The federal government owns the word organic, so unless you’re certified by an agency of the government, you may not call yourself organic. This is why several years ago I used the phrase beyond organic to describe us, prompting the word police at the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) to threaten to sue us for even having the word appear on our website without official licensing.
Fortunately, attorney Pete Kennedy at the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund sent the NOSB a scathing rebuke and the government agency backed down. We’ve been using the term beyond organic ever since.
The ugly truth is that government certified organic is not a comprehensive term. Anyone wishing to get the full scoop on the scofflaws within the government organic community should check out the CORNUCOPIA watchdog group based in Wisconsin. They file a couple of lawsuits every year because the NOSB will not enforce the organic standards on big players. The result is a daily erosion of the term.
Nearly all government organic beef is finished on corn in a feedlot. Government certified organic beef, poultry, and pork do not deviate at all from industry nutritional deficiencies or ratios. They do differ in amounts of toxicity, but not in nutrition. But isn’t nutrition what we’re looking for?
Nearly all government organic poultry is raised in factory houses. The point is that the standards are minimalistic and non-comprehensive, meaning they do not address many of the things people care about and that actually make a big nutritional difference in the product. For example, grass (salad bar) ingestion, which of course is THE mission at Polyface, is hardly even in the government organic discussion. Because it’s a pass-fail system, it does not incentivize anyone to do better than the minimal standards. While some of the grains we use at Polyface, purchased locally, may not be true-blue organic, we’ve always relied on chlorophyl, sunshine, exercise, and pasture sanitation to do the detoxifying. According to years of scientific and quasi-scientific sleuthing, it’s working pretty well.
To be sure, Polyface beef could be certified organic easily, but why play a game that is rigged toward scofflaws? Why pay licensing money to a bunch of charlatans?
Polyface poultry and pork would not pass the certification standards because we use local GMO-free grains. In order to use government organic, we’d have to ship it in from hundreds of miles away, bathed in diesel fuel, exporting our dollars out of the community, away from our neighbors, and from farmers who had decided to dance with the bureaucracy that may or may not be practicing good protocols. And it would cost nearly twice as much, adding substantially to our prices for dubious advantage and therefore compromising our goal of offering a credible pasture-based economical alternative to the factory farming system.
For example, if you’re growing grain, you can use fish emulsion for fertilizer. That is a byproduct of the Japanese drift net ocean by-catch, which patronizes a practice considered revolting by all marine ecologists. You can use compost from factory houses. You could use cover crops or not. You could be a mono-cropper or a multi-cropper. You could weed with organic herbicides, a propane flame thrower, a roto-hoe, or hire foreigners to do it. You see, a lot can slip through the cracks because the standards do not address many of the things people find important.
Because of this, we at Polyface don’t want to participate in a game that encourages ignorance. The government organic certification system does just that. How many of you knew about all these loopholes and different allowable practices, some questionable and others not? Because it is a government license, it stops curiosity because people assume organic means what they think it means. Nothing could be further from the truth.
At Polyface, we want to push folks toward discovery, toward conversations, toward continued education about food and farming. By refusing to participate in convenient categories, we are free to discuss the nuances of differences. We think that’s positive.
How many government organic farms have a 24/7/365 open door policy? Name one. Here at Polyface, that IS our policy and we can honestly say we’re “CUSTOMER CERTIFIED.” Nothing beats visiting, and we encourage every single one of our patrons to visit the farm at least once. If you visit a couple of farms, you’ll be amazed at how quickly you pick up the vibe of true blue versus corner-cutting.
Finally, Polyface doesn’t receive the license for paperwork and financial reasons. Another ugly truth about government organics is that every day farmers are leaving the program. If you’ll look at the participation lists, what you’ll see is small farms dropping out and large industrialized farms making up the lion’s share of the current licensees. I have always contended that a licensing program which finances itself by getting licensees will always compromise its values because the financial incentives are prejudiced toward getting more members. The quickest way to get more members is to reduce the standards or let people cheat. That way the organization can grow and employees can crow about their agency’s size. That’s the nature of the beast.
Here at Polyface, we’d much rather move our animals around on pasture so they can get all the salad they want so they can be nutritionally superior. That’s more important than sitting around a desk all day pushing papers, filling out boxes, and entertaining bureaucrats. Honestly, you have to wonder about a farmer who enjoys that stuff. It always makes me feel like government organics actually attracts people who like to talk bigger than they do, who like to fill out paper instead of produce food, and who really think the USDA is the friend of truth.
Do we really want the USDA, who told us to use hydrogenated vegetable oil instead of butter and lard, who gave us a food pyramid with Twinkies and Cocoa Puffs on the foundation, who told us to feed dead cows to cows and who now worships at the altar of GMOs to police food integrity? Really? Rather than get depressed about all this, we’d rather know our sources, patronize our neighbors, build a relationally transparent food and farming system, and encourage info-questing conversations.
You can buy organic certified ultra-pasteurized shelf-stable factory farm-raised milk. J.I. Rodale, who invented the term organic, would roll over in his grave to see a whole system of belief adulterated this way. Now that the NOSB has decided to rescind its sunset clause on questionable materials and practices, the camel has entered the tent. I’ve never been able to figure out why people who spent their lives railing against the evils of the USDA thought that giving organic policing power to that agency would suddenly bode well for truth. In debate, we call this schizophrenic reasoning.
I hope this helps everyone understand that Polyface does not play the government organic game because we like to be contrary. We simply like transparency, truth, and informed people. We hope you do too. Ultimately, it all boils down to trust. We work hard every day to earn your trust. When we fail, we walk around with our heads down for a day or two. Thank you for trusting us, and anything we can do to increase that trust, we’ll try to do.