One of the most heated debates in local agriculture right now centers on the USDA's recent adoption of national standards for organic food production and handling, called the National Organics Program (NOP). The process for creating a federal standard for organic foods was set in motion by the passage of the Organic Food Production Act of 1990. According to Tony Kleese, Executive Director of Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, a group that promotes the benefits of local and organic food systems, "there were a few state laws, in particular California...but before that there was no national law. And so [the 1990 Act] was passed and that put into motion the development of a national standard, and 12, 13 years [later] here we are, finally implementing it."
But defining "organic" has proven to be a formidible task, at times pitting environmentalists and food-safety advocates against government bureaucracy. One of the biggest hurdles came in 1996, when the National Organics Standards Board released their first recommendations. "There was a big uproar...they were going to include GMO's, and sewage sludge, and radiation, and a myriad of other things, and [the USDA] got 270,000 comments back on it. And it was the most comments they'd ever received at that point about any proposed rule," explains Kleese. Forced by public opinion to rewrite the standards, the NOSB went back to the drawing board. They emerged in March of 2000 with the new standards, which after further modifications and an 18-month "phase-in" period, became law last October.
For many people who have been fighting for years to legitimize organic agriculture, the NOP is seen as a huge victory. The grassroots organics movement in the US gained momentum in the 1960's and 1970's, along with the back-to-the-land and counterculture movements. Organics has long been stigmatized by that association, with many in the mainstream dismissing it as "hippie agriculture." "The good thing about the NOP is that now, [organic food] is recognized by the USDA, it's recognized by the NC Department of Agriculture...it's much more mainstream," says Tony Kleese. The official organic designation, he says, benefits farmers in the marketplace: "it's a green label...that's how you have to appeal to the consumers, you have to give them information to make a good decision on."
Farmers can also benefit from organics in that organic crops frequently command a much higher price than their conventional counterparts do. Local farmer Stanley Hughes, the third generation in his family to raise tobacco, jumped at the chance to grow organic tobacco for the Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company when told the crop would bring him twice the price as conventional tobacco. "That first year, just starting...worked out great, probably one of the better years and so it just like, took off." For farmers who want to sell to companies like Santa Fe, or in grocery stores like Weaver Street or Whole Foods, the organic label is an obvious and now, standardized, way for them to differentiate their product.
But not everyone is happy with the NOP. The most immediately noticeable effect of the legislation is that the word "organic" can now legally only be used to describe goods that have been certified - by a USDA-accredited agent - to meet the range of conditions prescribed by the program. The only exemption is for farms with less than $5,000 in yearly sales, in which case they still have to follow all the standards but do not have to be certified to call themselves "organic". The NOP includes dozens of pages of regulatory text, including precise requirements for record-keeping, composting, and handling of goods, as well as specifying acceptable and prohibited treatments for crops.