Elizabeth Henderson, Eliot Coleman, Lisa Stokke and Francis Thicke after the debate – still friends!

Summer Conference debate, August 11, 2018

Elizabeth Henderson

100 word summaries from the four participants

Lisa Stokke: As a person who has consistently purchased and relied upon organic food to feed my family for 25+ years, it’s been frustrating to witness the watering down of the USDA organic standards. Yet as a leader of a national organization advocating for strong standards and family scale farming have been reluctant to criticize organic for the sake of farmers and in the interest of working to strengthen them.

However, my experience has led me to conclude that the USDA organic standards no longer represents how many organic family farms operate and has left consumers without a means to find them, believing all organic labeled products are at least as good as what they were 20 years ago, which is unfair.

Elizabeth Henderson Family-scale farms like those of NOFA members have benefitted from the legitimacy resulting from the National Organic Program, but ultimately it has not saved them from the farm crisis. Our movement has invested exorbitant resources fighting for organic label integrity. The missing piece from organic standards since the feds took over – is fairness: for farmers – fair prices; for farmworkers – living wages, respect, safe working conditions, decent benefits. Should the NOP fail us, we need Plan B – a system of locally controlled participatory guarantees. To end the farm crisis, organic farmers need to ally with other food workers to create a food system worth sustaining.

Francis Thicke: A year and a half ago I would not have supported the creation of an add-on organic label. However, near the end of my NOSB term it became increasingly clear that the NOP has come under the sway of big businesses that want to weaken the organic standards for the sake of profits—and that is not likely to change.

In addition to nixing OLPP, certification of hydroponics, fraudulent imports, and lack of enforcement of grazing standards, the NOP has weakened the sunset review process for synthetics, usurped the NOSB’s authority to set its own work agenda, and appointed pro-industry representatives to the NOSB.

Eliot Coleman: Four Season Farm is NOT “USDA Certified Organic” – I repeat – NOT. And for good reason. The USDA National Organic Program has been totally corrupted by the money, power, and influence of industrial food corporations. Hydroponic vegetables, grown without soil using artificial lighting and nutrient solutions from the chemistry lab, are sold everywhere as “USDA Certified Organic”. Enormous ‘Confined Animal Feeding Operations’ (CAFOs) with no access for the animals to outdoor pastures are producing the majority of the “organic” milk and eggs in this country. The USDA recently scrapped new animal welfare standards for organic certification at the behest of these CAFOs.

The deep integrity of the passionate, old-time, organic farmers who started this movement is now nothing but greenwash for the USDA “fauxganic” program. We proudly advertise our produce as GUARANTEED “REAL ORGANIC”. We invite other farmers to join us.

Five minute presentation by Elizabeth Henderson

In 1989, along with other members of NOFA, I was opposed to the idea of putting an organic program in the hands of USDA, the department of agri-business, but we lost that fight and then switched to working to make the NOP livable for family scale organic farms and small certification programs like the NOFAs’. All three of you are critical of the NOP – you either advocate an add-on label or want to throw the NOP label out altogether and substitute your personal reputation.  While it is satisfying to sling epithets like “fauxganic” and declaim your own farm as exemplifying the “guaranteed real label,” I suggest that we need to think more strategically about the certified organic farms as a small, but important part of family-scale farming in this country – farming that has been in crisis for most of my life.  When I was born there were over 5 million farms.  Today there are 2 million, and farms continue to go out of business, their land gobbled up either by housing sprawl or by more aggressive farms. Young people, whether of color or slightly more privileged whites, who do not inherit wealth have way too many obstacles to establishing viable farms. Our movement for buy local has been tremendously successful – less than 5 percent of the food my farm produced was sold through third parties – Peacework mainly sold direct through our CSA.  Being part of the organic movement and being on top of the cleverest ideas for leveraging social capital, I was able to make a very modest living based only on farming income for over 30 years. My farm could have gone without being certified organic, but we certified to stand up and be counted. But where buy local has been most successful – parts of VT for example – it only accounts for 10% of the food that people buy.  90% of the food people are eating still comes through third parties.  The farms that sell that food – the commodity crops, grains, beans, milk, ingredients for processed foods –– and the consumers who buy it – depend on a label with integrity.

Highly committed organic activists who work and raise children tell me that they cannot take the time to buy direct from farms or have no access.  So it is our responsibility to come up with solutions not just for the star farmers, but for the many other farmers who are struggling to keep afloat in the brutally ruthless capitalist markets as climate change and unreasonably complex food safety regulations make it even more challenging.

For the immediate future– I think creating add-on labels as our short term survival plan makes sense.  While we continue to struggle (and lose ground) defending the NOP label, we must continue to use it, our add-on label signaling to the relatively small part of the public that is paying attention that these products are Really Organic or even Regenerative Organic. A friend who works for CCOF even thinks we can get the NOP to offer some of these add-ons as “optional endorsements” to NOP certification.

Large parts of the public are only just catching up to the value of organic – and wanting to buy in. And I must add – where certification is done by our farming organization certification agencies – NOFA-NY, VOF, MOFGA – the increase in the number of farms has been greater than in states where departments of agriculture do the certification.  The integrity of our programs is strong and they do not certify hydroponic operations or chickens on porches as organic.

However, I cannot agree that farms are really organic if they do not place a high priority on being fair workplaces and likewise for stores/brands that do not pay farmers fair prices. I have been working on an add-on label for over 20 years – Food Justice Certified. The little group that developed the Agricultural Justice Project knew that we would not live long enough to insert standards for fairness to farmers and food workers into the NOP so we drafted social stewardship standards, translating the abstract notion of social justice into the concrete terms of pricing for farm products and working conditions for workers on farms and in other food businesses. Then we added fair trading standards among businesses. The basic premise of this project is that supportive relations of mutual respect and cooperation among the people who grow and sell food will result in a triple win for farmers, food workers and ultimately the people who eat the food.

IFOAM’s Principle of Fairness summarizes what fairness means very comprehensively:

“Organic agriculture should build on relationships that ensure fairness with regard to the common environment and life opportunities. Fairness is characterized by equity, respect, justice and stewardship of the shared world, both among people and in their relations to other living beings.

“This principle emphasizes that those involved in organic agriculture should conduct human relationships in a manner that ensures fairness at all levels and to all parties – farmers, workers, processors, distributors, traders and consumers. Organic agriculture should provide everyone involved with a good quality of life, and contribute to food sovereignty and reduction of poverty. It aims to produce a sufficient supply of good quality food and other products. This principle insists that animals should be provided with the conditions and opportunities of life that accord with their physiology, natural behavior and well-being.

“Natural and environmental resources that are used for production and consumption should be managed in a way that is socially and ecologically just and should be held in trust for future generations. Fairness requires systems of production, distribution and trade that are open and equitable and account for real environmental and social costs.” (IFOAM Principles 2005)

If we are honest, we have to admit that social relations in organic agriculture mimic those of the dominant industrial food system, and organic farmers, even farmers who sell direct in local markets, have a hard time making ends meet. While farmers may be building equity in their farm businesses, many farmers are in debt and the farm family that lives entirely on farm earnings is rare. Farmers who want to provide a middle-class income for their families, depend on the off-farm earnings and health insurance from a family member’s job. Few farmers pay living wages to the people who work on their farms; a few at least make this a priority.

We must begin to address fairness in any add-ons we create or we are not building a food system that is worth sustaining.  We are just replicating the unequal social relations in the industrial food system that we claim to oppose, a system that grew out of the slave plantation and continues to thrive through the use of undocumented, exploited desperate workers. We will not reach the promised land of sustainability based on the environment without also addressing human relations.  Farms must have justice.

By stretching towards fairness, organic can take our rightful place in the struggles for freedom and justice, for civil liberties for all.  We step out of our bubble into the world of serious political conflict and come up on the right side, gaining as allies the working people who are the most energized in opposing the current mess. Together we can create real alternatives that solve the long list of inadequacies and injustices of the capitalist food system –

prices that cover the costs of production,

living wages with respectful treatment and decent benefits for farm workers so that farmwork is a desired occupation,

reparations to African American and Native Americans,

regenerative land use practices,

access to healthy food at reasonable prices for low income people, both urban and rural,

access to the resources of land and equipment to all who want to farm.

We can write this program together with our allies, and this country can fund it by ceasing the endless wars in which we are engaged.

At the same time, for the sake of organic farming and food, we need to think about the longer term and begin serious work on our Plan B. I suggest we look to the examples of Participatory Guarantee Systems fostered by IFOAM. ( PGS initiatives exist in 66 countries. In 2017, IFOAM estimated that there are at least 241 PGS initiatives worldwide of which 115 are under development and 127 are fully operational, with at least 311’449 farmers involved and at least 76’750 producers certified.  An outstanding example is Natur et Progres, a federation of 30 local chapters. Natur et Progres is the oldest French organic organization founded in 1964 and they have maintained a participatory system through which peasants, consumers, doctors, retailers, processors created a common charter including ecological, economic and social objectives to which all subscribe. The charter is a guide to moving towards a society that respects humans and all living things. Natur et Progres is a network of local groups of volunteers, much like NOFAs and the name Natur et Progres functions as an independent collective brand.  Inspections are done by local committees that include both farmers and trained non-farmers. (


For us to create an effective PGS would be a huge challenge and would inspire us to intensify our local networks, to educate both farmers and the eaters of the food, involving technical people – scientists, physicians, etc. in the process, learning, organizing the kind of ecological society in which we want to live.