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Organic Agriculture Continues to Garner Validation

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There are many ways to measure the progress of organic agriculture. We can tally the number of farmers who adopt organic practices, the acreage, crops and livestock they steward or the value of their sales. These numbers matter but by themselves are one dimensional and can’t convey the transformative effect which organic agriculture has over life and landscape. Taking a fuller measure of organic agriculture requires the comprehensive investigation and analysis we call scientific research — establishing what we know, hypothesizing about what we don’t and working assiduously to shorten the distance between the two.

Thankfully, organic agriculture has transcended the second class status to which it was once relegated and become a vital focus of research on land grant campuses and agricultural experiment stations nationwide. The early fruits of this evolution are evident in a new publication entitled Organic Agriculture in Wisconsin: 2014 UW-Madison Research Report. The University’s Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, which has promoted multiple forms of eco-agriculture for 25 years, and the similarly supportive Wisconsin Department of Agriculture Trade and Consumer Protection jointly drafted the report.

What I find especially exciting about the report is its confirmation that the emergent organic research in Wisconsin is consistent with the closed system and renewable resource foundation of organic agriculture itself. Organic agriculture cannot be achieved through an input substitution approach which simultaneously embraces organic certification’s disregard for energy requirements, scale of production and proximity to markets. True organic agriculture must be decentralized, functional at the family farm scale and driven by renewable resources, especially solar energy. By focusing on locally adapted seed varieties, rotational grazing and other practices which optimize pasture and season extension through high tunnel systems and multi-cropping, the research in Wisconsin is reducing farmers’ dependence on non-renewable inputs and contributing to regional food systems.

One impressive research study highlighted in the report documents the successful no-till practices used by R & G Miller & Sons, a certified organic dairy managing 700 cows and 1,500 acres of pasture and crop ground. No doubt about it, weed pressure is the greatest challenge for organic grain and soybean production. The lack of effective herbicide options has placed a disproportionate emphasis on energy- and time-consumptive tillage, which also has adverse effects on soil quality. Using a roller/crimper system derivative of the great work done by Jeff Moyer at the Rodale Institute, the Millers have achieved strong soybean yields with minimal weed pressure while simultaneously reducing labor and energy costs by cutting back on tractor passes. It doesn’t work this well every year — Mother Nature is the ultimate experimental variable — but organic farmers don’t expect to operate on automatic pilot. Show them proof that options like the roller/ crimper system can work for them and they will take it out into their fields and improve upon it even more.

It is especially encouraging that the 22 research projects outlined in the report receive funding from multiple federal, state and private sources. The federal government has commendably stepped up its commitment to organic research with the 2014 Farm Bill allocating $100 million for the Organic Research and Extension Initiative over the next five years with the Organic Transitions Program receiving $20 million during that period. Writing that compels me to pause and give thanks for the pioneering visionaries of organic agriculture including Albert, Gabrielle and Louise Howard, J.I. and Robert Rodale, Rachel Carson and Charles Walters whose work made this breakthrough possible. Private foundations including the Organic Farming Research Foundation and more recently the Ceres Trust are also shaping the course of organic research by funding the early work of faculty members and graduate students who are on their way to landing the multimillion dollar federal grants.

Dr. Kate VandenBosch, dean of the University of Wisconsin’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, makes a very significant point in the report’s introduction. She notes, that “New knowledge about varieties and cropping practices that reduce reliance on herbicides and other purchased inputs can help cut costs and improve profitability under all types of farming systems.” Organic research benefits not only certified farmers and their peers who are moving in that direction but has the potential to transform all of agriculture. There will always be naysayers to find fault with organic agriculture but the type of rigorous, peer reviewed and publishable research results now coming out of Wisconsin and elsewhere will doubtlessly deplete their ranks.

The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) is taking an increased interest in organic research but its deliberations regrettably suffer from the materials fixation compromising so many of its other responsibilities. The NOSB’s 2012 “Recommendation for a Framework to Set Research Priorities” disproportionately addressed material usage while inexplicably overlooking the importance of farmer collaboration and on-farm experimentation. At its most recent meeting in San Antonio, the NOSB presented its first list of specific research priorities. They made great strides by incorporating genuine systems-related concerns including the analysis of whole farm systems and herd health. Still, the NOSB’s unshakeable materials fixation found its way onto the list as well. Does prioritizing research on making commercial availability assessments on agricultural substances from non-organic sources allowed for use in certified processed foods sound like a game changer to you?

I was also puzzled by a second item on the NOSB’s research priorities list which they characterized as follows: “The NOSB gets told often by commenters who are or claim to represent consumers that have expectations about what organic means and what inputs and ingredients should be in organic food. Sometimes there is a wide difference between what consumer activist groups claim and sales of specific categories of organic products in the marketplace… Research into the relationship of consumer buying habits and their beliefs about them would be helpful.”

I certainly appreciate the skepticism implicit in this statement regarding individuals and organizations professing to speak on behalf of the universe of organic consumers. It has always struck me as more than coincidental that those who claim to know what consumers are thinking inevitably assert that consumers think remarkably the same as they themselves do. Whether such conclusions are accurate or not, the bottom line is that the concept of “consumer expectations” should play no role in setting organic standards and would make a fruitless research objective.

We have a mostly workable law — the Organic Foods Production Act — and 40-plus years of real-world experience with organic production and handling to serve as the foundation for setting organic standards. Why should a subjective approximation of consumer expectations — consumers who may take little or none of that foundation into consideration — be added to the mix? When research determines that consumer expectations have changed, would that require changing the standards? Such an approach turns organic certification into little more than a popularity contest with no tangible connection to the reality of farming.

Rather than querying consumers about their expectations when purchasing certified products, let’s open their eyes to real organic agriculture by introducing them to dedicated farmers like those working with the researchers in Wisconsin.

This article appears in the June 2014issue of Acres U.S.A.