Opinion

Too many fingers in the sacred cow pie!
(ORIGINAL UNEDITED VERSION OF AN ARTICLE PUBLISHED IN EDIBLE SHASTA BUTTE MAGAZINE – by George Stevens)

Spring: time to focus on the opportunities and challenges we face during this perfect storm of ecological and economic crises. The organic and slow food movement took root simply because people need safe, healthy and delicious food. The benefits are obvious for consumers and growers- it is a win-win situation at the grassroots level.

Fast forward to the present where we labor under the ‘organic industry’ paradigm of constant growth, an extension of the globalized food system, not the secure local food economies we originally intended. Prices for organic food are 500-1000 percent higher than they were 30 years ago: our children and elders who desperately need organic food cannot afford it.

Our national organic program receives about  $7million of the $140billion USDA budget, about $1 per $20,000 spent. Organic research is woefully underfunded even as the growth of organic and ‘natural’ foods sales continues at 15-20%.  The lions share goes to subsidize the overproduction of corn and other commodity crops, and wasteful biofuels. Meanwhile a billion humans suffer from hunger, and environmental devastation reaches a tipping point. We are experiencing a moral/ ethical dilemma of titanic proportions.

In the months leading up to the adoption of the USDA’organic rule’ it dawned upon advocacy organizations that as many as half of their growers were not going along with the concept of maximum-minimum certification. That is to say the bar was set low enough to allow large scale conventional farmers to get in the game, but nobody would be allowed to certify to a higher standard.

Demeter- which certifies Biodynamic farmers- decried the NOP rule, claiming infringement upon our constitutional right to free speech. NOFA New York published its Farmers Pledge* incorporating environmental and  social justice issues into their programs in order to retain and support their growers. But in California, we already had an organic rule that allowed organic growers to register locally with our county agricultural commissioners. CCOF- our leading organic certifier- lost up to half of its grassroots membership and had to shift its focus to large scale commercial growers who require certification in order to compete in what quickly became a global organic market.

The consequences of this ‘certification’ system have been distressing. Certification costs have increased as much as 1000% or more because of the technicalities involved, and farmers can no longer serve on the boards of certification organizations. Growers experience frustration and distrust, as was expressed in the article ‘We Speak Organic Here’. And the livelihoods of organic farmers dedicated to providing affordable quality food to our local communities without using the USDA organic ‘seal’ have been compromised.

For in depth discussion of this issue please read Sharing the Harvest (by Elizabeth Henderson- NOFA,NY) Chapter 11: To Certify or Not to Certify.

Is it fair for local organic farmers to be burdened with costly certification and bureacracy which insures that the organic market will always be a high end niche market while junk food gets a free ride? What would happen with local food security if the requirement for organic certification was lifted from $5,000 to $20,000 (gross receipts) or more? (for more on this subject see addendum below) Should the same agency that intends to permanently contaminate our food supply with genetically modified corn, soybeans, sugar beets, canola and alfalfa be trusted to micromanage local organic agriculture?

In the last issue of Edible Shasta-Butte it was stated that ‘organic farms are generally supposed to use organic seeds’. Organic certifiers and seed sellers  insist that the NOP requires growers to do so. On its face that seems to make perfect sense, but in practice that is not happening, according to the State of Organic Seed (SOS) report available from the Organic Seed Alliance (OSA). If you don’t have the time or patience to wade through hundreds of pages of minutiae just go straight to the survey results: Farmers report the use of organic seeds average about 10%.

When I spoke with longtime seedsaver -and former Los Molinos organic farmer- Zea Sonnabend, who organizes the annual Eco-Farm conference and advises CCOF and the American Seed Trade Association on organic seeds, she summarized the issue as follows: “Alot of times the large scale growers have tried to use organic seeds but had crop failures”. Organic alternatives to pesticides and fertilizers have been readily adopted but seeds are living entities: you can’t just replace them overnight, and we have already lost over 90% of the regionally adapted seed diversity we had 100 years ago.

The good news is that the regenerative capacity of open-pollinated and Heirloom seeds is there to be tapped by growers and seedsavers at the local level. A closer look at the ‘SOS’ statistics reveals an encouraging trend of organic farmers saving seed for their own use. This should be a clarion call for gardeners and farmers alike to reclaim the commons of our seed heritage and rededicate our efforts to identify, preserve, and recreate the diversity of seed and food once enjoyed by our ancestors. Stayed tuned!

PS- If you are new to the whole cycle of growing for seed and sustainability or are lacking in resources look for a work exchange with a seedsaving gardener, farm or community supported agriculture project. Study up on the subject: I recommend SEED TO SEED by Suzanne Ashworth. Also FOUR SEASON HARVEST by Eliot Coleman. and  SHARING THE HARVEST by Elizabeth Henderson.

ADDENDUM– The National Organic Program $5000 gross sales threshold for certification is an absolute farce. In a recent broadcast interview on the locally produced (KHSU.org) show ‘Food for Thought’, one of our local certification agents- responsible for northcoast organic dairy inspections- stated that as long as growers spend the 2 hours a day keeping their records up to date, her inspections would be expedited.  If you multiply that 2 hours a day, five days a week, 50 weeks a year, times $10 per hour, that is costing the growers $5000 of time expended.  So that first $5000 of gross income is a total loss for small farmers, even if their certification costs are government subsidized. This dramatically raises the cost of organic food to consumers, giving mainstream conventional agriculture a grossly unfair advantage in the marketplace.