Celebrating 25 years of organic standards

OEFFA holds virtual conference to recognize a milestone in organic agriculture

Organic sheep farm
Twenty-five years ago, the Organic Foods Production Act was signed into law, creating a unified set of national organic standards that put all producers on a level playing field. The future of organic production calls for more research and more involvement from the younger generation. (Farm and Dairy file photo)

SALEM, Ohio — Organic producers, policy leaders and consumers agree the road to creating uniform standards for organic production was not an easy one. Even after the passage of the Organic Foods Production Act in 1990, the rules concerning organic production were disputed and would take several more years to sort out.

Twenty-five years later, the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association acknowledged this milestone in a teleconference, Nov. 30, by talking about the challenges of creating unified standards in organic production. Participants also shared their hopes for the future of the National Organic Program.

Before the law

“There was no ‘ah-ha’ moment for us,” said Mike Laughlin, a certified organic specialty crop farmer from Johnstown, Ohio, referring to his decision to go organic. He and his wife had been growing a few small plots of vegetables in their backyard, nothing large-scale at the time.

“When our farm became a reality, it was a simple choice to grow in a manner that protected and enhanced the earth and provided good clean, safe food for us, our children and our customers,” Laughlin said during the conference call. But finding the information they needed was a challenge.

“It was a different time,” Laughlin said. “A lot of information was hard to find.” That’s when Laughlin discovered the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association and found a group of like-minded individuals. Through the association, Laughlin was able to become certified organic under the criteria supplied by the OEFFA.

Having the OEFFA standards in place made Ohio one of the first states to develop rules for organic production, but it didn’t seem to be enough, said Laughlin. “It didn’t stop anyone else from saying they had an organic product. There were no rules to prevent that from happening.”

This began a push for more uniform U.S. standards.

Developing standards

“This was a very classic David and Goliath story,” said Kathleen Merrigan, former U.S. deputy secretary for the USDA who helped write the laws for the national organic standard that would replace the patchwork standards developed across the country in the late 1980s.

At the time, there was a distrust between farmers and the government. “Farmers had not been treated well by USDA historically,” explained Merrigan. So it was a surprise to see farmers coming to government’s door for help.  Legislation for the Organic Foods Production Act was signed into law on Nov. 28, 1990. Concerns for the language in the legislation would prompt more changes in the next 12 years.

The use of GMOs, irradiation and sewage sludge were all permitted in the original legislation, which ignited an uproar in the organic community, explained Liana Hoodes, National Organic Coalition adviser. There were over 325,000 comments submitted to the act’s implementation — “the biggest comment to any USDA rule at that point,” said Hoodes.

It wasn’t until 2002 that a final rule was published, establishing an intensive set of rules. “Back then, the organic standards were just two sides of an 8 1/2-by-11 sheet of paper,” said Laughlin, whose Northridge Organic Farm was one of the first Ohio farms to become certified organic under the new federal standards. “Now they’re more like a telephone book.”


Even with a very prescriptive set of rules, all panel members agreed, the future of the organic industry looks promising. Organic products have seen an “astounding” growth, said Abby Youngblood, National Organic Coalition Executive Director, with sales reaching nearly $40 billion annually, which she said is about 5% of total food sales.

“I think organic is a key opportunity for those who are getting into farming,” she said. “In terms of profitability, on a per-acre basis, in many cases organic does offer increased profitability and a way for people to get started in farming.”


But more organic research funding is needed, added Youngblood. “Only one-tenth of 1 percent of all agricultural research is dedicated in the (USDA’s) flagship research program to organic research.”

Kathleen Merrigan said she has seen practices led by organic farmers be adopted by a larger number of farmers who are not organic. “Investing in organic research is not just investing in organic agriculture, it’s investing in agriculture,” she said.

Her example was the use of rotational grazing on dairy farms, a practice she said was “pioneered by organic producers” and has since been widely adapted on a variety of operations both organic and non-organic — “because it makes sense.” The kinds of research that (organic producers) are calling for is a way to broaden our American agriculture portfolio, said Merrigan.

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  1. It’s great to see that OEFFA and others are now celebrating the milestone of passage of the OFPA. I’ve seen different versions of this story published recently, and am troubled by some very inaccurate depictions of the actual events that led to establishment of the National Organic Program, authorized under this legislation. The section headed “Developing Standards” contains factual errors, repetition of which does a disservice to the ongoing hard work needed to keep organic growing.

    The first two paragraphs of this section are fine. The biggest error is the implication in the third paragraph that the public response described by Liana Hoodes was with reference to the law itself, which is not the case. The massive public response (about 280,000 not 325,000 as indicated here) came in 1998, in response to the first Proposed Rule promulgated by USDA. I was a principal author of that first draft regulation, and can authoritatively state the following:

    The law itself (the OFPA) was silent on both GMOs and irradiation.

    The first proposed regulation to implement the law, though originally written to prohibit both GMOs and irradiation, had those prohibitions deleted by the Office of Management & Budget before it could be published.

    As written, the first proposal would not have permitted the use of ‘biosolids,’ as sewage sludge is identified by EPA. However, it was not explicitly prohibited, but only identified as a synthetic product that would have to be included on the National List to be allowed, which it wasn’t.

    The proposed rule as published would neither have prohibited nor allowed either GMOs or irradiation. Instead,
    we requested public comment as to whether and why they should be prohibited. We got what we asked for, in spades.

    At the request of EPA, we also asked for public comment about the permissibility of biosolids for organic production, despite the fact that it would not have been permitted as written.

    The fourth paragraph incorrectly states that the final rule was published in 2002. It was published in 2000, but required another two years before it could be fully implemented.

    Since 1998, the USDA has consistently been characterized as attempting to allow “the Big Three” to be used by organic producers, evidence that the NOP is up to no good and eager to water down the standards. It’s time to put that story to rest. This is among the stories about the evolution of organic that I tell in my forthcoming book: Memoir of an Organic Revolutionary. Please visit my web site: http://www.organic-revolutionary.com to learn more.


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