How Has Organic Certification Stood Up to the Test of Time? A Q&A with Mark Lipson - Modern Farmer

How Has Organic Certification Stood Up to the Test of Time? A Q&A with Mark Lipson

Mark Lipson shares his thoughts on the organic movement today, and gives an impassioned defense to recent critiques of organic certification and its integrity.

Courtesy of Mark Lipson

In 1985, Mark Lipson, a member of the Molino Creek Farming Collective in the Santa Cruz Mountains, walked in to Bricmont’s house seeking certification for his farm and left as CCOF’s first paid employee. CCOF moved into a relatively palatial 80-square-foot office in downtown Santa Cruz that year, recalls Lipson. Things grew rapidly, however. Just five years later, CCOF succeeded in pushing organic certification legislation through the California State Assembly, while also spearheading the effort for the first national organic standard at the USDA. Fifty-four farmers were certified by CCOF in 1973, but by 2008, the organization had certified 500,000 acres of land; by 2011, the number had risen to more than one million acres.

Sam Farr, a long time congressman from California who shepherded both the California and national organic standards through the political process once remarked: “I tell the world that the organic movement started in California, in Santa Cruz County, and the guru of that is Mark [Lipson].”

Last week we spoke with Bob Scowcroft, who joined CCOF as its first full-time paid employee 1987, and went on to found the Organic Farming Research Foundation in Santa Cruz in 1990, where Lipson became the policy program director. This week, Lipson shares his thoughts on the organic movement today, and gives an impassioned defense to recent critiques of organic certification and its integrity. After a recent stint at the USDA, Lipson is currently a research associate for organic agriculture policy studies at the University of California-Santa Cruz.

The following interview has been edited and condensed from its original form.

Modern Farmer: Welcome back to California! What are you up to at UCSC?

Mark Lipson: I’m just an unsalaried old wise guy. I’m about seven or eight months out now from my job at the USDA. So I’m trying to process what I did for four-and-a-half years in Washington.

MF: You sound as if you’re coming back from war. What was your role at the USDA?

ML: I was the organic and sustainable ag policy advisor in the office of the secretary [of agriculture]. I had a very eclectic portfolio, but generally my job was infiltrating organic throughout the department. I also worked directly on the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative.

MF: And now that you’re back in Santa Cruz, are you back at Molino Creek Farm?

ML: I’m back on the farm. I’m not really part of the day-to-day vegetable operation, but that’s still going at Molino Creek. I have other aspects of the partnership I’m working on – not so much slinging boxes or driving the tractor.

MF: I imagine very few of your colleagues in the policy world at the USDA were actually practicing farmers. Do you think that experience gives you a different perspective when advocating for policy changes?

ML: There is no doubt that knowing what it was like to plant and bring in a harvest seven days a week for months on end [gave me] a different perspective on policy and institutional aspects. I was very fortunate to get to do both. I was part-time at CCOF pretty much the whole time [while working part time at Molino Creek]. Once I started farming, I really loved it.

MF: Molino Creek was among the earliest certified organic farms in the country. Looking back, do you feel that certification was the best route for sustainable agriculture to expand as an industry?

ML: My formulation has always been, and still is, that organic is necessary, but not sufficient for truly sustainable agriculture in all its dimensions. But the necessary part is absolutely true, and truer than ever. It’s still a work in progress.

MF: The industry has grown from its humble beginnings to the point where it’s hard to find a grocery store that doesn’t carry at least some organic food. Do you feel a sense of accomplishment about its growth, or does it sting a little bit to see the aisles of Walmart filled with organic labels?

ML: I do feel a sense of accomplishment with the state that organic has come to. It’s changed the whole debate. It’s had an outsized impact compared to the actual footprint on the ground. You can’t really measure its impact just in terms of acres and sales. It’s had a fundamental impact on thinking and dialogue. It’s way oversimplified at times, but I guess that’s a corollary price of trying to be a force of change in the media age.

MF: I think a lot of people see organics in Walmart and assume that it must come from large corporate-owned farms, rather than the small, diversified family farms that have historically been associated with the organic movement. Is that a valid line of thinking in your mind?

ML: The changes in the retail sector aren’t the same thing as what happens on the farm – farmers products show up in Walmart because that’s the alternative to them as a buyer. When I was doing sales for our farm 25 years ago, I had 15 or 20 buyers of all different scales that I could go to, and now it’s a much smaller universe. By being Walmart or Costco or Whole Foods, or whatever, that hasn’t changed necessarily what happens on the farm. It’s changed how it is sold and marketed.

By being Walmart or Costco or Whole Foods, or whatever, that hasn’t changed necessarily what happens on the farm. It’s changed how it is sold and marketed.

MF: But doesn’t the scale of farming required to supply bigger outlets equate to so-called “monoculture” farms, which don’t have the same ecological value as small diversified farms?

ML: That’s conflating two different things. If my farm had grown to the point where my product was in stores all over the country, for sure we’d be doing some things differently. But monoculture is a really imprecise word. At what point does field size, that’s in rotation [as required by organic standards], transition from being a field of tomatoes to a monoculture of tomatoes? It’s a relative kind of term. The notion that mainstream organics is quote-unquote “monocultured” might have some basis in terms of an agronomic critique… .But it’s a pretty nuanced point. It’s just one dimension of the system.

MF: Do the current organic standards include provisions to ensure that organic farms are environmentally sound, regardless of scale?

ML: The standards always have, and still do, require crop rotation and attention to biodiversity… .And that’s part of the standard that’s still being understood and implemented better all the time – that’s going forward, not going backward. We know a lot more about what it takes to do that than we did 30 years ago. Organic was very crude and rudimentary for a long time. It’s getting more sophisticated all the time. Scale is not itself monolithic. At larger, wider scales you can have the same range of performance that you do at smaller scales.

MF: I guess performance is the key word here – that’s ultimately the best way to measure anything.

ML: The organic standard as an abstract has very high performance encoded in it. The ability to fulfill that is the task at hand. People want to say it’s one way or the other, but that’s just not the way it works. It’s a matter of making it work. There’s lots of improvements that could be made, and the context of being embodied in this federal legal and regulatory structure doesn’t always make that easy to do, but that’s what we have to work with. It would be nice if it could evolve at a faster rate.

MF: So the take-home message is that the organic standard is much more than just “chemical free.” Many other components are required.

ML: That [the notion of organics as simply chemical free] vastly misunderstands the impacts that organic agriculture is still having. [Pesticides] were the easy part. Now it’s like, “we’ve done that, what else you got?” The importance of the achievement [of organics] on that score alone is greatly undervalued. And it’s not just an environmental issue; it’s also a social justice issue. The impacts of pesticides both in the environment and in the diet disproportionately affect the economically disadvantaged.

MF: Many, if not most, consumers don’t realize it, but a number of synthetic chemicals are actually allowed in organic farming, correct?

ML: There is a petition process, and there are statutory criteria that have to be satisfied in order for the board [National Organic Standards Board (NOSB)] to make a finding that the secretary [of the USDA] should allow them. The vast majority of the allowed synthetics are for processing, not for production. The trend for field-level production materials is that the growers have been losing [synthetic] tools more than adding them.

MF: What is the rationale for allowing synthetics in organic agriculture?

ML: We’re still relying on a lot of Band-Aids and crutches, because even though we have a much more substantial effort in terms of research over the last 10 years, that stuff is very slow to make it to the field. There is more scientific knowledge about organic, but getting that to application and implementation in the field is still lagging really far behind. We haven’t had a massive upgrade of support on the ground yet for better and more informed organic agriculture. But the reality of farming is that [synthetic substances] are not what’s going to make your organic system succeed. They can rescue a crop, but it’s still about having an integrated, biologically intensive system.

MF: When using synthetics, do growers have to demonstrate to the certification agency that there is a valid need that can’t be met with organic methods?

ML: That’s pretty much verbatim what the rule states and what NOP [National Organic Program] expects the certifiers to require.

MF: So, if I’m a farmer and I see a fungus breaking out on my peaches and I want to use certain product to deal with it, what do I do? Do I pick up the phone and call CCOF to ask permission?

ML: The way it should work is that in your organic system plan, you anticipate these kinds of problems and take steps to avoid having to use the harder materials – but if you need to, you need to. They [CCOF] would say, what else have you done? How did you get into that spot? They wouldn’t say, “oh sorry, you are SOL,” but it isn’t as simple as, “oh yeah go ahead and use it; thanks for calling.”

MF: I imagine for a conventional grower, calling up a large bureaucratic organization every time you wanted to spray something would sound like a total nightmare.

ML: It’s rigorous and it’s annoying and it’s tedious as a grower. That’s why you have a lot of disaffection for certification: “I don’t want to do all the paperwork and blah, blah, blah.” [The bureaucracy] has contributed to the discounting of the importance of certification and organic itself in popular discourse. But that is still what the consumer expects and what the integrity of the rule requires – you have to be able to make those discriminations, and it requires a lot of information transaction to do that.

MF: As a farmer, have you ever found yourself in the conundrum of choosing between using a chemical to save a crop or fighting a pest with organic methods when you know there is a risk of losing the crop?

ML: Sure, we’ve been faced with those kind of situations over the years. We’ve had to use things that we really weren’t happy about having to use… .And have been uneasy about the collateral consequences, whether that’s on the part of the ecosystem or our own exposures or customers response. Generally, we’ve never had the luxury of saying, “well let’s just let that crop go because we don’t want to use sulfur or whatever.”

MF: Bob Scowcroft recently shared the story of the organic industry’s first major case of fraud, the infamous “Carrot Caper.” Now that organic certification has become such a profitable marketing slant, I can imagine the temptation to cheat is through the roof.

ML: [The temptation] was there then when it was orders of magnitude more micro. (laughing)

MF: Are the financial rewards of certification drawing in farmers that are motivated by profit versus values, or has that always been there?

ML: Most of us from my era were values driven, but we were trying to make a living… .trying to be able to buy health insurance and have kids and make land payments. So the market was the vehicle for the values. That’s always been the rationale, that the market wasn’t an end in itself but the vehicle for the values. And it can’t work that way without some external controls.

The idea that the organic standards have been watered down and that the corporate players just want to make it easier for themselves is glib and inaccurate.

MF: What do you say to those that claim the organic standard has been infiltrated by corporate interests who want to water it down for the sake of profit? For example, the NOSB has quite a few corporate representatives, but relatively few practicing organic farmers.

ML: The NOSB is not that heavily weighted toward agribusiness; I don’t think that presumption is really that valid. The idea that the organic standards have been watered down and that the corporate players just want to make it easier for themselves is glib and inaccurate. It’s a meme that is propagated by a certain class of agitators who build their fundraising campaigns around it. Coincidentally, or not so coincidentally, it also serves the interests of conventional agriculture and agribusiness to have that idea out there. They’re working very diligently saying that organic is not really worth your money, it doesn’t really do that much for you… .That is the flipside of the misperception that organic has been watered down and is not living up to its ideals. The groups that make their bread and butter playing the watchdog and the critics are playing right into that.

MF: That’s unfortunate.

ML: Unfortunate is an understatement. The interesting question now is, is that ever going to be enough? Even if you are fulfilling all the things that people want to project onto the standard and really achieving those on the ground, would the market provide sufficient reward to realize and sufficiently spread the impact of those values? I think that’s an open question at best.

MF: What do you think of the proliferation of other so-called “eco-labels,” like Certified Naturally Grown, Certified Grassfed, FairTrade, etc? Do these help or hinder the broader project of building a better food system?

ML: Organic is the big grandmother of all eco-labeling and values-driven marketing. My observation is the market is only going to go so far, no matter how good your rating scheme or merchandising communications are. It just has its limits in terms of being able to reward and materialize the values. I’ve always stated that the marketplace can have different kinds of labels and clarification systems but there are certain fundamentals that need to be met – it needs to mean something substantive, it needs to be as transparent as possible, and it needs to have a third party doing it, a really independent third party.

MF: When you joined CCOF in 1985 did you ever imagine that there would be so many labels competing with Certified Organic on the shelf?

ML: Thirty years ago I said “hey, let a thousand flowers bloom on the shelf, and see what happens.” But people have bigger expectations for what the market will actually recognize and facilitate in terms of values-based labeling. That’s obviously still evolving, and people are trying to have these master comprehensive systems that integrate all different kinds of values and performances into a single algorithm. But the jury is still out on whether those do anything more than give a temporary bump in merchandising and shifting around of market share as opposed to actually changing what gets done on the ground… .It’s like, “go ahead and knock yourself out if you can meet all those criteria.”

MF: In order to differentiate between large corporate organic farms that might not provide the environmental performance of small, diversified organic farms, would it make sense to have different levels of organic certification, like Gold Organic, Silver Organic, and Bronze Organic?

ML: Those kinds of proposals have come up from time to time. I’ve been of the view that from a consumer and market point of view, the organic standards should mean one thing. Starting to differentiate within the organic standard is too slippery of a slope. It’s a fragile enough system that adding that additional complexity and transaction cost to it does not have a net benefit. It’s not designed for that.

Younger farmers need to understand what we did, own that, and then make it their own.

MF: Here’s another scenario: Have you ever thought that organic farming methods would eventually become the status quo in agriculture, to the point where it’s not organic food that is labeled, but the food that is grown with chemicals?

ML: Twenty years ago I idealized a scenario where organic became big enough to not matter as a distinction… .That as it pushed all of agriculture towards a more ecological approach, the certification and labeling would become less important as a distinction. The idea that organic as a marketing distinction with highly prescriptive requirements would become moot is an idea that didn’t pan out.

MF: That’s not discussion I hear much, so it’s interesting you thought about that years ago.

ML: That was before the advent of co-pesticidal transgenics. That did not take conventional agriculture in a more environmentally sound direction. Despite the rhetoric and the theoretical potential to do that, that’s not what happened. It made agriculture more toxic. People take for granted that, “oh we sort of solved the pesticide problem.” but that’s absolutely not true. That’s still the battle that we are fighting.

MF: So the label is more important than ever.


MF: What do you seen on the horizon of organic agriculture?

ML: As far as how the organic standard is going to evolve, there has been a ton of work in the last few years on making it as streamlined as possible, and making it less bureaucratic, making sure that the bureaucracy is actually serving a function. I think that’s working. The system is learning how to do its job better.

MF: What can young farmers starting out now do to improve it even more?

ML: I think the younger generation of farmers has to invest in it, make it their own, and figure out how to adapt it to their time. Among my cohort of early adopters there is a lot of resistance to change and I think we as a group need to let go of that. But the younger farmers need to understand what we did, own that, and then make it their own.

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