What can be done to heal the fractured organic movement?
The GMO labeling law passed last year, known legally as the “National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard” and popularly as the “DARK (Deny Americans the Right To Know) Act” has further fractured an already divided organic community. Grassroots labeling advocates nationwide who worked hard to pass mandatory labeling are angry at leaders in the organic industry such as the Organic Trade Association (OTA), who they believe undermined their efforts by supporting the law—with its allowance for QR codes to disclose GMO content in foods—as unacceptably weak and inadequate. OTA executive director Laura Batcha argued that Congress was going to pass the law anyway, and OTA felt the need to protect the organic industry from being damaged by the law.
“Always been suspicion and bad faith”
The rift has its roots in the early days of the organic movement, says Grace Gershuny, a long-time organic farming inspector, educator, and author of the new book The Organic Revolutionary.
“There’s always been this suspicion and bad faith between grassroots and business end of things,” she says. “It’s a tension that some people, more than others, perceive as unbridgeable.”
There was tension with the founding of the National Organic Program (NOP) with the grassroots suspicious of government regulation of organics, and the trade wanting uniform national standards. There has been grassroots concern over large corporations purchasing organic food companies and creating industrial size organic farms. Meanwhile the organic trade wants to increase the number of organic farms to meet the growing consumer demand.
Fred Kirschenmann, a pioneer and leader in the organic farming movement, sees the conflict between those who want organic to remain true to its original principles—focusing on soil health, no inputs, and crop rotations, which he calls the “law of return,” or returning everything to the soil with no waste, and those who want to industrialize organic production to meet consumer demand.
“Those who are committed to the original principles see the direction OTA is going as the wrong direction,” Kirschenmann says.
David Lively, vice president of sales and marketing at the Organically Grown Company, an organic produce supplier, says the organic trade is based on the organic movement but says, “We’ve always been concerned about where it is going with the mainstreaming of organic food.”
Dag Falck, organic program manager at Nature’s Path Foods, sees the tension between grassroots groups such as the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) and the Cornucopia Institute and the trade as a good thing.
“If OCA and Cornucopia didn’t raise issues, the National Organic Standards Board would be a joke,” he says. “The strategies of OCA and Cornucopia have a way of keeping people honest.”
Lively agrees:“There is tension there but it is good.”
But Gershuny opposes the personal insults. “It bothers me when people post pictures and banners that say ‘traitors,’ and messages of personal vilification. There is de-humanizing of those you disagree with. We can’t make everything into good guys versus bad guys; we are some of both.”
The way forward
What can be done to help heal the rift? Several long-time organic industry members say that remaining engaged and communicating is critical. Mark Squire, co-owner of Good Earth Natural Foods in Fairfax, California, said his store remained an OTA member because he wanted to “stay at the table.”
“When there are different factions in a movement, we need to understand and respect where we all are coming from,” he says. “We may not agree but at least we will have real facts and not just drama. It comes down to how do we establish trust with each other?”
Falck also says mutual respect is needed. “We’re part of the same movement. There has to be a way forward with respect and without damaging each other. Let’s sit down, discuss our different strategies, and respect that there’s a place for different strategies.”
Gershuny says the organic community should have “rip-roaring arguments internally,” but stay engaged. “Criticism should be voiced and there should be a lot of internal battles about policy. But staying away from having a conversation is destructive.”
Squire says he will encourage the OTA board to be more proactive in reaching out to parts of the organic movement that feel excluded. He also thinks OTA should limit board membership to companies whose sales are at least 50 percent organic. This could prevent large companies from having greater influence on the board.
“People look at the makeup of the board, and some members, even though they may be committed to organic, work for big companies where organic is a small part of their business,” he says.
Lively is working to create a “middle” working group comprising non-profit groups and independently owned businesses whose sales are at least 70 percent organic.
“We’re reaching out and making contacts to form a group that would work with trade and non-profits to respect each other and find integrity as we are,” he says. “We’re trying to get people to the table to explain where they are at and to respect and communicate with each other.”
Meanwhile, David Bronner, CEO of Dr. Bronner’s, plans to support the new Organic Farming Association launched by the Rodale Institute and the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (IFOAM). Bronner resigned his membership from OTA over the GMO labeling fight.
“We encourage all true organic companies, whether they choose to remain a part of the OTA or not, to support and participate in both (organizations),” Bronner says.
“We are on the same side”
Organic community members emphasize that the organic grassroots and businesses are on the same side—facing a multi-billion dollar industry whose aggressive use of GMOs and pesticides is harming the planet.
“If we end up tearing at each other and making accusations and questioning integrity, then we are engaging in the same tactics as the other side,” Lively says. “If we are truly about respect for nature then we should do that to each other.”
“There’s a lot that goes on in corporate organic that I don’t like, but when you look at the outrage caused by the agrochemical industry, we are on the same side,” Gershuny says. “We have to work together to counteract the really bad stuff going on. We can’t do this alone; we have to have a movement.”
The commitment to organic farming and food may be the one thing—and perhaps the most important thing—that the grassroots and trade can literally find common ground on.
“The solution is organic regenerative agriculture that builds soils and ecological systems,” says John Roulac, CEO of Nutiva. “That is the path forward. That is what we need to focus on.”