‘Certified Organic’ Farming: How Federal Regulations Help Big Agriculture
Once upon a time, all you needed to be an organic farmer in America was a pair of Birkenstocks and a commitment to keep your products chemical-free. Those idealistic days of the 1990s are long gone. Today, organic farming is a $30 billion industry dominated by Big Agriculture, backed up by Uncle Sam and a federal rulebook that gets longer every day.
In the halls of Congress, the rhetoric never changes: Vote against new regulations and you side with big business; support tough rules and side with the little guy. But history tells us that, far from restraining the power of big companies, an overbearing regulatory bureaucracy benefits them just about every time. Last month, the White House released e-mails detailing the deal it cut with PhRMA — the drug industry’s lobbying arm — to win support for Obamacare. And the size and market share of America’s biggest banks have only grown since the passage of Dodd-Frank banking regulations.
But if those examples hold too much partisan history for you, how about organic farming? As The New York Times reported recently, “the industry’s image — contented cows grazing on the green hills of family-owned farms — is mostly pure fantasy.”
In 1997 the US Department of Agriculture first proposed a set of national standards for the industry. They became the law of the land in 2002. Today, the National Organic Standards Board keeps a list of 250 non-organic food additives that can be used under the “certified organic” label. That’s three times the number listed just 10 years ago. As the Soviets proved time and again, a good central committee can kill just about anything.
Only a few farmers saw this coming. I was in the US House when the national standards were first proposed, and around that time I was approached by a smart, passionate, organic farmer from Vermont. Like many of his peers, he was part of a local association that certified the practices of its own members. At that point, they were mostly concerned about two issues: the use of sludge from municipal waste water treatment plants as fertilizer and the use of microwaves to kill foodborne pathogens. They wanted the federal definition of “organic” to exclude both.