What's Up With Organics

How can crops produced without soil be called “organic”? They can in the United States – but not in Canada, Mexico, Japan, or 24 European countries that prohibit the sale of hydroponic products as organic.[i] How can meat, milk, or eggs produced in “factory farms” be called organic? They can in the United States. USDA organic standards require minimal access to pastures or at least outdoor spaces for livestock and poultry – but there is no assurance the animals actually go outdoors.[ii] These and other symptoms of the “industrialization of organics” are clearly documented by the Cornucopia Institute – a self-proclaimed “watchdog” of the USDA National Organic Program (NOP).

The industrialization of organics was essentially predetermined when organic farmers relinquished the word “organic” to the USDA. In a paper prepared for an international organic conference in France, I wrote, “Large, specialized food systems will quickly dominate global production and distribution of organic foods if they are allowed free access to organic markets.”[iii] I pointed out that uniform national standards would allow producers who could meet the minimum standards at the lowest cost to dominate the U.S. organic market.


Industrialization is the dominant organizational model of choice for reducing agricultural production costs, as it has been for industrial manufacturing.  Standardization, specialization, and consolidation of control are the hallmarks of industrial production. If the process of organic production could be specified, standardized, and encoded in a set of rules, an organic farm or production unit could be organized to run with the efficiency of a factory. Each worker and machine could be “programmed” to carry out routine specialized activities – creating a biological assembly line. This would simplify the management process, allowing production to be consolidated into large production units to achieve “economies of scale” through industrial organic production.


Industrial organizations are linear, input-output systems. Production inputs and raw materials are converted into end products and wastes. Current USDA organic standard define allowable and prohibited inputs. Organic inputs can be substituted for inorganic inputs without fundamentally changing the production system. Standards for production practices, such as minimal access to pasture for livestock and basic rotations for crops, can be designed into “organic assembly lines,” allowing industrial organic farms to function like factories.


During the NOP approval process, some production practices supported by industry were rejected by organic farmers and consumers – notably, sewage sludge, genetically engineered crops, and irradiation of products. Some impediments to industrialization were included and remain in the USDA standards, thanks to continued vigilance by authentic organic farmers and consumers, and organizations such as Cornucopia. Nonetheless, “industrial organic” production now dominates the “organic industry.” As the industrial share of the organic market has grown, so has their influence on the NOP. It is becoming increasingly difficult to defend the integrity of organics.


Soil is the very foundation of authentic organic production. Sir Albert Howard was one of the founders of the modern organic farming movement. He began his classic 1940 book, An Agricultural Testament, with the assertion: “The maintenance of the fertility of the soil is the first condition of any permanent system of agriculture.”[iv] He believed the permanence of society depends on the regenerative capacity of fertile soil. Organic pioneer and publisher, J. I. Rodale, wrote that the organic farmer has “a patriotic duty… to preserve the fertility of the soil, a precious heritage that he must pass on, undefiled and even enriched, to subsequent generations.”[v] Organic production without soil is blasphemy to the philosophy of organic farming.


Biodynamic farming, in which early organic farming was rooted, was first articulated in 1924 by Rudolph Steiner. He wrote, “A farm is healthy only as much as it becomes an organism in itself – an individualized, diverse ecosystem guided by the farmer, standing in living interaction with the larger ecological, social, economic, and spiritual realities of which it is part.”[vi]  An authentic organic farm is an organism or living ecosystem, not a mechanism or factory. The organic farmer and farm are part of the same inseparable, living whole.


Another organic pioneer, Lady Eve Balfour, wrote in 1977, “I am sure that the techniques of organic farming cannot be imprisoned in a rigid set of rules. They depend essentially on the outlook of the farmer.”[vii] Whenever the organic farmer is not a person but a large publicly-traded corporation, or is a farmer producing under terms dictated by such a purely economic entity, production, and profits take priority over the “outlook of the farmer.”


I understand and empathize with the initial motives for national organic standards. Many organic farmers believed standardization would lead to increased market access and profits for farmers, reduce prices for consumers, and greater affordability and accessibility of organic foods for more people in more places. In some aspects, it has succeeded. However, with the standards now in place, organic foods are no longer defined by organic farmers’ commitments to the ecological, social, and economic values that characterized the early organic food movement. The metrics for success have become increased sales and profitability. Those organic farmers who remain true to the social and ethical values of authentic organics are forced to rely on non-industrial markets – farmers’ markets, CSAs, local restaurants, local food coops, or other direct local markets – in order to survive.


I am not suggesting the abandonment of organic standards. Industrial organics has made more people aware of the environmental and public health risks of conventional industrial agricultural products. Certified organic foods are produced without toxic chemical pesticides and fertilizers, hormones, antibiotics, or genetically engineered crops. I do not believe, however, that the minimal organic production practices required for certification are sufficient to ensure the regenerative processes of authentic organic farming rather than the linear processes of industrial agriculture. Soil-less organics in but one example. Perhaps a logical proposal would be to change the label for USDA-certified organics to “Produced with Organic Materials” and to continue defending the integrity of lists of allowable and non-allowable materials.


This would allow authentic organic farmers and their customers to return to the task of ensuring the authenticity of organic farming as a soil-based, permanent, holistic system of production. They could work together at local and bio-regional levels – as they were doing prior to USDA’s takeover of organic certification. Perhaps local and bio-regional programs could certify organic products as “Produced on Regenerative Organic Farms.” The term “regenerative” suggests the characteristics of self-organizing and self-making, which distinguish living, organic systems from inanimate, mechanistic systems. Regeneration is also a characteristic of healthy systems, rather than specific inputs or practices.


Regenerative agriculture does not address the social and ethical values of authentic organic production – at least not directly. However, if each community or bio-region accepted responsibility for developing and maintaining the integrity of its own local organic label, organic consumers and farmers would have an opportunity to get to know each other personally, if they wished to do so. Consumers could then decide whether they trusted the “local regenerative organic” label, based on the “outlook of their local organic farmers.” Regardless, to restore and protect the integrity of organic food production, we ultimately must find ways to restore the heart and soul of organics, as well as its regenerative capacity.[viii]


John Ikerd


End Notes:

[i] The Cornucopia Institute, “Is Hydroponics Organic?”,  https://www.cornucopia.org/2015/03/hydroponics-organic/

[ii] The Cornucopia Institute, “Agribusiness Interest and the USDA Scramble Organic Eggs,”     https://www.cornucopia.org/2016/07/agribusiness-interests-usda-scramble-organic-eggs/

[iii] John Ikerd, Organic Agriculture Faces the Specialization of Production Systems; Specialized Systems and the Economical Stakes University of Missouri, “Organic Agriculture Faces the Specialization of Production Systems,” Sponsored by Jack Cartier Center, Lyon, France, December 6-9, 1999. http://web.missouri.edu/ikerdj/papers/FRANCE.html .

[iv] Sir Albert Howard,  An agricultural testament. Oxford University Press: Oxford, England, 1940. also in Small Farms Library http://journeytoforever.org/farm_library/howardAT/ATtoc.html

[v] J. I. Rodale, The Organiculturist’s Creed, Chapter 8. The organic front. Rodale press: Emmaus, PA, USA,1948.  http://www.soilandhealth.org/copyform.asp?bookcode=010133 .

[vi] Rudolph Steiner, Spiritual foundations for the renewal of agriculture. Gardner, M (1924/1993) (ed). Bio Dynamic Farming and Gardening Association of USA: Junction City, OR, USA.

[vii] Lady Eve Balfour, “Toward a Sustainable Agriculture–The Living Soil” In Proceedings of IFOAM international organic farming conference. Switzerland, 1977. also, Canbarra Organic Growers Assn. http://www.cogs.asn.au/.

[viii] John Ikerd, “Restoring the Heart and Soul of Organics,” The Organic Summit, Boulder, CO, June 2008.     http://web.missouri.edu/~ikerdj/papers/Boulder%20Organic%20Summit%20–%20Soul%20of%20Organic.htm