By David L. Rogers, Policy Advisor
Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFA Vermont)
Some time ago I held a food system workshop that examined food choice and personal values. I asked attendees to list what they thought were the most important attributes of a sustainable and ethical food system. Here is what we came up with:
- Provides abundant, nutritious, affordable, high quality food
- Supports local economies, communities, family-scale farms, and businesses
- Builds healthy soils
- Protects & enhances natural resources
- Promotes biodiversity
- Avoids use of synthetic chemicals and fertilizers in food production and processing
- No use of genetically engineered organisms
- Maximizes energy efficiency
- Maximizes use of locally produced processing ingredients and production inputs
- Addresses global warming challenges
- Avoids use of synthetic chemicals & antibiotics in livestock production
- High regard for animal health, natural behaviors, and well-being
- Supports economic fairness and social justice (farmers, farm workers, consumers)
I think people who understand the intimate connections between our food system and important social, environmental and ethical concerns would support most of the above. Several of these attributes relate directly to the importance of local farms, working landscapes and local foods. All of the workshop participants strongly supported these and were very clear about how buying locally-produced food benefited them and their communities. (There were, however, different views of just what “local” means.)
A few of the attributes relate to specific farming practices (e.g., avoidance of synthetic chemicals, no use of GMOs). Others refer to the consequences of such practices – building healthy soils, protection of natural resources, promotion of biodiversity, maximization of energy efficiency, etc.
There was strong support for these attributes as well in the workshop, but uncertainty about how well our food choices support them — even when buying direct from the farm. After all, how many of us know enough about, for example, soil fertility, or biodiversity, to have an informed view of whether or not a given farm is doing a good job in these and other areas? How can we know these things about the food that we buy?
A good answer is to buy from local farms that use organic farming methods and practices. Most of the desirable attributes above are directly or indirectly connected to the central tenets of organic agriculture. Organic farmers rely upon high-quality composts to build healthy soils that produce safe, nutrient-rich foods; they preserve natural areas on their farms to foster biodiversity, as well as support populations of beneficial insects; they protect water resources by maintaining riparian buffers; they manage their livestock in ways that allow natural behaviors. The list goes on and on.
But questions remain. With so many organic practices, farmers often pick and choose which organic practices they will use. When asked, they might call their products “mostly organic,” “almost organic,” or something similar. But what does this mean? For example, do they mostly use compost, but sometimes use chemical fertilizers? Do they use any synthetic pesticides on their crops? Do they feed their livestock GMO grains? Many such questions would be reasonable for conscientious local food consumers to ask, though the answers might be difficult to interpret, or verify. In the workshop I termed this “the localvore’s dilemma.”
This brings us to the merits of certified organic agriculture and certified organic foods. Certified farms, as well as certified food manufacturers, are required to use only those methods approved by the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) and to use them in accordance with comprehensive and specific NOP standards. These standards are developed and refined in ongoing discussions and consultations with a fifteen-member national board representing organic farmers, organic consumers, scientists and environmentalists.
All certified organic operations are inspected once or more each year by trained third-party inspectors who document compliance with applicable NOP standards. Those found to be “non-compliant” are required to correct their practices or risk de-certification. Only inspected and certified operations and products are, by law, allowed to display the well-known “USDA Organic” label. In Vermont, NOP inspections and certifications are carried out by Vermont Organic Farmers (VOF), a program of NOFA Vermont.
Since 2002, when the NOP began its work, millions of conscientious consumers have come to understand what USDA Certified Organic means and represents. There has been steady and dramatic growth in sales of certified organic products and the number of certified organic farms and food manufacturers. Today, sales of certified organic food top $30 billion annually; there are eighteen thousand certified operations in the U.S. In Vermont, VOF inspects and certifies nearly 600 farms and food manufacturers, with combined sales over $152 million per year.
Information about VOF’s practices, NOP standards, a listing of VOF certified local farms and businesses, and more about the benefits of certified organic can be found at www.nofavt.org.