Alternatives to USDA Organic Certification

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organic food

My friend, Adrienne, has a farm in Tennessee, where she grows without pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers, but she is not allowed to say her produce is organic. Advertising as such without USDA certification results in stiff fines. Several years ago, another farmer friend of mine was threatened with a $10,000 fine for using the word ‘organic’ in printed marketing materials. He does not have USDA certification, either.

Why are small farms growing organically and not telling the world about it? First, it’s expensive. For a small farm to shell out $1000 or more for inspection and certification can be a burden. Second, certification has become so watered down over the last decade that farmers feel it hurts their integrity. It doesn’t mean as much as it used to, and it becomes a political stance to not get certified.

Growth of organic farming practices

In 2002, there were 77 non-organic substances allowed for certification. That number today is over 250! Major corporations, such as General Mills and Pepsico, have bought up small organic companies over the years, and they want to be able to use their conventional ingredients in their new product lines.

The National Organic Standards Board makes those decisions, but it doesn’t seem very well-rounded representing all facets of the industry. According to the NY Times, The Organic Foods Act says the board should have 15 members – four organic farmers, three conservationists, three consumer representatives, one scientist, one retailer, one certification agent and two representatives of organic processed food companies. There are no consumer advocates, such as the Organic Consumers Association, and slots for farmers are being filled by representatives of major corporations – companied that fight GMO labeling.

Organic certification standards

It’s easy to see how organic standards get watered down. It’s about making money, not preserving the high quality of food and protecting the health of US citizens.

Adrienne wanted people to know she grows organically, so she opted for her farm to be Certified Naturally Grown (CNG). The cost is less than $200 annually, and you have to do a peer inspection every year. You choose a nearby farm to inspect for certification, just as someone with CNG certification will come and inspect your farm.

I recently read a story about alternative certifications. Some are regional, and some are provided by individual states. They are small-farm-friendly as far as cost and restrictions, and I feel they respect the farming methods of organic farmers. If you have been farming organically or you want to start, why sign up for a program that says you can use pesticides? Alternative certification says you grow organically. Period. If the NOSB keeps doing what they are doing, these other certifications will surely be the way to go.


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Nan Fischer

Nan Fischer has been living and building green for over 35 years. Nan’s emphasis on the BuildDirect blog is about how to make your dollar stretch further, while also moving toward a more sustainable lifestyle, as well as upcoming and existing technology to help us live in an ecologically-friendly way. Nan also authors posts on the website of her seed business, sweetly seeds.