Natural Foods Merchandiser

Organic debates reach a tipping point?

Organic food's reaching a tipping point, and not just by going mainstream.

The debates about the integrity of organic food, the loss of the original ideals, and concerns about mainstreaming now have the potential to move beyond finger-pointing and insular chatter and evolve to the level of a conversation. What a thought!

I see evidence of that in the Organic Summit, organized by New Hope Natural Media and the Organic Farming Research Foundation, set to take place in Boulder, Colo. later this month. I also see it in the National Organic Coalition, Rural Advancement Foundation International and Center for Food Safety's efforts to develop a "national organic action plan." They have been holding vibrant discussions around the country, including one in which I participated this month in Washington.

Ideally these two efforts, which embrace industry, farmers, and non-governmental organizations, can connect their conversations so that everyone has a forum to talk about the progress they've made, air their grievances about the way organics has developed and plan for the future. OK, that might be a bit too optimistic, but at least the discussion can get underway.

It's needed now more than ever. I realized when I wrote my book, Organic Inc., that the so-called "organic community" was more like a dysfunctional family, with the eccentric uncle, the rich brothers, the penniless artisan, the fiery anarchist, the fighting parents, the co-dependent daughter, all of whom talked about the bygone days when the family was happy. They were all well-meaning and extremely hardworking, but they could not talk to one another, let alone get along. And some family members actually fed on the conflict. (You can fill in the blanks to fit those profiles).

"This diversity of opinion and approach underscored the movement's greatest strength, akin to the various, competing and interdependent components of any ecosystem," I wrote in the book. "But this diversity proved to the movement's greatest weakness since it could easily devolve into conflict."

But it's not all warring factions. Among the more positive signs, dairy farmers and processors seem to be uniting around a move to a higher organic milk production standard.

The Federation of Organic Dairy Farmers has organized a meeting in Boulder just ahead of the Organic Summit that will bring, it seems, nearly every processor into the room so that everyone's on the same page for a new organic dairy regulation.

The farmers themselves have united behind the 120 day, 30 percent rule, that is, requiring organic cows get at least 30 percent of their nutritional needs from pasture during the growing season, for a minimum of at least 120 days.

There has been widespread concern for years that some dairy farms were minimizing pasture, prompting the push for a tougher regulation.

If the processors and farmers do get on the same page, and unite under the banner of a tougher regulation that brings greater integrity to the organic milk market, it could be a lesson for the rest of the organic movement and industry.

But of course, the toughest lessons are always the hardest ones to learn.

Samuel Fromartz is the author of Organic Inc ( and blogs at Chews Wise (

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