June 06, 2020

Worthy organic standards

After 10 years and a near record-setting number of public comments, the U.S. Department of Agriculture last week released its final standards for organic food, an important measure for Maine’s many organic farmers. The standards are a welcome sign that the federal government listened seriously to the concerns of the owners of these small farms and properly protected the integrity of their labors.

Nationwide, organic farming has been growing at 20 percent a year for a decade and is now a $6 billion business. It is so popular with consumers that large food firms have bought up or spun off small organic-food businesses to compete in this rapidly expanding market. Maine, which has had an active organic-farming community for a quarter century, often has been at the forefront of this change.

For years, however, it has been apparent that the lack of national standards allowed less-than-organic producers to claim the title, left doubt in consumers minds over what was being offered and made export of these products to places with more-defined standards much more difficult. The new standards, to take effect in February, ban the use of irradiation, genetic engineering and sewer-sludge fertilizer, all of which the major food companies wanted included, and differentiate among foods that are “100 percent organic,” “organic” (if they are at least 95 percent organic) and “made with organic ingredients,” if they contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients. Only the first two designations will be stamped with a USDA organic label.

Despite this good news from Washington, Maine’s premier organic farming group and a long-established advocate nationwide has a problem. In the absence of a federal standard, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association and similar groups in other states have served as certifying agencies for local farmers. But the new rules include conflict-of-interest restrictions that prevent MOFGA from continuing in that role as long as it has organic farmers on its board. It would be difficult for a group that has fought so long and hard to maintain organic standards in Maine – and seen its standards adopted in other states – let go of this part of its mission now, but important to the organization to keep board members with direct experience on farms.

The creation of a second group to for certification would leave MOFGA more time to handle education, advocacy, consumer awareness, support for farmers, its farm tours, a newspaper, the Common Ground Fair and the hundred other things the organization does each year. And having two statewide groups talking about organic farming should help the industry grow even stronger. Still, it would be understandable if MOFGA were reluctant to relinquish certification.

There’s no question, however, about the new federal standards. They clear up confusion in the public and allow the industry to grow even more. They represent a triumph of persistence for organic farmers.

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