The Great Debate on Certification

Posted on August 13, 2013

NOFA_circle.pngI don’t think of myself as a debater but on Saturday night at the NOFA Summer Conference in Amherst, MA, I found it difficult to stay seated.

The topic was “Is organic certification right for you?” and the debaters were four farmers – two certified organic, one Certified Naturally Grown, and one not certified. One of the organic farmers was Atina Diffley, the conference keynote speaker, renowned activist, and author of the memoir “Turn Here Sweet Corn: Organic Farming Works”.

The event organizers wanted to explore the reasons why many young farmers are choosing not to go through the USDA organic certification process, and set it up as two “pro” positions (the certified organic farmers) and two “con” positions (the CNG and non-certified farmer). 

Denisons.pngAs far as debates go, it was pretty tame. None of the debaters took the opportunity to challenge their “opponents”. If anything, they were unified in their commitment to farming organically. And that’s a good thing. The CNG farmer – Justine Denison of Denison Farm – objected to her being placed in the “con” category, as if she was against organic certification. On the contrary, she appreciates its value in the marketplace and the ease of communication it affords.

Justine and her husband Brian (pictured above) produce food for two farmers' markets and their 500 member CSA. Having farmed conventionally in years past, and paid dearly for it with their health, they’re fully committed to using organic methods now, and they are grateful for the option to be CNG. I’m grateful for their willingness to come to the debate during this very busy season, after working a full day at the farmers market!

Atina_Diffley.pngFor us the panel raised an important question: should CNG be understood to be in opposition to the National Organic Program? I certainly don’t think so. When it came time for audience participation, I jumped in to underscore Atina Diffley’s opening thought: I too want us to hold onto the vision that some day organic farming will be the norm. Having a strong and respected National Organic Program (NOP) is a key part of achieving that vision. But (and here’s where I part ways with some organic leaders) it’s not enough, and CNG has an essential role to play in realizing this vision. Indeed, in several countries throughout the world, peer-review programs like CNG are an important part the official organic certification process, designed to help ensure smallholders participate. 

While many people see no inherent conflict between the NOP and CNG, the sense of competition or tension persists in some quarters. There is a kind of long-simmering friction around the question of organic certification and alternatives, with strong passions and sometimes unkind words expressed on both sides. I commend the spirit in which the NOFA organizers put together this evening, with an intention to further open a dialogue about the organic movement and certification.

To keep this movement growing, we need an alternative like CNG that’s tailored specifically to small-scale producers selling locally who are committed to farming without synthetic inputs or GMOs. Such an alternative is an important complement to the organic program. If farmers only had the National Organic Program, many of them wouldn’t get certified at all, they wouldn’t have annual on-farm inspection reviews, nor would they have a marketing tool to help them succeed and promote the values of the organic movement.

CNG gives these farmers a home, and supports new farmers working to build their operations, many of whom will eventually want to access wholesale markets and opt for organic certification.

The debate organizer and moderator, Jack Kittredge, asks “whether the idealism that fueled the organic movement is still at work today, and if so, where it feels most at home.” I’d answer with a resounding “yes”. This idealism is alive and thriving, and it has found homes in new and perhaps unexpected places: in the inner city, in southern states like Georgia, North Carolina, Mississippi, and Alabama, in poorer communities, and surely the idealism of the organic movement is at home within Certified Naturally Grown.