teaming highway invisible to you," reported Robert Krulwich. Laby bugs at 6,000 feet, beetles and fruit flies at 3,000 feet.  We're talking a lot, like 3 billion passing though a single mile of air space in a month. I've posted the audio above but the web link to the story has a nice animation as well.

Which makes me think, how effective can pesticides really be? The buggers are out there -- I mean, best to figure out a way to deal with them, without spraying chemicals, because frankly we will never be able to spray enough, because more will arrive, and then evolve to live with the chemicals and then lift off again and end up in another field thousands of miles away. But enough of my soapbox. Just listen to the piece.

Will GM Alfalfa Mean the End of Organic Milk?

That's what many fear about genetically engineered alfalfa. Organic farmers grow alfalfa as a forage crop for livestock, but genetically engineered crops can pollinate organic crops, making them non-organic. No organic forage, no organic livestock. No organic livestock, no organic milk. 

That scenario has already played out in corn and canola, at least in some regions. A seed scientist at an organic seed company told me it's virtually impossible to find corn seed from the midwest that has avoided GM contamination. As a result, this company buys its organic corn seeds from a remote region of the Southeast. The same is true of rapeseed (canola) in Western Canada.

To avoid this fate with Round-Up Ready Alfalfa, 200,000 people have submitted comments to the USDA criticizing a draft environmental impact statement on the GM crop by the agency, which had recommended approval of the crop.

This battle has been brewing for sometime. In 2006, the Center for Food Safety (CFS) sued the USDA for failing to conduct an environmental impact statement, as required by law, before deregulating the crop. The federal courts sided with CFS and banned GE alfalfa plantings until USDA analyzed the impacts of GE alfalfa on the environment, farmers and the public.

Strangely, that environmental impact statement concluded, "There is no evidence that consumers care about GE contamination of organic alfalfa" -- even though it would no longer qualify as organic if it were contaminated. Stranger still, considering that organic milk is the leading organic product sought by consumers.

Regardless of what you think about genetically modified crops, the question is whether a crop should be approved that could threaten the organic status of another crop. In this case, it's not just a crop, but the animals that depend on the crop for forages and the consumers who want the products produced by those animals. None will be organic if the feedstock is contaminated.

Today is the last day to submit a comment on the issue. Center for Food Safety has more information here

Behind the Organic Pasture Rule at the USDA

After one of the most contentious issues in the organic food world was put to rest last week, I happened to be feeding a few goats in Massachusetts. I pulled some grass from a nearby field and walked over to the animals. They came right up to me and started eating the fresh forage from my hand. There was hay nearby but the green stuff clearly won the taste test.

Over at the USDA, it took more than a decade of complaints and advisory statements, reams of documents, a dairy symposium, five listening sessions, at least two comment periods, the overhaul of the USDA's National Organic Program, the new Obama administration, and vigorous lobbying by small dairy farmer groups to arrive at the same conclusion as these goats -- ruminants such as cows prefer grass and they should be required to graze a minimum amount of pasture on an organic farm.

Why was this so contentious? Because cows don't need to be on pasture to produce milk. In many conventional dairies, cows are housed indoors. In fact, if they eat more grain rations and expend less energy walking to pasture they actually produce more milk, not less. That efficient factory-like reality led large-scale organic dairy operations to minimize pasture, maximize milk production and thus undercut all those other farmers who wanted to let cows express their natural behavior and eat grass. And these large-scale farms could do so because organic regulations, until now, only required vague "access to pasture," not a bright line minimum standard for grazing that all farms must meet.

Now, with the new pasture rule released last week, the bright line is there. The regulation states that cows must be out on pasture throughout the grazing season, though not less than 120 days. They must  also get a minimum of 30% of their nutrition from fresh grass (as measured by dry weight, since grass contains far more water than grain). This standard was arrived at by consensus by organic dairy farmers around the nation nearly five years ago. It will take full effect a year from now.

The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), an advisory panel which recommends all regulatory changes to the Secretary of Agriculture, had at first recommended that the 120 day/30% minimum be for "guidance" only. But in an especially detailed and well-reasoned document explaining the regulation (pdf), the USDA said, "public comments showed strong backing for a regulatory change" -- not simply guidance.

The agency enacted the bright line standard to avoid confusion among certifiers who had interpreted the "access to pasture" prescription quite differently. (Some required grazing while others clearly did not). Secondly, and perhaps more crucially, the USDA made the change "to satisfy consumer expectations that ruminant livestock animals graze on pastures during the grazing season."

Evidence of those consumer expectations appeared after the first proposed rule, released in April 2006, when more than 80,500 commented. Of those, just 28 were opposed to any changes in the pasture requirement and "there was a consistent theme of opposition to confining animals and feedlot feeding," the agency noted.

Consumers, farmers, retailers and public advocates spoke. And, in this case, the USDA listened -- it just took awhile.

That voice is especially important because the National Organic Program was designed by Congress as a "marketing program." (It is officially agnostic on whether organic foods or organic production practices are better or healthier). If the market, defined by the 30% or so of Americans who occasionally buy organic products, think that organic practices are failing to live up to their expectations, the agriculture secretary has reason to "satisfy consumer expectations" and change the program. That was clearly the case in the pasture dispute, where consumers felt large-scale feedlot organic farms were manipulating organic practices with a loophole.

As another example, the agency pointed out that antibiotics are clearly prohibited from organic production. Consumers point to the absence of antibiotics as well as synthetic growth hormones in production as reasons to buy organic dairy products, livestock, meat and poultry. Yet the agency felt compelled "to further clarify the prohibition on the use of antibiotics." 

The reason? "In administering this program we have found antibiotics in certified organic feed," the agency said. The document continues:

Whether used for therapeutic or subtherapeutic reasons or to increase feed efficiency or rate of gain, all antibiotics are prohibited...  It is the producer’s responsibility, to obtain assurances from feed suppliers that the feed products supplied are free of antibiotics.

But the intent of meeting consumer expectations might not only apply to pasture or livestock practices. If consumers have an expectation that organic food should be free of genetically modified crops, then the agency should ensure against GM contamination. (Genetically modified crops are banned from organic agriculture). In fact, this issue may arise sooner rather than later if genetically modified alfalfa is approved by the USDA. Organic farmers plant alfalfa in their fields, so those crops could be subject to pollen contamination from genetically modified alfalfa. That prospect has led to yet another consumer campaign for protections and more law suits are likely on the horizon if the GM crops are approved.

Despite clear consumer preference, there were objections to the new pasture standard.

First, those who opposed it said the standard said it would raise costs dramatically by increasing the amount of land needed for grazing. (This is a familiar argument of anti-organic camp -- that organic production requires more land). But the USDA said: "We received other studies challenging (this) assertion ... These studies discuss a prevalent misconception that grazing systems require more acres for the same amount of output." 

It also found ample organic land for grazing, especially in the West, where many objections to the pasture standard originated. (The bigger issue for large operations is moving cows from pasture to the milking parlor -- a nearby feedlot is far easier to manage). 

A notable objection had been lodged by Straus Family Creamery, a pioneering organic dairy in California which found the ruling overly prescriptive. But in the final rule, the USDA stated that the 120 day minimum did not have to be continuous -- it could be met with breaks over any defined 365 day period. But it also made clear that if the 120-minimum could not be met, the farm shouldn't be organic.

...if the location is consistently too rainy or the temperature and humidity are too high or low to safely graze animals throughout a 120-day minimum grazing season and still comply with all applicable parts of this regulation, the animal cannot be raised in such location for organic production.

In the end, Straus found the final rule acceptable. “The final rule allows for a grazing season that considers regional variation in climate, soil conditions, and regional water quality regulations,” said Albert Straus. “We’re very grateful to all of the consumers who urged the USDA to account for such regional variations in the final rule. It’s exciting to see the National Organic Program continue to get stronger."

As with many past examples in the organic food arena, a diverse and often conflicted number of constituents came together to urge passage of this rule -- including various farmer groups, consumer organizations, processors, retailers, certifiers, environmental advocates and others. That lesson should be kept in mind for the future.

Further background on the rule change can be found at:

- Samuel Fromartz