Growing a New Organic Standard

by Jane Black

Jane Black is an award-winning food writer who covers food politics, trends and sustainability issues. Her work appears in The Washington Post (where she was a staff writer), The New York Times, The Atlantic, Slate, New York Magazine and other publications. She is currently at work on a book about one West Virginia community's struggle to change the way it eats.

Stone Barns Center invited Jane to be our guest columnist, taking on complex, timely issues in food and agriculture that are important to our mission. We welcome her perspective; the views and opinions expressed here are hers and not necessarily those of Stone Barns Center.

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Anyone reading my column probably cares about good food and responsible stewardship of the land. But what’s the best way to support that? America’s official answer is certified organic. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s standard, for example, bans genetically modified seeds, sets rules about which, if any, pesticide and herbicides can be used, and mandates practices designed to protect natural resources.

But these days, a lot of people don’t believe organic goes far enough: It doesn’t address animal welfare, soil health, carbon emissions or water conservation. There are plenty of big producers who follow the letter but not the spirit of the standard. And the certification process can be burdensome for small farmers.

Is organic really the best choice?

Dan Barber, the chef of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, says we can’t rely on labels to define good farming. “We need to start asking questions about the way our food is grown beyond just where it comes from or whether or not chemicals were used,” he told Diet Detective in a recent interview. “How is the long-term health of the soil managed? What kind of diversity is there on the farm? … Those kinds of questions usually lead to a much better understanding of a farmer’s practices, and how the food will taste.”

Good advice. But it got me thinking: Does this spell the end for organic? Is there no one catch-all label that can do the work for busy consumers?

Not surprisingly, the folks at the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, or IFOAM, have been wondering the same thing. While organic practices have been hugely successful—the global market is worth $72 billion—the pioneers of organic principles have concluded that organic’s strict standards are in many cases too rigid to fully express the principles of health, ecology, fairness and care that are at the core of organic farmers’ philosophy. As a result, they exclude many producers, mostly small and peasant farmers, and limit the opportunities of the movement to work with other sustainability initiatives, such as fair trade or urban agriculture, which share many of the same goals.

And so the group has outlined a vision for what it calls Organic 3.0. The document, both inspirational and pragmatic, succinctly lays out the achievements and limitations of organic production today and an ambitious goal: to enable a widespread uptake of truly sustainable farming systems.

IFOAM outlines six key features for Organic 3.0: a culture of innovation; a commitment to continuous improvements; new compliance measures beyond traditional certifications (such as the USDA); the embrace of wider sustainability interests, including social justice; holistic empowerment from farm to consumer; and an emphasis on true cost accounting. Each is a subject worthy of a column on its own, and I encourage readers to dig into the report. But two stand out to me as essential philosophical shifts.

The first is the idea of continuous improvement toward best practices. Rather than setting a minimum standard, Organic 3.0 would require that farmers and producers commit to ongoing improvements; to show, in other words, that they are always doing a little bit more to protect the land and their workers. “The way it works in Organic 2.0 is that once you’re in, you’re good forever,” says David Gould, a program facilitator for IFOAM. “That’s enough to get a label. But it’s not adequate to save the planet—or ourselves.”

In the new paradigm, producers would be required to benchmark the sustainability of their operations (this could include ecological, socioeconomic or cultural dimensions), then demonstrate annual improvements. This system, Gould says, has the added benefit of helping to instill a culture of innovation that prevents a standard from stagnating.

Equally important is the recognition that organic systems will not be widely adopted without new tools that support true cost accounting. Also called life-cycle analysis, true cost accounting aims to put precise dollar figures on the costs of industrial agriculture—those so-called externalities that make cheap food seem cheap.

This is important. At the recent Food Tank Summit in Washington, D.C., a panel convened to discuss the future of organics returned over and over again to the question of how and when organic meat and produce would be cheaper. The answer? It may never be. And so we must be able to show that a premium price buys clean health, environmental benefits and a living wage for farmers.

Efforts to develop true cost accounting tools are already underway. In April, the Sustainable Food Trust held a conference in San Francisco on the topic. IFOAM is also launching its own taskforce.

Gould says that big markets, like the United States, will be hardest to change. After all, the USDA controls the organic standard, and there is a long, hyper-politicized process to change it. But as the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu once said, if you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading. Organic 3.0 is an essential step to keep organic relevant.