Is it organic? A healthy reality check…

by Sam Staham
Sometimes you read or view something that challenges your beliefs. Its generally quite a healthy little seed of doubt in the window box of your world view, that grows until you can no longer ignore it, but need to double check your thinking software.

“Is it Organic”, by Mischa Popoff, is one such book. A friend of mine and organic farmer lent it to me. Popoff’s 600 page book was published last year in the US, and its the most vehement attack on organic farming certification and practices that I have read. Popoff claims to be a believer in organics, and bases his authority on the fact that he was once an organic farm auditor, and is the son of a farmer.
Popoff’s main gripe is the fact that organic certification does not require routine and/or random product and paddock testing for chemicals. This main grievance is built up with a host of angry accusations, calling organic farmers luddites and suckers for idealistic urban elites, calling organic food too expensive and no more wholesome, calling certifiers corrupt with vested intersts, and calling the government a fascist conspiracy.

I had to wade though a lot of emotional words to get to the realisation that Popoff, however angry he is at having been marginalised for his views, does raise a fundamental issue.

Is it organic, or is the way it is made organic? Ie, is organics about the product itself being certified as chemical free, or is it about the process of production as being certified as taking all reasonable measures to avoid contamination and be sustainable???

This is a question that actually came up a decade ago as the Organic Federation of Australia presented its position on GM (genetic engineering) contamination to government and industry forums. The big boys like Cargill would ask, “Why not simply introduce a threshold for contamination and test organic products?”

The GM issue, which is coming to a head with the Steve Marsh contamination in WA, shows clearly this distinction between organics as a product versus organic as a process. In its decision to decertify all affected areas of Steve’s farm, NASAA referred to the newly introduced Australian Standard 2000-2009 Organic and Biodynamic Products. Developed with government involvement and support, the standard states in its opening paragraphs:

“This Standard is based on the process of production and preparation as a defining factor in the nature of the finished product and does not therefore guarantee that the finished product is completely free from adventitious contamination arising from factors beyond the control of the operator. Nonetheless, the processes described within will maximise the quality and wholesomeness of food and other products and ensure the lowest possible risk of contamination of all finished products”. (S 1.1.9)

On this basis, given that GM is prohibited from organic farming processes, Steve’s organic certifier had no choice but to decertify all affected areas of his farm: The genetically engineered plants and their progeny are growing within the production process and therefore pose an unreasonable risk to integrity of the organic farm, crops and livestock (precautionary principle). This is a more fundamental and reasonable response than imposing a threshold and testing regime on Steve and the downstream supply chain.

I admit that I was unable to stomach much of Popoff’s book, so I flicked to the final chapters and was not suprised to read him attacking the GM free policy of organic standards.  If I had the time to read all 600 pages I could do a better book review, but the conclusion would probably be the same: We need to avoid the bureaucratisation of organic certification, and we need a strong and independent peak body for the organic movement if it is not to lose its way and suffer from attacks like those of Popoff.

By bureaucratisation I mean the fact that every input I use as a farmer has to have organic certification now. If it doesnt, I have to apply to our certifier to use it. For example, I wanted to use a yoghurt-based product for powdery mildew this season, I wrote a detailed request in the beginning of January, and I still have no answer, four months later. I know its fine to use, but I asked the office, just to be safe, and as a result I couldn’t use it even to save the crop. You could say that some of the organic certifiers have extended their reach too far into the input supply chain and are dragging their feet in allowing farmers to use products not making revenue for them. Likewise downstream in the chain – last year we were charged an extra $250 to inspect our wine warehouse – as if anything can contaminate finished, bottled and labelled wine! Meanwhile we pay 1% of turnover to promote the company’s logo, rather than organics generally (however, there are other less top-heavy certifiers, that dont charge a levy, if you can afford to change over your labels).

By a strong and independent peak body, I mean the Organic Federation of Australia. I resigned form the OFA committee a decade ago to focus on our farm and family, and ever since I have watched it being attacked by competing elements of the “Industry”, whose vision is to have one dominant certification company to lead us.  If this continues, and there is only one victor in the “battle of the logos”, there will be much more potential for Popoff’s scenarios to materialise. In a natural ecosystem, cultural diversity gives stability, while monocultures are more susceptible to pests. I believe now more than ever that we need certain certifiers to stop attacking, and instead join and support the OFA now and be part of a culture of diversity with one unified voice for our Movement.

In fact, its becoming tempting to abandon organic logos altogether, as we are now doing, if it helps put an end to the competitive “logomania” of the certifiers today, and focus on the job at hand: growing clean and healthy organic food as part of a popular movement towards organic living.

10 thoughts on “Is it organic? A healthy reality check…”

  1. I think Ralph Nader took a bit of flak when he rightly criticized the automobile industry for making unsafe cars back in the 1970s. But aren’t we all better of now that cars are safer?

    The organic movement has been taken away from farmers and is being run by urban political activists. I’m very glad that you now appreciate I’m not against organic farmers. Never have been, never will be.

    I can’t help it if my book is used by people who are opposed to organic farming. All I can do is repeat again and again that I am FOR organic farming. But I’m opposed to the bureaucratization of organic farming. The supernatural should never be subjected to bureaucracy!

  2. Hi Misha, its an honour to have your comment on our blog, thankyou. I have given the book back to its owner but suffice to say its already being used in Australia by people to have a go at organic farming certification. You may be pleased to know that we have changed certifiers to one that doesnt charge a levy, so that we can throw our support behind the Organic Federation of Australia instead. Reading your book helped in making that hard decision. I’ve got to agree you arent against organic farmers themselves, but you do imply that we are anti technology, and that the product is not more nutritious, and that the movement is part of a conspiracy. I guess these are all dependent on one’s politics and world-view more than anything.

  3. Hi Sam:
    Thanks for reviewing my book. I must however point out a glaring error that I hope you’ll be willing to correct.
    You say that I call “organic farmers luddites and suckers,” but this is completely inaccurate. It’s the “idealistic urban elites” who’ve never worked a day on a farm who are the Luddites, and they expect the rest of us suckers to subsidize their political activities through our taxes, or in your case, through the 1% levy you’re forced to pay to your certifier for nothing return.
    In case you’re interested, I discuss levies and royalties − otherwise referred to euphemistically as “management fees” − on pp. 270 – 275. You admit you did not read my book in its entirety before writing your review (very forthcoming of you by the way), so might I suggest you dive in there so you might see how much we actually agree upon?
    If you don’t want to bother having another look at my book, then suffice it to say that you’ve got the wrong guy pegged as your enemy. It’s not me who’s making money off your toil.
    Mischa Popoff
    Author of Is it Organic? The inside story of the organic industry
    Some people won’t like this book, but you will

  4. Hi Sam, thank you for the review! Great read and some very interesting points. John in London

  5. All sounds very complicated to me, all I know is that I can enjoy a glass of your wine without feeling short of breath or getting a headache thanks to your great product, keep producing organic wine so I and many friends I have recommended your wine to can keep drinking to good health.
    Sandra from Silverdale.

  6. Sam – good post good points but the logo is the only assurance that cockroaches like me in the city have that the product they’re buying has been through the process.

  7. Enjoyed reading your comments Sam. We are often asked many questions by customers about the organic processes involved in producing wines such as those from Rosnay. I feel I now know a little bit more about the mystic of it all. Continue your fine work and the terrific wines. Regards Michael Tabart ACT Wine Industry Network.

  8. Hi Sam, your comments and observations on organic farming industry need to be applauded, keep up your efforts the public is listening and enjoying your fruits of the your labours your beautiful wine.
    Cheers Don

  9. What intereting and important points you raise in this article, Sam.

    I agree with you that the tiny organic industry cannot afford the time, effort or financial resources to snipe at each other when there is the huge and monolothic industrial food system dominating choice and production at present.

    As I described to someone, the bio-fert industry is but a small pimple on the arse of a very big elephant [synthetic fertiliser industry] and we are stupid to engage in similar warring and competitive activities for ‘market share’.

    If we in the proper food sector are to encourage and inspire change we have to desist adopting the practices and strategies of those mired in the ultra-competitive / win-at-all-costs paradigm…….I wonder if this is really possible knowing some of the characters involved….

    I love your work

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