Many shoppers have heard about the high environmental costs of palm oil. Take, for example, the fact that much of Indonesia’s lush rainforests have been cleared to plant palm fruit trees, causing a steep spike in carbon emissions and destroying habitats that were home to endangered species such as the orangutan. But many consumers also likely assume that buying products made with organic palm oil eliminates those costs.
And yet, the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Organic seal doesn’t guarantee that rainforests were not destroyed in order to produce palm oil—or any other raw ingredient. That’s because of a loophole in the USDA organic standards.
“You can look on a lot of organic [food] packaging and see that palm oil is used, and we as consumers have no idea [whether its production involved deforestation],” said Jo Ann Baumgartner, executive director of the Wild Farm Alliance.
The same conundrum applies to the recent Amazon fires, she adds. Farmers who want to grow organic crops “could burn down the forest and get certification the next day.”
Whether in Indonesia, the Amazon, or here in the U.S., USDA organic regulations mandate that farmers must “maintain or improve the natural resources” on their farms, but there is no written requirement that addresses the natural resources that existed before the farm was established.
Meanwhile, the standards do require that conventional farmland cannot be certified until it has been farmed without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers for three years. In some places, that three-year transition—in which the farm often has greater costs and sees a drop in yields—has essentially created an unwritten economic incentive to clear untouched ecosystems. In other words, if land that has never been farmed can be certified right away, it’s more profitable to farm that to wait three years.
Many farmers choose to grow food organically because they believe in the environmental and health benefits and consider the destruction of vulnerable ecosystems anathema to the label’s promise. But as organic has become big business, companies that are in it for the higher profits have often pounced on shortcuts.
“Right now, we basically encourage [ecosystem destruction in the name of organic],” said Harriet Behar, an organic farmer, educator, and current member of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). “It’s incredibly important that we protect… the last of these pristine and incredibly diverse and important ecosystems.”
For the past few years, the NOSB, which advises the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) on changes to the regulations, has been working to fix that loophole. In 2018, it passed a formal recommendation on “Eliminating the Incentive to Convert Native Ecosystems to Organic Production,” but NOP has not moved forward on taking it through the rulemaking process.
Under President Trump’s administration, there has been considerable friction between the organic industry and the NOP, which has been moving very few NOSB recommendations forward and has reversed course on some issues. It reversed a widely supported update to animal welfare rules for organic meat production, for example, and slowed down an update to a rule affecting small dairy farmers by reopening it for comment rather than finalizing it.
While it’s not clear when or if the ecosystem loophole will get addressed, advocacy and industry organizations are working in the meantime on projects to help organic farmers maintain natural ecosystems and increase biodiversity on the land they’re already farming.
Grappling with Unintended Consequences
According to Baumgartner, NOSB members brought up the issue of ecosystem destruction for organic production as early as 2009. However, the Wild Farm Alliance began leading the charge to address the issue within the last few years, and it was on the NOSB agenda for three meetings in 2017 and 2018.
In comments provided to the NOSB, Wild Farm Alliance provided examples of situations that demonstrated the need to close the loophole, referencing reports and anonymous comments from individuals in its network.
“This summer I witnessed the tilling of native short grass prairie in the western Colorado Plains…to grow corn, milo, and wheat,” one organic inspector said. “In most cases the farmers are conventional farmers who are trying their hand at organic agriculture since they don’t have a conversion period.” Another comment described wetlands being drained and converted to organic vegetable production in New Mexico.
The fix that NOSB ultimately proposed was that if land that included native ecosystems was cleared for farming, it would not be eligible for organic certification for 10 years, a waiting period the board hoped would disincentivize the practice since it was much longer than the three-year period for converting conventional farmland.
While many issues invoke intense disagreement within the organic industry, the vast majority of individuals who submitted written comments and spoke at meetings supported the proposal. The diverse group of organizations included Consumers Union, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Organic Trade Association (OTA).
“There was support for this recommendation on the principle that organic farming should not result in destruction of native ecosystems. That’s the baseline, agreeable position,” said OTA farm policy director Johanna Mirenda. But OTA was one of many groups that had concerns related to the potential economic impact on small organic farms, particularly small dairies in the Northeastern U.S. that border forested areas.
“These farmers are not choosing to log land because the conversion period is faster… it’s the only land that is available for them to expand onto,” said Britt Lundgren, the director of organic and sustainable agriculture at Stonyfield, at the Spring 2018 NOSB meeting. “The primary threat to the health of native ecosystems in the northeast is not agriculture. It’s development.” And if a farmer can’t develop the land themselves, they may sell to a developer.
“If organic agriculture is going to remain a viable business in the Northeast in the face of immense development pressure, organic farms need to be able to expand in the most efficient way,” Lundgren added.
Maine organic farmer Jim Gerritsen also testified at the spring 2018 meeting, and his main concern was whether the rule change would allow the USDA to prevent farms like his from clearing forested land on their properties that had been farmed before but had grown back in recent decades.
On his 56-acre farm, Gerritsen cleared 37 acres of trees off of land that had been farmed in the 1960s. “We simply want to take the trees off of it and farm it. I know there are other farms in Maine in that situation, and they don’t have enough farmland to be viable,” he says.
While Gerritson calls the idea of preventing native ecosystems from destruction “a laudable concept,” he adds, “sometimes when you come up with a policy on a macro level, it works against the reality of the farm.”
Since most of the land owned by these farmers in the Northeast had been previously farmed, NOSB devised with a compromise: It updated the language in the new rule to define “native ecosystems” in a more specific way that they say will mean the 10-year waiting period would not apply to farmers like Gerritson.
And while other organic programs around the world have passed outright bans on converting native ecosystems, NOSB saw the 10-year waiting period as a way to make sure the rule did not discourage transitioning to organic more generally, especially since vulnerable ecosystems are routinely cleared to be farmed conventionally.
For example, a farmer could buy land that had been previously cleared of a native ecosystem and was then farmed using chemical fertilizers and pesticides. If that farmer wanted to switch to organic and gain certification, an outright ban on that land ever being certified organic would prevent that. A 10-year waiting period would not.
“There needed to be a strong disincentive, but not so far that it could deter organic production altogether,” said the OTA’s Mirenda. “The ultimate goal is to have more organic production.”
After updates to the language were made, the NOSB voted nearly unanimously in May 2018 to pass the Eliminating the Incentive to Convert Native Ecosystems to Organic Production recommendation. After a recommendation is made, it is NOP’s job to put it on the rulemaking agenda, develop a proposed rule, open it up for public comment, and then develop a final rule that incorporates those comments.
Fostering On-Farm Ecosystems
When asked about the recommendation, a USDA spokesperson told Civil Eats that the issue of native ecosystems isn’t currently on the rulemaking agenda and that the agency is primarily focused on the Strengthening Organic Enforcement and the Origin of Livestock proposed rules.
Some advocates, meanwhile, are working to strengthen the organic standard’s provisions on on-farm ecosystem preservation and natural resource stewardship in other ways.
For example, Wild Farm Alliance, located in Watsonville, California, near a number of large organic produce growers, worked on writing guidance that would help certifiers better evaluate whether organic farms are meeting the requirement to “maintain or improve the natural resources of the operation, including soil and water quality,” and the NOP published that guidance in 2016.
In collaboration with the Organic Center, it also recently created a tool that farmers and certifiers can use to track and improve biodiversity on farms.
“There are all kinds of studies showing that having more natural habitat in the agricultural landscape will increase beneficial biodiversity,” said Amber Sciligo, the manager of science programs at The Organic Center, a non-profit organic research organization. And, she adds, more biodiversity on or beside the farm is known to be beneficial.
For instance, one recent study found that more abundance and diversity of insects was associated with increased crop yields. Another study found that increased biodiversity leads to larger bird populations on farms, and that while some birds can act as pests, they can also control other, smaller pests. Balancing the needs of different species—including some that may not benefit the farm in a simple or obvious way—is part of organic’s promise. And yet when it’s taken seriously, it pays off.
“Overall what we’re seeing at a regional level is that in most situations, the gains [of biodiversity]outweigh the costs,” said Sciligo.
Many of the farmers who truly believe in and implement organic production methods live that reality day after day, Baumgartner said, which is one reason to ensure that the higher price point doesn’t inadvertently incentivize environmental destruction.
“There are many farms that have native ecosystems on their property that they’ve never destroyed,” she added. “We were hearing farmers say, ‘It isn’t fair that somebody else can cut down a native ecosystem. We’ve been conserving ours.’”