When organic consumers win, must producers always lose?

When organic consumers win, must producers always lose?

When organic consumers win, must producers always lose? Last week, more than 200 industry watchers turned out to get a glimpse as the National Organic Standards Board sat down for a three-day meeting in Portland, Ore. One of the most complex and contentious issues to come before the board at this meeting was a recommendation to extend the ability of organic fruit growers to use tetracycline to control fire blight in organic apple and pear trees until 2016.

The NOSB has wrestled with this issue for nearly two decades.

Fire blight is a serious problem for apple and pear growers, particularly when springtime is warm and wet. The disease is caused by airborne bacteria, spreads rapidly and can devastate an orchard in days. Replacing those trees requires several years.

Tetracycline was included on the list of allowed crop production synthetics when the organic standards were adopted in 2002. In 2011, the board voted to extend that use only until the end of 2014 as a signal that growers must develop alternative methods for keeping fire blight out of their orchards.  

In Portland, though, the NOSB was asked to consider extending that allowance through 2016, based upon the argument that two more seasons of research would enable new products to be tested on both apples and pears in a variety of weather conditions. The pushback from consumer groups was strong and passionate.

When the dust settled, the board voted 9-6 to deny the request for extension.

Prior to voting, each board member was allowed to make a public statement to explain their rationale supporting or oppositioning the request. Many of those statements began with “I support the farmers on this one,” or “I have to support the consumers on this issue.”

That troubles me. The conventional food system is riddled with us vs. them debates between farmers and consumers. Organic production emerged in part because growers and their customers shared common values.

The consumers certainly have a legitimate concern on this issue. Opposition to regular use of antibiotics in the food system is a major driver in the organic marketplace. Growers want to meet those expectations. But, fruit doesn’t grow on dead trees. The loss of an orchard is more than crippling for growers… it’s often a fatal blow to their business.

This week’s NOSB meeting opened with a public comment from an “industry watchdog” representative, who noted that the level of certified organic acreage is actually shrinking in many parts of the country. He’s right. Consumers and retailers across the country have pushed organic producers to reduce the price premiums their products command over conventional food. Some even label the higher price of organic food as a symbol of elitism.

In making that decision on tetracycline, the NOSB acknowledged that consumers value the fact that organic food is produced with absolutely no antibiotics. The question now is: how much value?

If the consumers speaking at NOSB in Portland truly care about organic farmers, they will go home next week and start talking to their neighbors about why organic food costs more.

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