What’s in a Label?

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The Organic Trade Association (OTA), which represents America’s largest organic food producers, recently proposed a new bill for farmers to receive organic certification in quicker fashion through use of a new, “transitional” food label for farms converting to organic food production. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) approved the measure in January 2017, in part as an incentive for encouraging farms to make the switch to organic production. Given the price yield on organic soybeans and corn—organic trades at twice the value of conventional crops on the market—you would think most farmers would be switching to organic crops in droves, because of the income-earning opportunity alone. The USDA estimates the U.S. market for organic food is $39 billion and growing. However, of the more than two million farms in the country, only about 15,000 are certified organic. That’s less than one percent. If organic is such a hot market, why don’t more farmers switch to it?

Barriers to Becoming an Organic Farm
The barriers to certified-organic farming in the U.S. are many. A 2015 report from California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) identified challenges associated with “the transition period,” the time it takes for a farm to officially convert from conventional to certified organic, as the number-one barrier preventing farmers from going organic. For a farm to be certified organic, it must undergo a three-year period in which no new synthetic fertilizers and pesticides are added to the soil. This change in growing practices requires more manual labor than conventional growing methods that use synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to decrease labor intensity (at the hefty cost of increased toxicity!). This transition period therefore usually comes with an increase in labor costs and an initial decrease in production per acre. Additionally, organic certification requires more paperwork to carefully document organic production methods. Once the three-year time frame expires, farmers will likely earn a higher return for their certified organic crops, but many usually don’t have the capital or cash flow to take the risk required to get there. Worse, historically, during the three year transition period the harvest crop was grown organically but still required to be sold under the “conventionally grown” label, which means it yields a lower price in the market. In short, for three years, the farmer is spending more to grow something that sells for less—a poor equation in any farmer’s rule book.

A Transition Label for Newly-Organic Farms

According to the new standard, farmers can receive transitional crop labeling as a sort of good faith stamp that the product is on its way to meeting certified USDA organic standards, and thus not be regarded as conventionally grown. The agricultural food industry now anticipates that this “transitional” growing stage will result in more money in farmers’ pockets in less time, even though farmers will not receive a full return on their organic crops until they are fully certified as USDA organic.

The transitional labeling change should also bring about a dramatic increase in organic farming acreage, anywhere from 150,000 to 250,000 acres, according to a recent NPR story on the new measure. Although this increase may not appear dramatic, it’s important to note that the growth of organic acreage in the United States has never met the consumer demand for organic products. Organic crop imports from around the world have helped fill the gap, but eating tomatoes from Mexico doesn’t do much to advance the “shop local” movement. This new measure to increase organic acreage at home is one way to address the issue.

From an outsider’s vantage point, the process of gaining “transitional crop” status appears straightforward enough. In essence, the transitional crop labeling process involves three major steps through five primary agencies. The USDA marketing service branch began accepting applications from organic accredited certifying agents (ACAs) in January 2017, in order to certify agricultural products as “transitional.” The Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) facilitates the marketing of transitional-phase agricultural products defined by the Organic Trade Association’s standards. Finally, the National Certified Transition Program (NCTP) certifies crop producers and businesses in order to support the continued growth of organic agriculture.

How Transition Labeling May Help

The biggest impact here might fall on the nation’s grain prices. It is not as if consumers are ever going to fall short on organic soy for their tofu dishes, much less organic blue corn chips alongside their chipotle garlic salsa any time soon. The real driver behind this impetus has been the chronic shortage of organic grain feed for chickens and cows. Consumer demand for organic meat, milk and eggs continues to flourish, so the demand for organic animal feed does too.

Meanwhile, cheap organic imports, especially of feed grains, have been driving down prices for organic, and if higher prices aren’t guaranteed after three years, domestic farmers might be hesitant to make the switch to organic grain production. The OTA is also working on issues like improving the infrastructure needed to store and transport organic grain, another area where the industry has a gap.

Local farmer, Ed Bruske, owner of Spy Dog Farm in Cambridge, New York, faces this issue head on. While he prides himself on his Freedom Ranger chickens that are “dripping with flavor,” he is quick to mention that “for a small, rural broiler chicken producer, becoming organic is prohibitively expensive not only because of the cost of feed but the distance we would have to travel to get it. We’re fortunate enough to have a local farmer who produces non-GMO feeds that we can use for all of our livestock.”

Despite the relative ease behind the move toward transitional labeling, many in the agricultural industry are asking if this transitional certification status will offer farmers enough incentive to transform the organic food industry on a large scale. It will make things easier for farmers who are already committed to going organic. By the time they reach their three-year mark, they will be familiar with the certification requirements, including new farming methods like crop rotation and pest management.

Consumers may have have seen similar transition labeling attempts in the past, from an “in between” label that may have been more hype than customers realize. As one example, Whole Foods created the “Responsibly Grown” label for non-organic farmers who follow certain practices established by the grocery giant. Whole Foods has also started buying up farmland to create its own organic supply.

At some point, the combination of too many agricultural agencies designing too many food labels may backfire. Why not just grow one’s own carrots and cucumbers in the back yard, without any need to read the sea of labels? Chicken packaging provides a good example here. Ed Bruske further comments that “consumers should look carefully at the organic requirements for meat chickens. Those birds only need have ‘access’ to the outdoors. They don’t have to be raised on pasture. Our birds are raised entirely outdoors on pasture. And does your organic chicken really taste better? It may just be an industrial bird like a Cornish Cross raised according to organic standards.”

I suppose the bottom line of why supporting the complex infrastructure needed to further the certified organic food industry is a worthy cause, is because doing so helps organic farmers and the marketplace continue striving for the common good. And if conventional growers can be convinced to switch to organic methods with the help of these new certified transitional programs, this will only help agriculture’s overall future.

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Thomas Washington is Head Librarian at the Albany Academy for Girls. He has been a Co-op member since relocating to Albany from Washington, DC in 2015.