Today organic foods seem as mainstream as frozen waffles, but the United States still lags far behind Europe. It’s time for Washington to give the industry a jolt.
Originally published in Audubon.
THE CHUK-CHUK-CHUK OF AN OLD FORD DIESEL pierces the morning at Joseph Fields Farm on Johns Island, South Carolina. Eight farmworkers make their way up and down rows of crookneck squash. The workers fill their buckets, then empty them into a cast-iron bathtub filled with water that sits atop an open-sided trailer pulled by the tractor. Yellow specimens get packed into boxes. Green ones are thrown overboard to compost. “It’s a pretty green, and you can eat them, but you can’t sell them to the stores because of the color,” Cleveland Brown, the Ford’s driver, tells me.
Joseph Fields, who owns this organic farm with his wife, Helen, shows up a few minutes later. We set out to walk some of the 50 acres he cultivates. Even in October, when more northerly farms are winding down their growing seasons, Fields is producing a prodigious amount of vegetables: eggplant, zucchini, kale, beets, radishes, butter beans, speckled beans, okra, turnips, collards, crowder peas, cucumbers, cabbage, mustard greens, acorn squash, butternut squash. Fields and his workers weed by hoe and hand, and fertilize with poultry manure. They control pests with a biological agent.
We wander toward the melon patch, where the cantaloupes have had a rough year. “The rain come a couple of weeks ago and busted these out,” Fields says in the Gullah-inflected cadences found among some African-Americans in South Carolina’s Low Country. “They can’t stand no water.” Fields recalls one year when he loaded a truck full of cantaloupes and drove to North Carolina. “It was good when I put it in the truck. But when I got there and opened the back door”—he laughs as he remembers the mess of spoiled fruit that awaited him. Fortunately, Fields’s farm is diverse enough that when one crop fails, another flourishes. Honeydew and watermelon can tolerate the rain. “They’re sweet now, I tell you,” he says of the latter. “See this here?” He fingers a small, curly tendril that’s called the “pigtail” or the “baby.”
“If it’s dry and brown,” Fields says, “that lets you know the watermelon is ripe.”
The Fields family has tilled much of this land since the 1880s. The farm is located on a Spanish-moss-draped barrier island 30 minutes from downtown Charleston, a place where the live oaks lining the main road form a canopy. Fields operates much like his ancestors did. “We used to do organic farming, using chicken manure and horse manure,” he says. Then, in the middle of the 20th century, “we got away from it as we got more modernized.” Fields had no intention of going back to the old methods until about a decade ago, when his farmers’ cooperative sent him to a Bioneers Conference that focused on present-day environmental solutions. Intrigued, he grew some vegetables organically on a small plot, then expanded gradually. The demand at the farmers’ markets where he and Helen sold their vegetables fueled his pursuits. “People would ask: Do we do chemical-free?” he says, explaining that some of them had health problems and didn’t want to eat conventional produce. Three years ago, after a conversion process designed to rid the soil of agricultural chemicals, the Fields Farm received its organic certification from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
The Fieldses’ transition came at a time when organic agriculture was also transforming, from the back-to-the-land fringe solidly into the mainstream. “We have seen a cultural quickening,” says Laura Batcha, policy and external relations chief at the Organic Trade Association (OTA), an industry group. Wal-Mart sells organic foods now (see “The Wal-Mart Effect,” May-June 2007), and celebrities like Martha Stewart and chef Emeril Lagasse promote it in books, magazines, and television shows. First Lady Michelle Obama touts the organic garden on the White House lawn. Many well-informed parents know about the study published last May in the journal Pediatrics linking exposure to organophosphate pesticides with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children. Between 2000 and 2008 organic food sales grew from $6.1 billion to $23.6 billion, a rise of at least 15 percent a year, according to a recent OTA report. Even when the recession pushed the growth rate down to five percent in 2009, that was still three times the growth rate of all food sales. The $24.8 billion in 2009 sales accounted for 3.7 percent of all food dollars.
This is also a time when organic agriculture is finally being taken seriously in Washington. Under President Obama, the USDA has expanded and strengthened its organic program like never before. Still, the United States lags behind other countries, particularly members of the European Union, in developing policies that would make it easier for farmers like the Fieldses to survive.
SCIENTISTS HAVE LONG KNOWN THAT EATING organic food is better for our health, and that growing it is better for the planet. Besides the ADHD study, last year the President’s Cancer Panel released a report noting that the 1,400 pesticides approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have been linked to breast, colon, lung, testicular, and other cancers. Phosphate fertilizers are often contaminated with cadmium, which collects in seafood and partly explains the high level of pancreatic cancer in south Louisiana. The panel’s report never used the word organic, but it did urge consumers to eat produce “grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers.”
Likewise, the ways pesticides harm wildlife, particularly birds—almost four decades after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring helped trigger worldwide bans on DDT—are well documented. “A lot of birds are dying in fields and pastures sprayed for insect control,” says Pierre Mineau, a senior research scientist with Environment Canada’s National Wildlife Research Centre. “Bird species that inhabit farmland and open areas or those that use farmland during migration are at risk. Waterfowl and game birds are at risk because they eat large quantities of foliage. Songbirds are attracted to pesticide-treated seeds. Birds that feed on agricultural pests, such as grasshoppers, grubs, and cutworms, gorge on the freshly poisoned insects… Scavengers and predators in turn are poisoned when they consume the gut contents of their prey.” Not only do the chemicals kill directly, they may also suppress egg production and cause sublethal effects that make the animals more vulnerable to starvation, predation, collisions with cars, and electrocution from power lines.
Mineau notes that the United States has banned the worst offenders—pesticides like granular carbofuran, which he calculates killed between 17 million and 91 million songbirds in Midwestern cornfields alone before the EPA phased it out (with limited exceptions) in 1994. But that doesn’t take care of the problem, says Charles Benbrook, chief scientist at the Organic Center, a Colorado-based research group. “About two-thirds of the most toxic pesticides have been banned,” he says, “but you can still use some of them on cotton and corn. Probably one of the worst places for a bird to be in America is in or around conventional sweet-corn fields in Florida or Georgia. Every three or four days, a ground rig or an airplane is going over these huge cornfields to kill army worms. You just can’t be a bird in those areas at that time of year without being poisoned.”
Organic farms—with their vegetated buffers and weedier fields brimming with insect life—also attract wildlife, according to numerous studies. Farmers see this firsthand. In 1993 Sylvia Tawse and Lyle Davis bought 35 acres in Longmont, Colorado, and converted them to organic vegetable and cut-flower production. When they purchased the land, it initially felt “desolate,” Tawse says. “Within three years we had an incredible bird habitat return.” White-tailed ptarmigan showed up, along with cranes, red-tailed hawks, great blue herons, and a variety of owls and songbirds. Her neighbors were delighted. “The old-timers came to us and said they couldn’t remember the last time they had seen golden eagles or bald eagles,” she recalls. “Now there are eagle nests in the cottonwoods.” Some birds, such as purple martins and swallows, are also important allies in many a farmer’s battles to keep pesky insects in check, explains Organic Valley CEO George Siemon.
Recent studies also suggest that organic practices could even help slow down climate change. These farms avoid the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which require heavy fossil fuel inputs. Their soil sequesters far more carbon than most conventionally farmed land. With proper management—minimizing tillage of the soil, which releases carbon—“farming could be climate neutral,” the UN says. Additionally, many researchers say organic farming could better adapt to the droughts and floods that will likely accompany global warming.
FOR ALL THE BUZZ ABOUT ORGANIC FOODS and agriculture, both in scientific circles and in popular culture, it wasn’t until President Obama’s election that the USDA started taking the sector seriously. Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act in 1990. It took another 12 years for the USDA to implement national standards. Even when its National Organic Program got up and running, it was underfunded and understaffed.
Jim Riddle, the organic outreach coordinator for the University of Minnesota’s Southwest Research and Outreach Center, was appointed in 2001 to the National Organic Standards Board, a volunteer body that advises the USDA. (He later became the board’s chair.) “I found a department that was in disarray,” he recalls. “It was staffed by people who did not really care about organic, who mocked organic farming. Their vision of a good meal was a Big Mac and a Coke. They did not have an understanding of organic principles and were threatened by people who were knowledgeable and willing to put the time in to turn things around.” The board made a slew of recommendations, many of which didn’t see action for years. “It was a USDA that operated by status quo, that was used to lawyers and lobbyists for agribusiness coming in their doors every day and having full access: people who play by their rules, eat dinner together, come from the same colleges.”
In a particularly glaring case of this coziness, reported by The Washington Post, Bush-era administrator Barbara Robinson, after talking with an industry attorney, overruled her staff and allowed manufacturers to use synthetic fatty acids in organic baby formula. The acids are often produced using a potential neurotoxin called hexane. In a Post interview, Robinson dismissed the synthetics controversy as “mostly ridiculous.”
Obama’s picks for certain key positions at the USDA couldn’t be more different. For the department’s No. 2 spot, he tapped Kathleen Merrigan, the former Senate staffer who authored the Organic Foods Production Act 20 years ago. His choice for head of the National Organic Program—Barbara Robinson’s former position—was Miles McEvoy, who ran Washington State’s program, considered a national model, for more than 20 years.
“Having Kathleen Merrigan as deputy secretary is more than an outward and visible sign,” says Steve Gilman, policy coordinator for the Northeast Organic Farming Association Interstate Council. “She’s somebody who has incredibly deep knowledge and is really in place to make some changes.”
Some staffing decisions were less reassuring. Roger Beachy, director of the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, comes from a research institute with strong ties to the agricultural biotech company Monsanto and has expressed overt hostility toward organics. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, while supporting organics, also supports genetic engineering, which many organic advocates find anathema. “There hasn’t been any movement at all, not one millimeter, from the embrace of industrial agriculture,” says Mark Kastel, cofounder of the Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute, which advocates for family farmers. Still, he says, the climate shift since Obama took office has been tangible. “It’s such a great change from the past culture at USDA that it’s hard to complain.”
Under the USDA’s new leadership, the National Organic Program’s budget almost doubled, to about $7 million, from 2009 to 2010. The program also doubled its staff to 31, stepped up enforcement, strengthened its accreditation system for certifiers, and tightened its time frame for resolving complaints. It assesses overseas certifiers, from China to Bolivia, to make sure they meet U.S. standards, and it narrowed the interpretation of the organic rules in an effort to give the USDA’s seal more integrity (see “Peeling Back the Label,” page 32). It also reversed Robinson’s decision and instituted a phased-in ban on the use of synthetic fatty acids in organic baby formula.
The USDA’s new strategic plan calls for the number of certified organic operations to rise 25 percent, to 20,655, by 2015. And in February the department published a rule, now being implemented, requiring that organic ruminants like beef and dairy cattle spend significant parts of the year on pasture rather than on feedlots. (The rule was stalled for years during the Bush administration.) On a departmental level, Merrigan requires every program within the USDA to incorporate organics into its planning.
“It’s very gratifying to see that change now with this administration,” says Riddle. “At the same time, there’s so much more that could be done.”
AT THE HEART OF WHAT’S MISSING, say critics, is the USDA’s insistence that “organic” is primarily a marketing label, without passing judgment on the environmental or health benefits. “The U.S. Government, while acknowledging organic agriculture’s positive impact on soil quality and erosion, considers the organic sector primarily an expanding market opportunity for producers,” says a 2005 report by USDA’s Economic Research Service.
Even McEvoy, the head of the National Organic Program, grows circumspect when I ask about the USDA’s studiously neutral policy. “I think there’s a lot of benefits to having agriculture versus shopping malls,” he says. “There are many excellent farmers around the country that are not organic that are doing many very positive things for the environment.”
Owusu Bandele, a former National Organic Standards Board member, understands the USDA’s reluctance to acknowledge organic’s advantages. “We know that organic produce is going to have less pesticide residue, especially on perishables that are sprayed a lot, like strawberries,” he says. “We know that’s a health benefit. But from the USDA perspective, those pesticides on that strawberry have been [endorsed] by USDA. It’s almost a conflict of interest.”
To understand how far the USDA has to go, it’s helpful to look across the Atlantic. In 1994 the European Union declared organic an ecologically beneficial agricultural method worthy of public support. Since then the EU and its member countries have implemented policies—from promotional campaigns to research funds—designed to boost the number of acres in organic production. The most important, say experts, are subsidies for farmers in the process of converting from conventional to organic because during the transitional years, before they earn full certification, many of them have reduced crop yields and up-front equipment and training costs—but can’t charge the premium prices that organic crops fetch. Many countries also pay farmers to maintain organic practices.
“In the European framework, the issue of environment and agriculture as being very closely integrated has been quite important,” says Nic Lampkin, executive director of Great Britain’s Organic Research Centre. By contrast, Lampkin says, “There was a tendency, for a while at least, for the U.S. to separate the environment into wilderness areas, and not to address environmental issues on farmland.”
The results of Europe’s efforts, while inconsistent, are often impressive. Both Austria and Sweden, for example, set a goal of converting 20 percent of their farmland to organic production by 2010. They came close, reaching more than 15 percent of their combined 14.6 million acres by last year, says Lampkin. In the United States, on the other hand, only 4.8 million (about 0.6 percent) of 844 million acres of farmland are organic.
Some key players in the U.S. organic movement—including the Rural Advancement Foundation International, the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and fair-trade company Equal Exchange—decided not to wait for the government to take the lead in catching up with Europe. Calling themselves the National Organic Coalition, they launched a nationwide series of “dialogue meetings” in 2006 with farmers, consumers, environmentalists, and industry members. In January 2010 the coalition published a National Organic Action Plan, modeled after some European programs. The 60-page document calls for numerous changes in U.S. farm policy, including stronger organic standards, a shift in research dollars, and financial and technical assistance for farmers making the transition. “The theme of our plan is that organic becomes the foundation of all food and agriculture in the U.S.,” says Liana Hoodes, the coalition’s director.
As part of Merrigan’s efforts to integrate organics throughout the USDA, the plan has circulated widely within the department, says Hoodes. Still, no one expects it to spur a wholesale policy shift. Equal Exchange’s Keith Olcott puts it bluntly: “In the Washington meat grinder, where corporate interests dominate, that vision just can’t get any traction on the ground.”
IN THE ABSENCE OF EUROPEAN-STYLE SUPPORT, South Carolina farmers Joseph and Helen Fields have tapped into their own resourcefulness. They take every class they can from organizations like the Clemson Cooperative Extension, and worked with the Southeastern African-American Farmers Organic Network (SAAFON) to apply for USDA certification. In turn, SAAFON plans to ask Joseph Fields to mentor other farmers making the transition to organic.
The Fieldses have also set up a dizzyingly intense retail and wholesale operation. Helen Fields, who as a child worked on the Fields family farm, organizes the farmers’ market schedule: one market every weekday, plus two on Saturday, with one spouse traveling to Charleston and the other driving two hours to Savannah. (“We go to church on Sunday and give the Lord thanks,” Joseph says.) At those markets, Helen is rigorous about presentation—making sure the vegetables are cleaned and graded by size, with no seconds in sight. The markets are also her chance to court restaurants. “A lot of chefs, when they come to the farmers’ market, see how you have your display,” she says. “That’s very important.” The Fieldses’ vegetables are now featured in upscale supermarkets and at restaurants like the Jasmine Porch at the nearby Kiawah Island Golf Resort. The couple also runs a farm stand and serves individual households through a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program.
None of this has brought them a financial bounty. Organic farming requires more labor (manual weeding, for example), which is expensive. Manure costs more than chemical fertilizer. “We’re not making a whole bunch more money than we were making before,” Helen says. “You’ve got to watch your pennies. You can see we don’t have a whole bunch of new equipment.”
But the farm’s survival in these tough times is reward enough. “When I think of Joseph’s mom and dad, their dream was that the farm would continue,” Helen says.
“And I have taken it to another level,” Joseph continues.
Keeping those 50 acres in organic production should matter to more people than the Fieldses. It should matter to anyone who values biodiversity, wildlife conservation, climate stability, and human health. Adopting a European-style action plan—reevaluating our existing farm subsidies to recognize the environmental and social value of organic agriculture—would relieve the Joseph and Helen Fields of this country from having to carry that burden alone, for their benefit and everyone else’s.