cows in field

Organic community advocates or circular firing squad

Why we need them and who benefits?

By Ed Maltby, Executive Director, NODPA

Added September 12, 2011. When you receive an action alert by email, a mailing with a request for response, or an email/text/facebook/twitter /US mail asking for money to "Protect the Integrity of Organics," "Save the Sky from Falling," "Push Back the Encroachment of Corporate America in Organics," what is your response? Perhaps they will all end up in the recycling bin with a muttered comment of, "haven't these ******* folks got better things to do?," or "they are only looking to get a salary twice my farming income," or "organics doesn't need this."

If you subscribe to the belief that your milk processor will protect your interests when it comes to assessing and determining changes in policy and regulation, you will probably discard all communications and participate only through your processor. Ultimately, this will reflect the interests of their business model in the short term and the interests and involvement of producers in decision-making in the long run. If you are an ardent supporter of one particular advocacy group, then you will wait for their assessment and follow their lead.

The truth of the matter is that we all need to be involved with policy and regulatory decisions, and organics/sustainable agriculture is very lucky to have such a broad range of advocacy groups for an industry that is such a small percentage of total agriculture production. Citizen pressure can and has been the driving force behind virtually every piece of progressive legislation or social program in recent memory. Public policy is nothing but decision-making by governments, and in the United States, government responds to mobilized and organized citizens.

Why should individuals get involved in the development of policy and regulation?

  1. It's your money. You pay taxes in many different ways and you get to have a voice on how those taxes are spent.
  2. The potential impact of policy is too important. Development of Policy is perhaps the best tool we have for increasing the scope and reach of our efforts to transform the food system.
  3. It's an investment in your future. Corporations dedicate resources to research and development. Producers invest in genetics and quality livestock in the hope of increasing yield and profitability. Both of these groups do so because they know that a little money and effort now will reap potentially large rewards in the future.
  4. If you don't, someone else will. Often that someone else has interests or goals that are contrary to yours and if you leave it to them, your ideas will never reach the table.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: How can you make a difference in such a vast political sea of well-paid lobbyists and Political Action Committees (PAC) that have the ear of decision makers and legislators?
A: Work as a collective voice that can be heard and understood by decision makers.

Q: Does the variety and diversity of organic advocacy groups benefit or detract from the organic community's efforts to influence decision makers?
A: That is the $60 million question and the answer will vary depending on the issue and the audience. As a community, we need to better understand when we need to put aside our differences in order to provide an effective position that will be heard by regulators and legislators. As individuals, we need to take an active role in organizations that represent our views to ensure that they do not lose sight of the big picture in the fight for turf and money.

Q: How does one choose between the many different tactics that different groups use?
A: Different situations require different tactics and we need to recognize that every approach has a role but not in every situation. Sometimes, the legal option needs to take the lead followed by the media blitz; sometimes the scientific detail and assessments can provide the clarity that emotional media coverage cannot.

One area of confusion is around the proliferation of different groups that are asking for money and purporting to represent your interest. Below, we have divided organizations into artificial groupings to assist people in understanding the role of the different organizations. In reality, all these groups have some role in policy; use the media; work on legal challenges; and work with producers groups. We have grouped a number of organizations to reflect their predominant areas of work and influence.

1. Policy lobbying and advocates centered in DC

Those groups that concentrate on having an effective role in Washington DC usually work together on critical issues that affect all aspects of organic and sustainable agriculture. Examples would be the threat to our environment and way of life from GMO's and drafting of the Farm Bill. In some cases, as with the Farm Bill, this cooperative effort is based on a long history of working together and understanding different priorities. With others, like GMO's, group consensus is achieved by the committed community organizing of key leaders who are able to cajole and persuade other strong personalities that everyone can benefit by working together.

Groups that have continuous representation in Washington DC include:

A) National Organic Coalition
The National Organic Coalition (NOC) is a national alliance of organizations working to provide a "Washington voice" for farmers, ranchers, environmentalists, consumers and progressive industry members involved in organic agriculture. The coalition operates under the central principle that protecting the stringency and integrity of the national organic standards is necessary:

  • To maintain the organic label's value to consumers;
  • To realize the environmental benefits of the organic agricultural system;
  • To provide and encourage diversity of participation and fair and equitable access to the organic marketplace; and
  • To ensure the long-term economic viability of organic family farmers and businesses.

Further, the Coalition believes that organic agricultural policy must encourage continuous quality improvements, sound stewardship and humane practices. The Coalition is focused on federal organic agricultural policies that promote this mission, including:

  • Implementation of and beneficial reforms to the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990
  • Implementation of organic and other related provisions of the Farm Bill
  • Promotion of policies that seek to reinvigorate public plant and animal breeding to benefit the expansion of organic agriculture.

B) Organic Trade Association
The Organic Trade Association (OTA) is the membership-based business association for the organic industry in North America. OTA's mission is to promote and protect organic trade to benefit the environment, farmers, the public, and the economy. OTA envisions organic products becoming a significant part of everyday life, enhancing people's lives and the environment.
OTA represents businesses across the organic supply chain and addresses all things organic, including food, fiber/textiles, personal care products, and new sectors as they develop. Over sixty percent of OTA trade members are small businesses.

C) Organic Farming and Research Foundation (OFRF)
OFRF's mission is to foster the improvement and widespread adoption of organic farming systems.

They accomplish this by:

  • Sponsoring organic farming research and education & outreach projects through their competitive grant-making program;
  • Disseminating the results of OFRF-funded research and education projects to organic farmers and to growers interested in adopting organic production systems; and
  • Educating the public and decision-makers about organic farming issues.

OFRF's integrated strategy of grantmaking, policy, education and networking initiatives supports organic farmers' immediate information needs while moving the public and policymakers toward greater investment in organic farming systems.

D) National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC)
NSAC is an alliance of grassroots organizations that advocates for federal policy reform to advance the sustainability of agriculture, food systems, natural resources, and rural communities. NSAC's vision of agriculture is one where a safe, nutritious, ample, and affordable food supply is produced by a legion of family farmers who make a decent living pursuing their trade, while protecting the environment, and contributing to the strength and stability of their communities.

NSAC member groups advance common positions to support small and mid-size family farms, protect natural resources, promote healthy rural communities, and ensure access to healthy, nutritious foods by everyone. By bringing grassroots perspectives to the table normally dominated by big business, NSAC levels the playing field and gives voice to sustainable and organic farmers. To do this work, NSAC:

  • Gathers input from sustainable and organic farmers and ranchers, and from a diverse group of grassroots farm, food, rural, and conservation organizations that work directly with farmers;
  • Develops policy through participatory issue committees that involve NSAC member organizations and allies;
  • Provides direct representation in Washington, D.C. on behalf of its membership to members of Congress and federal administrative offices, such as USDA and EPA; and
  • Builds the power of the sustainable agriculture movement by strengthening the capacity of its member groups to promote citizen engagement in the policy process.

2. Citizen watchdog groups who concentrateon consumer education and activism

This is a very broad and varied group of organizations that play the very important role of publicizing issues through the traditional and ever-evolving social media. These organizations have a direct mission to influence large numbers of food consumers who want to play an active role in determining the future quality and content of their food. They are the groups that enable individuals and organizations to generate the millions of comments now needed to influence regulatory agencies and to get the attention of the White House. They attract and grab headlines to push their message and directly confront their highly financed opponents with guerilla tactics and media sensationalism to protect many critical issues that surround organics.

The three more prominent organizations are:

A) Food and Water Watch (FWW)
Food & Water Watch works to ensure the food, water, and fish we consume is safe, accessible and sustainably produced. So we can all enjoy and trust in what we eat and drink, they help people take charge of where their food comes from, keep clean, affordable, public tap water flowing freely to homes, protect the environmental quality of oceans, force government to do its job protecting citizens, and educate people about the importance of keeping the global commons — our shared resources — under public control. FWW envisions a world where all people have access to enough affordable, healthy, and wholesome food and clean water to meet their basic needs — a world in which governments are accountable to their citizens and manage essential resources sustainably.

B) Organic Consumers Association (OCA)
OCA is an online and grassroots non-profit 501(c)3 public interest organization campaigning for health, justice, and sustainability. The OCA deals with crucial issues of food safety, industrial agriculture, genetic engineering, children's health, corporate accountability, Fair Trade, environmental sustainability and other key topics. They promote themselves as being the only organization in the US focused on promoting the views and interests of the nation's estimated 76 million organic and socially responsible consumers.

The OCA represents over one million members, subscribers and volunteers, including several thousand businesses in the natural foods and organic marketplace. Their US and international policy board is broadly representative of the organic, family farm, environmental, and public interest community.

C) Cornucopia Institute
The Cornucopia Institute is a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) public interest group that engages in educational activities supporting the ecological principles and economic wisdom underlying sustainable and organic agriculture. Through research and investigations on agricultural issues, The Cornucopia Institute provides needed information to consumers, family farmers, and the media.

3. Organizations that concentrate on particular issues and legal challenges

In a litigious society that relies on legal challenges to balance biased regulations, organic and sustainable agriculture interests are very well represented by a few groups who are badly under-funded.

A) Center for Food Safety (CFS)
The most active and consistent defender of the legal interests of organic producers and consumers is the Center for Food Safety, who uses the law to defend the correct and consistent implementation of laws; defend the appropriate process of consultation with stakeholders and investigation of the that is required prior to introducing or changing regulations (for example the required scientific investigation and verification of how GMO's affect the environment); and in some cases, slow down the process to allow for adequate representation of a broad diversity of views, including organic. CFS is a non-profit public interest and environmental advocacy membership organization established in 1997 by its sister organization, International Center for Technology Assessment, for the purpose of challenging harmful food production technologies and promoting sustainable alternatives. CFS combines multiple tools and strategies in pursuing its goals, including litigation and legal petitions for rulemaking, legal support for various sustainable agriculture and food safety constituencies, as well as public education, grassroots organizing and media outreach.

B) Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS)
Organic regulation is based on scientific analysis of production practices and inputs. UCS is a nonprofit partnership of scientists and citizens combining rigorous scientific analysis, innovative policy development, and effective citizen advocacy to achieve practical environmental solutions.
Established in 1969, UCS seeks to ensure that all people have clean air, energy, and transportation, as well as food that is produced in a safe and sustainable manner. UCS strives for a future that is free from the threats of global warming and nuclear war, and a planet that supports a rich diversity of life. Sound science guides our efforts to secure changes in government policy, corporate practices, and consumer choices that will protect and improve the health of our environment globally, nationally, and in communities throughout the United States. In short, UCS seeks a great change in humanity's stewardship of the earth. Organizations like Union of Concerned Scientists provide the necessary data and perspective that can be used by the National Organic Standards Board and the USDA NOP.

C) Beyond Pesticides
Beyond Pesticides (formerly National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides) works with allies in protecting public health and the environment to lead the transition to a world free of toxic pesticides. Beyond Pesticides has historically taken a two-pronged approach to the pesticide problem by identifying the risks of conventional pest management practices and promoting non-chemical and least-hazardous management alternatives. The organization's primary goal is to effect change through local action, assisting individuals and community-based organizations to stimulate discussion on the hazards of toxic pesticides, while providing information on safer alternatives. Beyond Pesticides has sought to bring to a policy forum in Washington, DC, state capitals, and local governing bodies the pesticide problem and solutions we have become aware of on a day-to-day basis. Beyond Pesticides provides useful information on pesticides and alternatives to their use, topics also covered in Beyond Pesticides' quarterly news magazine, Pesticides and You; Daily News blog; and, the bi-monthly bulletin, School Pesticide Monitor. Beyond Pesticides believes that people must have a voice in decisions that affect them directly. They believe decisions should not be made for us by chemical companies or by decision makers who either do not have all of the facts or refuse to consider them. Organizations like Beyond Pesticides provide the necessary data and perspective that can be used by the National Organic Standards Board and the USDA NOP.

4. Producer Organizations

These organizations will be the most familiar to producers: Farm Bureau and National Farmers Union are the two with national coverage and representation in Washington, DC. Farm Bureau, as a national organization, is very much influenced by conventional agriculture but its many different state chapters can identify and promote more local issues of concern that are common to all production practices. The state chapter can be a very active proponent for organic and sustainable agriculture issues, as evidenced by the Massachusetts Farm Bureau's support for raw milk legislation and New England Farmers Union having a complete section in their policy handbook on organics and consumer cooperatives.

The Northeast Organic Farming Associations have a history of representing producers, gardeners and consumers on regional and state policy and issues, and have partnered with national coalitions to have an input in Washington DC. They have a great ability to mobilize consumers to defend the rights of organic producers.

When we look at the number of membership organizations that represent and are controlled by organic producers there are depressingly few. Organic dairy is the strongest with NODPA, WODPA and MODPA and their umbrella organization Federation of Organic Dairy Farmers (FOOD Farmers). NODPA and the other ODPA's have developed strong relationships with consumer organization through its membership in NOC and with conventional agriculture through its membership with NEFU. NODPA is able to present its membership with a distillation of the different positions and how they relate to organic dairy, and, with FOOD Farmers, provide a united producer voice on national issues when appropriate, as with the Access to Pasture and the Origin of Livestock rules. FOOD Farmers has also been able to provide a contact point for media and routinely disseminates information on organic dairy to a wide audience.

The recent controversy over using antibiotics in fruit trees has caused some ad-hoc groups to be established. Organic Farming Agency for Relationship Marketing (OFARM) and Organically Grown Company (OGC) can and do represent producer interests but are primarily marketing organizations and have little capacity in the policy arena.

Many, if not all organizations, speak to the role of producers and the need to recognize their involvement; many even have producers on their board. Producers, however, generally have little say in the development of policies for organizations whose priorities and actions might be influenced by funders' interest, consumer concerns, staff capacity, media sound bites, and time. Many organizations call themselves "member organizations" but are not governed by the members of the organization. Producers need to be informed and inform others of their interest and issues. The development of new, or changes to existing, policy and regulations need to be detailed and compatible with existing laws. They require appropriate knowledge and expertise of the subject plus an understanding of what policy can be achieved in the economic, social or political climate. Individual producers need to be well-enough informed to provide the more global goal that they want achieved, for example access to pasture regulation that will be consistently interpreted and will allow for legal prosecution of those that don't comply. Although keeping informed takes time, it will pay off in the long run. Even if you prefer to spend your time farming, don't sweat the details of policy or regulation but be well enough informed to hold organizations accountable for the policy positions and tactics they use to achieve them.