Arctic Organics’ decision to be USDA “certified organic” or not…
We struggled with the decision whether to have our produce certified as organic when the National Organic Program (NOP) took over the term “organic” on October 21, 2002. Since then the decision to not be “certified organic” has been easier. The NOP restricts the use of the term organic to those whose farming practices are in accord with the NOP standards, and prohibits its use by others whose practices in fact exceed those standards in producing organic food. We have considered several factors, some of which have helped to make our decision easier, whereas others have made the process difficult. We have focused primarily on the following four major areas:
1. Financial. The cost of organic certification has increased from approximately $350/year to be certified organic by the Alaska Organic Association (AOA) to approximately $2,000/year to be certified under the National Organic Program.
2. Logistical. Instead of being certified organic by AOA, we are now required to be certified by the NOP. Because the State of Alaska has not pursued accreditation with the NOP, it cannot certify organic produce. Therefore we would have to be certified by the State of Washington and mark our Alaska Grown produce as “certified organic by the State of Washington.”
3. Philosophical. We have worked hard to ensure clean, pesticide-, GMO-, and chemical-free produce and to practice sustainable farming techniques that are as harmonious with nature as possible. The standards set by the new NOP Federal Rule do not meet our own rigorous standards.
4. Ethical. Because the NOP does not require residue testing, it is now possible to grow and sell USDA certified organic produce that contains high levels of toxins. Consumers will now unknowingly purchase food that does not meet the high standards to which they have become accustomed, even though the food is labeled “organic.“ We want no part of this subterfuge.
Although a number of other factors affected our deliberations, these four were the most influential in helping us make our decision. We, at Arctic Organics, will not become USDA certified organic growers again this year.
An elaboration of the foregoing concerns…
1. Costs are rising for all farm expenditures, even without the additional expense of having our produce certified as organic. We have been growing organically since we started farming in 1988. We would not grow produce in any other way. We do not believe in the chemical farming practice of simply adding nutrients to plants; nor do we accept the use of herbicides, pesticides and GMOs—growing practices that ignore all of the implications of poisoning the environment and our bodies. In addition, we do not want to pass the additional cost of certification by the NOP on to our customers.
2. Being forced to have our produce certified by the State of Washington contradicts our belief in growing and selling locally. We produce some of the best and freshest vegetables available in Alaska. We are concerned that being certified organic by the State of Washington may give the impression that our produce was grown in Washington and flown to Alaska for resale. On the contrary, we grow everything that we sell. Legally, we would be required to state on our farm truck and on our produce cards which of the NOP accredited agencies certified our produce. The Alaska Organic Association is no longer allowed to certify farms or produce. We will still work to educate the public about our growing standards, which are significantly higher than those of the NOP.
3. Our philosophical aversion to being certified by the NOP is easily explained. The NOP is constantly pressured by large agribusinesses that spend enormous amounts of lobbying money to change standards so that they can take part in the success achieved through true organic production—including success in the marketplace which organic farmers have worked hard to accomplish over several decades. For example, under the NOP, it is now possible to feed nonorganic feed to livestock and sell the meat as “organic,” and poultry is no longer required to have access to the outdoors for foraging and exercise. As reported in Growing for Market in 2004, “The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed changes to federal regulations that would lump sewage sludge in with organic composts and label them all ‘compost made from recovered organic materials’. The EPA admits that the purpose of the amendment is to foster markets for materials recovered from solid waste. Sludge is prohibited for use in organic agriculture under the National Organic Standards, after a huge public outcry when USDA first proposed allowing its use on organic farms. The EPA amendment could confuse growers by calling sludge organic, in the chemical sense of the term (meaning it contains carbon molecules)”. We can see the effects of a steady lobbying effort by those in agribusiness to reduce the already weak NOP standards for their gain.
4. Both Sarah and I have been passionate about growing toxin- and GMO-free food and educating the public not only through lectures and presentations, but also by providing tours of our farm to individual visitors, groups, schools, and members of the media. We also house and educate interns each summer. We have spent years promoting the concept of organic food production and developing markets for chemical-residue-free food while protecting the environment. We are active in informing interested parties about how to grow organically and sustainably. We helped to develop the standards for the Alaska Organic Association, which are much more stringent than the standards of the NOP.
We were certified organic by AOA since its start in 1999 and will continue using the same growing practices, regardless of the new and inferior NOP standards. In 1999, we believed that certification was important to ensure the safety of the organic food supply, given that in Alaska market farmers could get away with growing “organic” produce in accordance with the 1989 organic law of the State of Alaska, which boasted the lowest organic standards in the United States. AOA required annual soil-fertility testing as a means of proving that farms were indeed implementing regenerative practices. The AOA also required random point of sale tissue testing of vegetables for chemical residues. The NOP does not require either of these tests. Testing helped to protect the consumer and to preserve the integrity of the term “organic.” Additionally, the NOP allows agribusiness to self-certify. With the NOP standards in place, consumers will no longer know what growing techniques or residual chemicals are used to produce USDA’s certified organic produce.
With the NOP takeover and the watered-down standards, we feel that the term “organic” has been badly bruised. Now, using the term without certification can result in a $10,000 fine imposed by the NOP. Weighing the importance and the potential consequences of not being USDA certified organic against the considerations listed herein, we choose to no longer call our produce “organic.” Our growing practices will not change. We have not yet found a substitute for the word “organic,” the significance of which means and has meant so much to us, but we are working on it. At this point, we can only advise you to KNOW YOUR GROWER!