In a Nutshell: The world of organic farming is plagued by varying interpretations of what organic actually means. The looser definitions — often adopted by large, corporate farms — tend to put small, ethically run farms at a competitive disadvantage. The Cornucopia Institute is fighting for economic justice for organic farmers who strive to stay true to the spirit and letter of the law. The nonprofit’s recent report reveals shortcomings in the organic industry and provides ratings for organic certifiers — all with the goal of empowering farmers and consumers through knowledge. While corporate operations look to maximize profit, the best organic farmers are motivated by more than money.
Careful with that kale. Step away from those strawberries. They might not be as healthy as you think.
The USDA has identified residue from 225 pesticides and pesticide breakdown products — some known as potential carcinogens — on America’s conventionally grown produce. Based on this information, the Environmental Working Group lists strawberries, spinach, and kale as the top three most contaminated produce items atop its annual Dirty Dozen list.
Of course, the most obvious way to avoid those potentially harmful pesticides is to go for the organic option.
Most people understand that organic fruits and vegetables are grown without the use of pesticides and chemicals, and organic dairies and egg farms raise livestock humanely with access to green pastures and sunshine.
If only it were that simple.
The Cornucopia Institute points out that, in reality, one company’s definition of organic can be vastly different than another’s. Additionally, words like “natural” and “humane” on foods that are not certified organic essentially mean nothing.
The discrepancy in organic labeling comes from the fact that different organic certifiers maintain disparate standards of what can be called organic. This imperfect certification and labeling system certainly may be misleading for consumers.
But the small-scale organic farms that are actually trying to make a living by producing truly organic foods in an ethical way are the ones being hit the hardest by the system.
That’s why The Cornucopia Institute strives not only to educate the public about these issues, but it works to protect family-scale organic farms in an increasingly corporate industry.
“The Cornucopia Institute engages in educational activities supporting the ecological principles and economic wisdom underlying sustainable and organic agriculture,” according to its website. “Through research and investigations on agricultural issues, The Cornucopia Institute provides needed information to consumers, family farmers, and the media.”
Cornucopia Serves as a Watchdog for Small, Organic Farmers and Advocates on Their Behalf
“The industry has hemorrhaged farmers off the land for many decades,” said Mark Kastel, who after nearly 15 years recently stepped down as Executive Director of The Cornucopia Institute, the organization he co-founded.
Kastel said the challenges small organic farms are facing today originated in the 1980s, as large corporate farms began edging out smaller competitors. Over the years, corporations have co-opted the organic farming industry’s image while gradually shifting truly organic practices into more ethically questionable approaches common to large-scale commercial farms.
“Almost every major organic brand is controlled by a handful of big food companies — many times hiding behind a facade,” Kastel said. “You’ll never see the General Mills logo on Cascadian Farms products or the Kellogg’s branding on Kashi products.”
Kastel said he and Co-Founder Will Fantle started The Cornucopia Institute to look closer at the dairy farming industry but the group’s mission quickly expanded.
“We’re a farm policy research group, but we’re best known as an industry, government, and corporate watchdog,” Kastel said.
The Cornucopia Institute takes a variety of different approaches in advocating for family-scale organic farms, he said, because it’s not always clear which methods are going to be the most effective in various situations.
In the past, the organization has been very active in the regulatory arena, using political engagement and lawsuits as tactics a number of times. But Kastel said those methods can be slow and frustrating.
More recently, The Cornucopia Institute has been working to empower wholesale buyers and sellers by providing them with the information they need to make good decisions.
“We do research projects on different sectors of the industry — organic dairy, organic eggs, soy, cereal,” Kastel said. “It helps to put consumers in the driver’s seat. There is a higher authority than the USDA, and that’s the consumer.”
Consumers who buy organic tend to be label readers and do more research on the foods they are consuming, he said. “That’s been our secret weapon — the truth.”
The Nonprofit’s Latest Report Rates Organic Certifiers and Exposes Shortcomings in the Industry
In March, The Cornucopia Institute released what it stated is perhaps the most provocative piece of research in its 15-year history — an investigative analysis on the organic industry and a guide that rates all 45 domestic certifiers.
“The USDA’s poor oversight of federally accredited third-party certifiers has paved the way for illegal output from ‘factory farms’ that now dominate the $50 billion organic market basket,” according to a news release from the institute.
The Cornucopia Institute alleges that many organic certifiers have evolved from nonprofits dedicated to promoting ethical, humane, and sustainable organic farming practices into large corporations that are more focused on pursuing relationships with multibillion-dollar corporate agribusinesses.
The report primarily focuses on three key issues within the organic industry.
- Rather than grazing in pastures, as required by law, cows in giant industrial dairies spend most of their lives on unclean feedlots and are pushed for high milk production. This results in short lives for the animals and nutritionally deficient milk.
- Large scale, conventional egg producers house up to 200,000 birds in a single building with small enclosed porches serving as federally-mandated access to outdoor spaces.
- Companies are producing hydroponically-grown fruits and vegetables or importing them from other countries, rather than adhering to USDA standards of soil stewardship, which provide superior nutritional value and taste.
Through its scorecard, The Cornucopia Institute identified wide variances in how organic certifiers interpret regulations. The broad variation often works to the benefit of large corporate farms and puts smaller, ethically-run farms at a competitive disadvantage.
Food processors and farms pay the certifying companies for their services, which can lead to relationships with an inherent conflict of interest. This industry structure can also lead to products being certified as organic that are not in line with how most consumers would interpret the meaning of organic.
The Cornucopia Institute’s report and scorecard can empower farmers to make more informed choices regarding the certifiers they choose to do business with.
“For the first time, farmers will be able to invest their hard-earned money with certifiers based on their dedication to maintaining a fair and balanced playing field in the competitive market for organic food,” said Marie Burcham, a Cornucopia attorney and policy analyst in the news release.
More Than Money: Family Farmers are Motivated by Passion and Community Involvement
“We think that organics is the best economic development vehicle that we’ve seen in rural America for generations,” Kastel said. “Through our research and reports, we’re trying to put that genie back in the bottle and give power back to those family farms.”
Small-scale, family farms will have more opportunities to thrive as they — and consumers — are armed with more knowledge, he said.
“The vast preponderance of organic farmers are honest, and they are following the spirit and letter of the law because they want to — not because USDA oversight is particularly rigorous,” Kastel said.
Those farmers aren’t in it just for the money, he said. They are entrepreneurs and authentic practitioners who display their values through their farming practices and business relationships.
“They also know they need to have a relationship with the consumer and meet higher expectations,” Kastel said. “They are great stewards of the land — they raise cows with names, not numbers; they are deeply involved in their communities.”
And when farmers do well, their communities do well, he said.
Kastel also pointed out that he has seen some large farms that operate ethically, but the larger the farm, the more challenging it becomes to remain true to the nature of what organic means for many consumers.
When organizations pay dividends to society through better management of land and a more humane animal husbandry model, it results in economic justice for farmers and nutritionally superior food for consumers, he said.
“Does organic truly mean all that or is it just a marketing slogan, and is it just about corporate profit?” Kastel asked. “We’re using our secret weapon, which is empowering industry stakeholders, to protect what we’ve built together and what it means to be organic.”