Grace Gershuny is a widely known author, educator and organic consultant who spent many years as an organic farmer in Vermont. She was one of the founding members of the Organic Trade Association (OTA), and was recruited by the USDA the 1990s to help develop the first organic regulations. Grace jokingly tells people “I was being asked to write federal regulations and I had never even read one.” The good news for all of us is that even if when Grace took up this project she’d never read a federal regulation, she proved herself to be a fast learner.
As unfamiliar with the language of laws and regulations as Grace might have been when she started working with USDA, she did bring valuable experience to the table, having been involved in the grassroots organic movement and the creation of the Organic Trade Association. “It was a unique opportunity and I also knew that it was a dangerous opportunity, but I felt like I was positioned in a way that I could really do it, and they really wanted somebody who understood what organic was all about,” she says.
If anyone knows what organic is all about, it’s Grace Gershuny.
Grace was there at the beginning when organic was much more of a grassroots movement and far less of a market industry. As a result she’s seen her fair share of “tension between grassroots and suits” over the years. Grace sees that the bifurcation between the organic ‘movement’ and the organic ‘industry’ has often been detrimental to the progress of organic agriculture as a whole, and that situations are usually much more complex than black and white. The ruling to overturn the Organic Livestock Poultry Practices (OLPP) regulation for instance, is as huge a disappointment to Grace as it is for the rest of us, but she isn’t ready to condemn every last USDA employee because of it. “I don’t think that you can tar everything that anybody does at USDA with the same Tranbrush as the current administration might impose on the top levels,” says Grace.
So what does Grace think we should focus on for the next couple of years while leadership at the top levels of our country is not inclined to support regenerative, eco-conscious and sustainable agriculture? Listen at the link above, on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play or wherever you get your podcasts to find out.
Hear from other pioneers of the organic movement! Jerome McGeorge tells stories about organic’s beginnings and the future of agriculture. Organic Valley CEO George Siemon shares what it was like to be at the forefront of organic as a farming movement.
Transcript: Rootstock Radio Interview with Grace Gershuny
Air Date: March 26, 2018
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and it is such an honor today to be here with Grace Gershuny, who is a 40-year organic pioneer. She’s an author of The Organic Revolution [Organic Revolutionary], she’s an educator, she’s an organic consultant and an organic farmer, at least in the past. Welcome, Grace.
GRACE GERSHUNY: Thanks, Theresa. Happy to be here.
TM: It is just delightful to be speaking to the organic pioneers. Do you still farm?
GG: Yes—well, I still grow a lot of my own food and barter sometimes, but I don’t sell anything.
TM: So, Grace, you have just been in the organic industry from the very beginning. I mean, 40 years, that’s a while. That’s something to be really proud of. And I know that part of what you did was work with the USDA. Maybe you could say a little bit of what that’s like.
GG: Well, that’s why I wrote my book, Organic Revolutionary, as a memoir. It was really prompted by the whole experience at USDA. I had been involved in the grassroots organic movement and was one of the founding members of the Organic Trade Association, and all of this stuff. I was part of the organic certification early developers and ended up getting recruited by USDA to go help them develop the National Organic Program once they got some funding to hire staff—which didn’t happen until the Clinton administration.
So I agreed to give them a couple of years when I got to Washington, D.C., in the fall of 1994. What I say is I was being asked to write federal regulations and I had never even read one. So it was quite a challenge, it was quite a learning curve. And the whole story is in the book—I don’t think I can encapsulate it in a short time. But it was a unique opportunity, and I also knew that it was a dangerous opportunity.
But I felt like I was positioned in a way that I could really do it, and they really wanted somebody who understood what organic was all about and had a real commitment to doing it right. And they did have a real commitment to doing it right. And that was really what convinced me to take it on.
TM: Well, that is heartening to hear that. For our listeners, the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 actually didn’t get implemented until 2001.
GG: It was 2002 when it was officially implemented.
TM: Why did it take 12 years?
GG: Partly it was that there was no funding. When the Organic Foods Production Act was passed in 1990 it was kind of a historic miracle because it was passed despite the fact that the House Agriculture Committee did not vote for it, and the USDA didn’t want it and they were charged with implementing it. And so until the administration changed, nothing really happened. The National Organic Standards Board got some funding and began meeting early on because that was funded under a separate program, the Federal Advisory Committee Act. So they got a little bit of funding to hold meetings, and they did a lot of really good work between 1992 and 1994, when they created a set of recommendations and when USDA finally got some funding to actually begin implementing the program. So it wasn’t until I was hired, and a couple of other new people were hired at that time, that really any serious work within the agency started towards writing regulations. So that was the first thing.
And then the whole idea of creating this program that nobody at USDA had any clue how to do it. It was like an entire program that covers every aspect of agriculture, from the inputs and the seeds through to how to label the final product, and processing and all of that. It was completely unthinkable to anybody at USDA at the time. So not only did I have to learn how to write federal regulations, but I had to convince the lawyers that it was possible to do this. And it really did seem impossible to most people at USDA at the time, like it was incredible that anybody thought that this was going to happen.
So that’s part of why it took so long. But the other reason that it took so long was because we were dealing with a lot of opposition from within the organic movement that really delayed us a lot and caused, I think, caused it to become a less organic-friendly rule in the end.
TM: Very interesting. In fact, we always tease, but it’s not really that funny, about how there’s an organic circular firing squad and that there have just always been very, very high emotions. And I think that almost speaks to this idea that organic actually didn’t start out as an industry so much but as a movement. And so I wondered if you wanted to talk about that a little bit, because you were right there through that transition of the movement to the industry. What were, kind of, some of the things that organic advocates were in opposition to?
GG: Well, I think, knowing the history of the movement, at least in the modern incarnation, really came out of ’60s activism, environmentalism, anti-war, anti-government, anti-corporate agitating. And people, for very good reasons, thought that the USDA was the devil incarnate and certainly was responsible for most of the evils that, many of the evils anyway, that the organic movement was dedicated to overturning or to overcoming. And they just thought that by USDA writing standards, all was lost, and that whatever USDA came out with would inherently be anti-organic and trying to destroy the organic brand, if you will.
So I think that we were trying to overcome a huge prejudice. Some of the prejudice—most of the prejudice—was very well founded. And [we] didn’t really succeed in that and are still dealing with the consequences of that kind of thinking out there today.
TM: How is it that we were able to go from a movement to an industry? And do you still see us as a little bit more of a movement than an industry?
GG: Well, I think that we’ve become a little bit bifurcated, really, between the movement and the industry, unfortunately. I think that that’s really detrimental to everybody’s well-being. And that there’s always been this kind of tension that I call the tension between the grassroots and the suits. And that was there from the very beginning of the Organic Trade Association, which at the time was called the Organic Foods Production Association of North America.
TM: Ah, right. OFPANA.
GG: OFPANA, yes. And it just kind of continued in this vein. Some people understood that we had to become an industry and develop relationships with the bigger, national marketplace. And that’s really what made the transition happen. It was really the need for people to be able to market products across state lines. And through consolidating and processing and buying from different people in different states who were all needing slightly different standards and wouldn’t recognize each other, it was a real holy mess out there. Really, there was—
TM: I remember that!
GG: Yeah, I mean, people were having turf battles and looking down their noses at each other, saying, “Oh, their standards aren’t as tough as ours,” and “They do drive-by inspections,” and that kind of thing. And that’s really why the law ended up getting passed, was because there began to be more and more market demand for organic products, due largely to the increasing recognition by consumers that things were not right in the food system as it was.
I could talk about the infamous Alar Sunday episode, which really sparked the development of the law, that got Kathleen Merrigan pushing to write this law. She was working for Senator Leahy at the time. And really it was this exposé about Alar being used on apples that aired on 60 Minutes, and all of a sudden the next day there were all of these organic apples on display in the stores. And everybody kind of said, “No, I don’t think so. We need some kind of regulation about this.”
TM: Yeah, that certainly was one of the topics that I had with Bob Scowcroft, because he was at CCOF then. And I referred to it as the “Alar scare,” and he corrected me and said that wasn’t a scare. That was real, it was bad. It was bad for children, bad for the nervous system, bad for their health, and it was not a scare. It was real. But it certainly was something that shook up the organic industry and started, I think, people waking up to why we needed a better standard and better enforcement. And so that was actually how we organic movement folks all of a sudden found ourselves in an industry, probably, just because we needed those standards. And you really were right there in the middle of creating and helping to establish those standards, weren’t you, Grace?
GG: Yes, and actually Joe Smiley and I were both there as part of the early OFPANA, which was really founded to try to bring a little bit of unity to this confusion. And we had started working on what we called—it ended up being called the “standards of excellence” or the OFPANA guidelines, which we sat down and looked at everybody’s certification standards all over the country and basically came up with a set of guidelines that people’s standards would have to be consistent with—not be exactly the same as, but be consistent with these guidelines—in order to be accredited.
And we had an approval process that we were working on that never got off the ground. It failed because of all of the animosity and distrust and infighting within the certification industry, which, by the late ’80s, there were quite a few private certifiers—mostly nonprofit but a few state certifiers like Washington and Texas. And everybody’s standards were pretty similar. There wasn’t a whole lot of difference, but everybody wanted to say, “We’re better than you are.”
TM: If you are just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio. And I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m talking with organic pioneer Grace Gershuny, who actually was very instrumental in the developing of the organic standard. I’m just wanting to go back to the USDA for just a minute, where you spent some time, and the amount of suspicion, hostility, et cetera, that many of the organic folks had about the USDA. And you were saying that probably some of it was justified. I wonder if you had some thoughts about their current ruling on the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices.
GG: Well, I mean, I think first of all that it should be clear that USDA, as one of the oldest federal agencies, is far from a monolithic institution in which everybody walks in lockstep. It is very much each different agency within USDA—and there are 18 or 19, and they’ve reshuffled a bit recently—they each have their own culture. So I don’t think that you could tar everything that anybody does at USDA with the same brush as the current administration might impose on the top levels.
And in fact, the decision to block the livestock and poultry standard did not come from the National Organic Program or the Agricultural Marketing Service. It came from much higher up and it’s probably illegal. I believe there’s been a lawsuit filed against that decision. And it’s just an example of the ways that the current administration in Washington is creating chaos within the government and really trying to dismantle a lot of the good things that the government has done over the last 50 years or so.
So it isn’t like USDA is out to get organics, at all. I think that the major impetus for this action came from the conventional livestock industry, which absolutely never wanted to hear anything about animal welfare in anything that we did in the original National Organic Program. And we definitely wanted to have more explicit animal welfare requirements, but it wasn’t going to go anywhere without toning down that language. And so anything that even hints at the need for taking good care of livestock is really something that the conventional CAFO industry folks do not want whispered about at USDA. So I’m sure it was they that made the case that it had to be stopped.
TM: Well, you brought up a good point about how the USDA is so huge that there’s lots of different parts and they aren’t always in agreement with each other. How would you compare the USDA today, then, to the USDA that you worked with some in the ’90s? I know there was a revolving door then and there is now. It might be worse now, this revolving door of biotech employees [who] now work in the USDA, but certainly there was some of that going on then too, I think.
GG: Oh yeah, absolutely. And the biotech is an example that when we were working in our tiny little program back in the ’90s, we knew that…I mean, there was a very strong commitment amongst the staff there that we were not going to allow organic to include GMOs. And we also knew that in order to make that happen we were going to have to fight some internal battles with the agency that gives its blessing to GMOs, which is APHIS, the Animal Plant Health Inspection Service, which is run by people with revolving-door connections to the biotech industry.
So that was a major battle that we really finally won in the first go-round with the draft rules, but that we then got stymied by the Office of Management and Budget deciding that they would not approve the rule if it included prohibitions on genetic engineering and irradiation. Those were the two big things that we explicitly prohibited in the rules that we first drafted.
TM: I remember that fight.
GG: Yeah, there’s a lot of misconceptions about what actually happened and what we actually proposed. It’s a chapter that I suggest you read in my book because it’s very confusing for people who really believe, as accepted fact, that we tried to allow GMOs and irradiation.
TM: Well, for our listeners, Grace’s book, Organic Revolutionary—
GG: The subtitle is A Memoir of the Movement for Real Food, Planetary Healing, and Human Liberation.
TM: Thank you, what a great title. I know that it’s on its second edition. Well, you know one of those fights that I think distorts a lot of the real factual information or real information that you want to know is around the size of organic farms or organic businesses or organic manufacturers. You have this opposition: no, if it’s big it’s bad. What do you think about that, Grace? And especially how about during the ’90s when you were doing those standards? I’m sure those debates were happening quite a bit then as well.
GG: Oh yes! And people use terms like corporate, and there is definitely, again, there’s real reasons to distrust many corporations and to see them as trying to just, as only caring about profit and to hell with quality or serving the public or anything like that. And that’s real—that’s a very real and rational belief. But when you start accusing everybody that goes under a corporate mantle, or even divisions of a large corporation that maybe promotes a lot of products that are not very good for you but has an organic division that is trying to do something different, there’s people suspect them. I don’t know, as a teacher I struggle with the fact that a lot of people don’t have the skills of critical thinking and deconstructing arguments that are not based on fact or logic or that really just appeal to raw emotion and fear. And that’s the basis of consumer culture, I’m afraid.
And the big-versus-small thing is, again, it is so relative. And folks in the Northeast have no concept of how thousands-of-acre farms in some places can be normal and not huge, whereas there is no such thing as thousands-of-acre farms in Vermont. So it’s really a kind of difficult situation, and many people aren’t aware that even some of the large corporate or cooperative entities are actually aggregations of smaller entities who market under a common label, basically. And there’s certainly come critiques that could be made politically and economically about all of this, but the automatic fear of the big and the corporate is sometimes misplaced.
TM: I agree. What kind of advice would you give those of us so dedicated to organic? What would be the most important part of organic that you think we could focus on in the next three to five years?
GG: Well, I think that one of the things that I would say is that we need to relax a little about this worrying about the standards thing. And not worry so much about what consumers are wanting, but talk to people as citizens and human beings and not as people who are going to buy our products. And really focus more on education and, in particular, the earlier the better. And not worry about whether it’s certified organic or whatever the other ego labels are trying to promote, and look at restoring the soil.
There’s been a lot of talk about this new Regenerative Organic Certification, which, really, I think the idea of regeneration is very good but I don’t think it’s a marketing term, and it shouldn’t be a marketing term. It should be inherent in what organic is about. And maybe not all organic, certified organic production is as regenerative as some of those folks would like, but I think it certainly is way more regenerative than what we’ve got now. And the more we can promote people to use those methods, whether they choose to become certified organic and enter that market or not, we should be doing that for all that we’re worth.
TM: Excellent. At the end of the day, organic always goes back to soil. And I think that we all have to remember that, yes, we’re happy about people voting with their dollars, and the consumer, but soil is really what it’s all about. Grace, thanks so much for talking with us today.
GG: It’s a pleasure.
TM: Yeah, and also thank you for a life of dedication. And I know that there’s been a lot of frustrations and you’ve, right there, hanging in there with always trying to do the best you can. So I want to say, thank you so much.
GG: Well, thank you for acknowledging that.
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