The state of the (organic) nation is not good—especially for dairy farmers. That shouldn’t be too much of a surprise since the entire economy is hurting.
I’ve spent the last 20 years as an evangelist for organic and sustainable farming and direct-marketed food. There is no doubt that abandoning agrichemicals has a big payback for consumer health and our environment. But, in addition, organics has been the best social justice vehicle we’ve seen in the family farming movement. The premium price for organic commodities has, historically, been a lifesaver for the now more than 10,000 family farms in organics.
In 2008, like all other conventional prices, the price for organic feed for dairy cows and other livestock shot up so quickly—without milk processors and marketers paying farmers more to make up the gap – that for the first time in history, conventional dairy farmers were making more than organic (conventional milk prices were at unprecedented highs)! Grass-based, raw milk, and direct marketers are doing, not surprisingly, much better economically.
The Lay of the Land—2009
The entire organic industry is navigating in uncharted waters. We are experiencing the first protracted economic recession since organics was commercialized, and the landscape is shifting.
1. According to AC Nielsen 56 percent of consumers are eating more meals at home. Because organic food is still underrepresented in food service (restaurants and institutions), a shift toward more home-cooked meals is a positive trend for the industry.
2. However, a disturbing trend is a shift away from name brands to more private-label organic products. These “anonymous” products are oftentimes divorced from what consumers think they are supporting when they buy organic food (for example, food sourced from factory farms in China).
3. Meanwhile, as consumers at supermarkets cut back on organics or “trade down” to private labels, many managers of cooperatively owned natural foods groceries around the country are telling us that their sales, while slowing, are still growing! Many co-ops are ahead or, if behind last year’s sales volume, only in the low single digits. Co-op shoppers, and WAPF members, the market’s most sophisticated consumers, are not about to turn to conventional agribusiness for their food.
Change was the message that President Obama ran on last year. It’s something that is badly needed at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Dubbed the “People’s Department” by Abraham Lincoln, whose administration created the agency, it has become a captive of powerful corporate agribusiness interests and an enabler of an industrial-scale farm production model that’s been squeezing family farmers out of business for the last half century. As most readers of this journal know, this agenda has resulted in what nutritionist Bernard Jensen coined an “empty harvest.” There’s been an attrition of nutrition in our food commensurate with the loss of ecologically sustainable and diverse family farmers.
Although more and more consumers are making connections with local farmers we still need to buy a fair percentage of our (organic) food supply through normal commercial channels. If you care about the integrity of organic food and farming, the USDA’s management of the National Organic Program has been an abomination. It’s not just mismanagement—the track record has been one of intentional monkeywrenching of the department’s industry oversight. This includes ignoring and watering down enforcement actions, failing to ensure that the nation’s organic certifying agencies are properly performing their jobs with competent staff, and not providing sufficient resources for the review and evaluation of specific materials and ingredients used in organic food and agriculture.
Just as with the conventional food production system, these actions have resulted in a shift to factory farm production and cheap imports, predominantly from China.
It’s an extremely unfortunate situation because the overwhelming majority of domestic family farmers engaged in organic agriculture are practicing it with ethics and integrity, meeting the expectations of consumers. And consumer interest in organic food is surging, with sales up – even during the beginning of the recession – more than 15 percent last year and totaling in excess of $23 billion. But some serious pruning of the organic sector is needed to weed out scofflaws, industrial-scale livestock facilities, and others bent on shortchanging organic standards.
So, is Obama bringing the mantle of change to the USDA? Make no mistake about it that Michelle Obama’s White House vegetable garden, and a certified organic garden planted by the Secretary of Agriculture at their headquarters, are meant to be strongly symbolic. Those of us old enough to remember will note that the first thing president Reagan did, symbolically, was to rip the solar collectors off the roof of the White House, which had been installed by Jimmy Carter.
New Management at the USDA
It’s been a slow slog filling out the raft of political appointees who will direct the agency. But here’s a look at who’s been appointed and a quick assessment of their perspectives. Former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack was tapped by Obama to lead the USDA. Vilsack has a reputation as a pragmatist and seasoned politician. During his tenure as governor, he helped Iowa become an early state leader investing in an organic program at their department of agriculture. Iowa’s land grant university also began addressing the needs of organic farmers. But his administration also supported increased genetic engineering and had close ties to corporate agribusiness.
This track record raised concerns for some at the grassroots in the organic community. Others, including a number of officers at some of the largest organic corporate entities strongly welcomed the Vilsack selection. Shortly after his confirmation, Vilsack sent a message by breaking up pavement and planting a “people’s garden” at the USDA. The symbolism includes conservation practices and green gardening practices. Vilsack has also expressed interest in confronting the obesity epidemic in this country, which also implies addressing the quality of food children and adults eat. Less well known has been his push for biotechnology and the use of genetically engineered crops as a solution to hunger in Africa and other hungry parts of the world.
Vilsack has now made several key appointments since his confirmation in January. The number two slot in the agency, the Deputy Secretary, widely viewed as the chief operating officer at the USDA, was given to Dr. Kathleen Merrigan, a strong advocate for organics. Merrigan was most recently an assistant professor at Tufts University and director of its Agriculture, Food, and Environment program inside the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy.
Merrigan helped write the Organic Foods Production Act as a staffer for Senator Patrick Leahy. The 1990 federal law established the nation’s organic program. She was later hired by the USDA as a consultant to finalize the drafting of the organic regulations earlier this decade. She was on the list of the “Sustainable Dozen,” a group of people viewed by sustainable, local, and organic food supporters as potential high-quality USDA leaders. A petition circulated by Food Democracy Now garnered nearly 100,000 signatures for the roster of possible appointees.
Merrigan intimately understands organics and is aware of many of the problems facing USDA’s management of organics. She spoke in May to the semiannual meeting of the National Organic Standards Board, indicating that she was interested in more enforcement activities by the National Organic Program (NOP). She also emphasized that a full-time program manager was needed at the NOP, which is currently lacking. Her remarks were warmly received, she took questions for about a half hour and then announced an additional four-hour listening session in her office later that day for those at the meeting. Merrigan was also quick to point out that her job at the USDA, with its 100,000 employees, is far broader than organics. All in all, an auspicious beginning to a relationship with a senior official at the Department – something wholly lacking during the Clinton and G. W. Bush administrations.
Sniping at Merrigan and Vilsack for even expressing interest in organics, has already begun. Within the last two months, at least three powerful republican senators have challenged and questioned agency direction pertaining to its traditional support for conventional agriculture, attempting to use organics as a wedge issue to discredit the new administration in the eyes of farmers.
Another key appointment at the USDA is Edward Avalos as Undersecretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs. Avalos, who has yet to be confirmed, is from New Mexico. He grew up on a family farm that raised cotton, wheat and specialty crops. For the past twenty-nine years, he has worked at the state’s Department of Agriculture. Cornucopia’s sources, who have worked closely with Avalos in New Mexico, speak highly of him and describe him as someone who is fastidious and will look at all sides of an issue.
The Avalos appointment is important because, as undersecretary, he oversees the Agricultural Marketing Service, the arm of the agency inside of which the National Organic Program is housed.
And the AMS is scheduled to have a new director as well. In early May, the appointment of Rayne Pegg as AMS director was announced. From California, Pegg has been working for the California Department of Food and Agriculture as its Deputy Secretary of Legislation and Policy. She has also been heavily involved with the state’s Farm Bureau chapter. Pegg’s family was heavily involved with agricultural cooperatives. Cornucopia is told by its California allies that Pegg is direct, blunt and bright and sees herself as a problem solver.
One particularly troublesome issue surrounding Pegg was her involvement with the Leafy Green regulations that were put into place in California following the spinach E. coli outbreak in September, 2006. She was a principal in the creation of the regulations. A huge downside of the rules has been the destruction of wildlife habitat and buffers on farms in an attempt to sterilize the surrounding environment. The regulations have also unfairly burdened small farmers growing a diverse number of fresh food crops for local markets with costly food safety testing requirements. We have been told that she now understands that there are unintended downsides to the new regulations. We will look forward to meeting with her personally in order to share our concerns.
Food Safety is an issue gathering enormous attention and will likely lead to legislation reforming FDA (and perhaps USDA) responsibilities later this year. The California leafy greens approach is being touted as a potential national model and could seriously injure organic and local producers of high quality foods. These farmers are part of our nation’s food safety solution— not part of the problem. Stay tuned. Many dedicated patrons of local farms have received ominous e-mails warning that legislation on food safety, moving through Congress, specifically HR875, could put local and organic farmers out of business, even ban home gardens. While we believe these allegations are untrue, careful analysis by The Cornucopia Institute of pending legislation leaves us with two important conclusions. One, the nation’s corporate agribusinesses are out of control and we obviously need our government to provide strict oversight. Two, as a community we need to be on guard so that new regulations, which are needed for industrial-scale farming, do not place the true heroes in agriculture—local family farmers—at a competitive disadvantage.
National Animal Identification System (NAIS)
The USDA has taken their show-and-tell on NAIS on the road, visiting farm communities around the country. The recent release of their cost analysis, on initial review, appears to be wholly inadequate in addressing disproportionally higher costs that smaller, direct livestock marketers would face. For a more complete analysis please find an article by our respected colleague, Judith McGeary, on page 84.
Although this report certainly contains some dark clouds on the horizon, the organic farming community has a secret weapon: consumers like yourself who are willing to go out of their way to procure superior quality, nutrient-dense food for your families. And you have proven time and time again that you are willing to stand, shoulder to shoulder, with the best farmers in this nation, protecting their ability to produce environmentally responsible, truly humane, and nutritionally superior food. This is a powerful alliance to be reckoned with in the marketplace and in Washington.
Burt’s Bees lip balm was originally sold at independently owned health food stores. But more recently, Burt’s Bees products have appeared everywhere—in grocery stores, drug stores and big-box stores like Target and Wal-Mart. That’s because Burt’s Bees is now owned by Clorox, a massive corporation that has historically cared very little about the environment.
Tom’s of Maine is owned by Colgate-Palmolive, a massive company with a revenue of approximately $11.4 billion. Danone, the French conglomerate which also owns Brown Cow, has acquired a majority holding in Stoneyfield; this is the same Danone that had to recall large quantities of its yogurt in 2007 after it was found to contain unsafe levels of dioxins. Horizon Organic milk was bought out by the largest dairy company in the U.S., Dean Foods, in 2005. Odwalla is now owned by Coca-Cola. Almost as soon as Coca-Cola bought the company, it stopped selling the fresh-squeezed orange juice that had made Odwalla famous and popular—fresh squeezed can’t last the days and weeks the juices are now in transit or on the shelf. Pepsi bought Naked Juice in 2006, in order to compete with Odwalla. Smuckers grabbed several juice mainstays from the health food store shelves: After The Fall, R.W. Knudsen and Santa Cruz Organic.
Kashi cereals was bought in July, 2000 by Kellogg’s, the twelfth-largest company in North American food sales (but if you look at a box of Kashi’s “Go Lean Crunch,” for example, you will find not one mention of the fact that Kellogg’s owns them). Kraft Foods bought the natural cereal maker Back to Nature. Kraft is a subsidiary of Altria, which also owns Philip Morris, one of the world’s largest producers of cigarettes.
General Mills owns Cascadian Farm. Barbara’s Bakery is owned by Weetabix, the leading British cereal company. Health Valley and Arrowhead Mills are owned by Hain Celestial Group, a natural food company traded on the NASDAQ, with H.J. Heinz owning sixteen percent of the company.
(Source: Your Favorite ‘Natural’ Brands May Not Be What They Seem, www.Mercola.com.)
Raw Almond Fight Twisting through Courts
Lawyers for almond farmers challenging the USDA’s raw almond pasteurization mandate have filed motions asking the judge to reconsider several key points in her decision on March 9, which dismissed their lawsuit on procedural grounds. Washington, D.C. Federal District Court judge Ellen Segal Huvelle ruled that the almond farmers have no right to have their concerns about the alleged illegal nature of the almond treatment scheme heard in court.
But lawyers representing the farmers say that the judge’s ruling was erroneous. In particular, they note that one key area where the judge mistakenly asserts that the interests of the almond farmers are adequately represented by almond handlers in the regulatory process. Handlers buy almonds from farmers, process them and ship the nuts to market. One can see that the interests of the buyer (handler) are not necessarily always the same as those of the seller (farmer).
The judge also mistakenly concluded that several of the farmer plaintiffs, who sell their own raw almonds, are handlers. In fact, they are not handlers, nor have they ever claimed to be handlers—a classification which would require a license from the state of California.
Most importantly, Judge Huvelle’s decision sidestepped the merits and substance of the lawsuit contesting the legality, efficacy and impacts of the raw almond pasteurization mandate. These arguments have yet to be debated in court.
New legal motions were filed with the judge asking her to reconsider her ruling. A decision can be expected by mid-June. Should Judge Huvelle refuse to change her ruling, an appeal will be pursued at the next judicial level in an effort to win for farmers their right to be heard in court. Cornucopia Institute is continuing to help coordinate the farmers’ legal strategy and has been raising funds for legal costs associated with that effort.
It has also been learned that the Almond Board of California has decided to establish a subcommittee of organic almond handlers. While this development is certainly welcome, it would have helped if this had been done several years ago so that the organic sector could have weighed in on the controversial raw almond pasteurization plan.
This year’s almond harvest is forecast to total around 1.45 billion pounds, marking another bumper crop. Conventional prices have plummeted in the last couple of years and price pressure is also impacting organic almonds, although not as severely. Meanwhile, imports—especially untreated and unpasteurized raw imports—are booming and have displaced California raw almonds in many retail stores. This is a most unfortunate and distressing situation for those almond farmers who had been supplying a growing and vibrant raw niche market.
Cornucopia is committed to fighting for the return to grocers’ shelves of an American-grown, highly nutritional raw food that’s been eaten with confidence and enjoyment for decades. To stay abreast of the Institute’s activities, watch the Authentic Raw Almond Project page on Cornucopia’s website, www.cornucopia.org.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2009.