Good news for organic?

August 23rd, 2007

USDA OrganicWow. I was thinking that it was time for a post with pictures again- with cheese notes or something slightly lighter than recent fare. However I cannot resist posting about something that one of my favorite retailers of all time (Steve Ehlers, Larry’s Market in Milwaukee) has brought to my attention- serious, serious news about organic dairies. There are two articles I want to direct your attention to and they are both on this incredible website that you also should know about: The Cornucopia Institute. This group focuses on economic justice for family-scale farming. Hoo-RAY!

The home page today has a fantastic photos contrasting two distinct models of organic farming. One might call them family-style and industrial-style. Further down the page are the two articles that peaked my interest. The first is a New York Times piece from earlier in the week about the serious lack of any real oversite for the organic regulations that exist today let alone resources that would tend the evolution of organic policies as our knowledge grows. Second is an article done by the Cornucopia Institute about an ongoing investigation into the practices of an industrial organic farm that ships private label organic milk to stores that we all know too well (Wal-Mart, Trader Joe’s, Costco, Target, etc.). You’ve got to scroll down a bit to get to this article on the home page- it is from August 14th.

In both articles there are a number of comments about these large-scale companies “skirting requirements” or “cutting corners” and this is the disheartening news. There has been a small triumph in the public with more people encouraged to pay attention to the production of their food and willing to shell out a higher price for organic products. Unfortunately it looks like at least some of the more broadly distributed organics- at least milk- are not being produced according to the current organic standards. This not only threatens the little progress that has been made but also, as the second article points out, really screws the smaller producers who are producing legitimate organic food.

Of course this kind of negative press has the potential to be a stepping off point for change- for improved definition and regulation of organic practices. Not sure that this will be the outcome right now given that there is a skeleton crew working at the National Organic Program Office- a team of nine people is all we have working to enforce and update existing regulations. However it will prove interesting because there are some larger scale organic producers like the quoted exec from Organic Valley who are really quite pissed off that another large producer is threatening their business. But then- how do we know what Organic Valley really does either? Ugh.

I remember talking to cheesemakers throughout the summer last year who were frustrated by so many things related to labelling their products- the terminology, the misinformed consumers, the ambiguity, cost, and upkeep to name a few. Of course it is understandable that we consumers want a silver bullet- we want a label that distills all the complexities of agriculture down into one or two words. Seems simple enough until you actually begin to explore the full spectrum of food production- both types of food being made and the scales on which they are produced. How can a dairy milking 40 animals use the same language to describe what they do as a dairy that milks 5,000?

I’m not sure that nine people alone can resolve the organic question. It might be that the best path to certainty where your food is concerned is to do what you can to know the people selling it to you. If you can’t get a farmer-direct relationship going, do what you can to get within a couple degrees of separation of that (CSA, reliable shopkeeper, etc.). Do I even need to remind you all that investing faith in stickers and pretty packaging is risky business?

Entry Filed under: Farm to Consumer

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