Sunday, February 25, 2007

Third Party Organic Certifiers

Bru's Note: This was originally posted as a diary on Daily Kos, as part of the excellent Recipe for America series started by Kossack OrangeClouds115. Recipe for America, along with OrangeClouds's popular Vegetables of Mass Destruction series, seeks to inform citizens about how to transform our food system into a sustainable one. They are some of Daily Kos's most useful and informative diaries, in my opinion, offering advice that can be carried out immediately to make the world a better place in which to live. I also recommend the Recipe for America website, which cross-posts the Daily Kos diaries and has a lot more juicy information.

Nearly 100 third party certifiers do the leg work behind that familiar green seal on the organic food you buy. They are farmers' associations, nonprofits, state departments of agriculture, businesses, and other organizations. They are accredited to certify different steps of the organic food production process.

Each organization is different. Their job qua certifier is to ensure that growers and producers stay chemical fertilizer- and pesticide-free, but that doesn't necessarily say anything about their positions on other food issues: source of food, treatment of workers, and so forth.

Below the fold is an introduction to third party certifiers.

Meat Beets and Potatoes Info

The USDA calls third party organic certifiers Accredited Certifying Agents (ACAs). There are 95 total ACAs: 55 from the US and 40 foreign. Thirty-six different US states have at least one ACA. California alone, not surprisingly, has 13, almost 1/4 of all US ACAs, and they're all in Berkeley...juuuust kidding. The agriculture departments of 14 states (Colorado, Iowa, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, Nevada, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, and Washington) are ACAs. In two other states, different government entities are certifiers: the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management and the New Mexico Organic Commodity Commission.

One organization, Integrity Certified International (Nebraska), which became accredited (PDF) April 29, 2002, surrendered its accreditation October 31, 2006. I couldn't find any information on why they did this, but it could just be that they decided to focus on priorities other than running a certification program.

Another organization, American Food Safety Institute International (Wisconsin), had its accreditation revoked, the first revocation in the history of the NOC. AFSII "allowed an organic farm to use banned chemicals and broke several other federal regulations" (Dallas Morning News - PDF). More:
A report from the [National Organic Program] investigation said the company certified a seed farm that was treated with banned chemicals even after another certifier turned the farm down for that reason.

It also allowed a bottled-water company to use the USDA Organic label despite federal rules against designating water as organic.
Whoops! Now what kind of company would do stupid things like that?
American Food Safety is a four-person company overseeing about 30 organic operations in seven states and Mexico, according to USDA records.

It is part of the High Sierra Group, which also owns companies that make specialty chemicals for the food industry. [Ibid]
I'm not going to turn this into an investigative diary on a chemical company, but there are a few odd things about AFSI that I couldn't pass up. It was run out of the founder's car as late as 1999. In 2000, when its headquarters were finally located in something without wheels, AFSI (not to be confused with AFSII, which was separate) gave birth to The High Sierra Chemical Company. (Source: link below)

Now, the group could be a decent organization apart from its organic certification noncompliance -- I'm not going to pull a Seymour Hersh here and write a 10,000-word article on it -- but it certainly violated its own core principles on this one:
Be honest, forthright and candid with each customer. The customer may not always be right - we are straight forward!
OK, my penchant for tangents has manifested itself here. Back to the basic information on international certifiers.

The 40 foreign ACAs come from 19 different countries. (Keep in mind these are only certifiers accredited by the USDA.) Here is the breakdown by country, ordered by most to least ACAs:

Germany - 8
Italy - 6
Argentina - 4
Canada - 4
Australia - 2
Spain - 2
Switzerland - 2
Austria - 1
Bolivia - 1
Brazil - 1
Chile - 1
Costa Rica - 1
Greece - 1
Guatemala - 1
Israel - 1
Mexico - 1
Netherlands - 1
Peru - 1
Turkey - 1

Responsibilities

ACAs are responsible for (PDF):
1) Conducting certification activities according to the regulations.
2) Ensuring certified clients comply with all requirements of the NOP regulations.
3) Ensuring compliance with labeling requirements of products of operations they certify.
4) Approving organic systems plans for each operation they certify prior to onsite inspections.
5) Approving all inputs, ingredients, and other materials used by certified operations prior to their use.
6) Conducting annual onsite inspections of certified operations to verify implementation of an approved organic systems plan.
7) Issuing certification decisions and certificates in compliance with NOP regulations.
8) Issuing notices of noncompliance and suspending or revoking the certification of clients that do not comply with the NOP regulations.
9) Reporting adverse actions against certifiers to the NOP, including notices of noncompliance, proposed suspension, proposed revocation, suspension, revocation, or denial of certification to the AMS Compliance office.
10) Obtaining NOP approval for reinstatement of suspended or revoked operations prior to recertification.
11) Submitting annual updates of application information and annual reports of operations certified to the NOP.
12) Maintaining records as required in the NOP regulations.
Accreditation periods last for five years. Near the end of the period, the ACA must apply for renewal. ACAs must submit annual reports to the National Organic Program and correct any deficiencies found in their certification process. ACAs can become accredited to certify four different types of operations: crops, livestock, wild crop harvest, or handling (e.g. processing).

A Few Good Certifiers

Here are a few examples of popular organic certifiers.

Oregon Tilth

Oregon Tilth is a nonprofit research and education membership organization dedicated to biologically sound and socially equitable agriculture. Tilth's history begins in 1974, as an agricultural organization with a unique urban-rural outlook. Primarily an organization of organic farmers, gardeners and consumers, Tilth offers educational events throughout the state of Oregon, and provides organic certification services to organic growers, processors, and handlers internationally.
By including "socially equitable," Oregon Tilth addresses not only the growing process but also one of the issues discussed in OrangeClouds's recent VMD diary on organic standards. Here's more:
Oregon Tilth advocates sustainable approaches to agricultural production systems and processing, handling and marketing.

Oregon Tilth's purpose is to educate gardeners, farmers, legislators, and the general public about the need to develop and use sustainable growing practices that promote soil health, conserve natural resources, and prevent environmental degradation while producing a clean and healthful food supply for humanity.

[snip]

We provide speakers for groups and organizations interested in the work of Oregon Tilth or in specific topics such as gardening, alternatives to pesticides, composting, and food safety. Oregon Tilth coordinates conferences, produces events locally, and makes presentations at fairs, educational events, and trade shows throughout the region.
Oregon Tilth's organic program (OTCO) also works with retailers and restaurants (who do not need certification to sell organic products as long as they are not also processors, but who must nonetheless follow certain regulations).

Quality Assurance International

With a name that is on the other side of the "earthiness" spectrum from "Tilth," the San Diego-based QAI is one of the largest certifiers in the world. Their client list includes 976 operations! Here you'll find some of the large agribusinesses and their subsidiaries -- ConAgra, Nestle, Odwalla (Coca Cola) -- though needless to say they also certify independently-owned companies like Amy's Kitchen and Nature's Best. Don't think they're too corporate, though: they still wear flip-flops to staff meetings (or at least one guy does). I guess you can do that in San Diego. (You can even train for Antarctic marathons there.)

Bru's Soapbox

Organic certification says nothing about distance the food travels from land to plate, nor how workers on farms are treated, nor size of farm. However, ACAs can choose which operations they certify, and they can establish their own standards for which operations are eligible for their certification. Oregon Tilth, for example, clearly places an emphasis on smaller farms. According to their 2000-04 farms and handling statistics the average US farm certified by OTCO was 211 acres. About 66% of the 412 US farms they certified were located in Oregon, and they had an average acreage of 141. The farm size range with the most OTCO certifications was 10 to 50 acres, which included 121 farms. The third-highest range was under 10 acres (93 farms). Only 46 farms they certified were over 500 acres.

The problem is that large processors who get produce from long supply lines will still be able to find a certifier even if some certifiers emphasize locally sold products and smaller farms. The onus will still be on us, the consumers, to scrutinize labels, if we want to push organic foods up to even higher standards.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Don't Blame Environmentalists

Grist recently interviewed the Iago-esque Republican pollster and message framer, Frank Luntz, who ended up saying a lot of things that were wrong. He also said environmentalists are "mean," which is a variation of the commonly-used conservative canard meant to deflect attention from the vast amount of harm the conservative mindset has wreaked on our natural environment.

In the interview, Luntz said the environment wasn't a big issue in the 2006 elections (baselessly dismissing Dick Pombo's demise as something other than his anti-environmental zealotry), implying that it was environmentalists' fault because Americans generally think of them as being too extreme.

I'm not against this interview in general. It's good to be open to what the opposition has to say, and try to learn from it. And Luntz did give credit where credit is due: complimenting Al Gore for bringing a concern for global warming into the mainstream. And I agree with the very first item mentioned in the interview - a 2003 Luntz memo stating that the environment was the "probably the single issue on which Republicans...are most vulnerable."

But I felt the need to address the implication that environmentalism is too extreme, and that that's what's keeping it a lower-priority issue. Below is an expanded version of a comment I posted in the comments section of the interview. I think it gets at a central point of environmental ethics: most environmentalists' message is reasonable; that it's seen as extreme is a function of people not wanting to change their lifestyle (rather than it being too difficult to follow the message).

* * *
*Everyone* cares about the environment

As long as they don't have to do anything about it.

See, the problem with saying that everyone cares about the environment is that it is so watered down as to not mean anything.

There is an infinite difference between a nebulous, nonbinding "care" (kind of like how everyone "cares" about starving children in Africa) and actually doing something about it.

It's more plausible that most Americans view environmentalists' message as too extreme because any message that calls for us to scale back our fossil fuel gluttony falls on the extremity of our probable action spectrum. If you tell a fat guy who eats potato chips and watches TV all day to run a mile, he'll see it as extreme. But running a mile isn't that extreme for younger people who stay healthy and active. It's a question of perspective. Watering down your message to fit the perspective of the average American will make the message ineffective in dealing with the environmental issues of our time. Sometimes, the best thing to do is difficult or radical. The fact that it's difficult or radical doesn't make it undesirable, which is the connotation of "extreme" when the label is heaped on environmentalists.

So I reject Luntz's implication that environmentalists are to blame for their message not being more popular. True (i.e. non-light-green) environmentalists have an uphill battle because what they're asking for -- conservation -- albeit ethical, is challenging. It's "hard work," as Bush is fond of saying.

American culture has shaped us to be hard working, but this applies to our work schedule, not our self-restraint. Especially since the hubris of World War II victory was channeled into the splurge of suburbia, we have been incapable as a people of restricting our energy and land use, and thus our deleterious impact on the natural environment.

That is why "efficiency" mitigations are now extremely popular, but conservation is lagging behind. There are 1,000 praises for hybrid vehicles for every praise for biking. There are 1,000 accolades for Wal-Mart's fluorescent light ambitions for every call to buy local food. There are 1,000 reminders to keep your tires properly inflated to every mention of Smart Growth. Don't get me wrong; I think efficiency mitigations are an essential element of a comprehensive solution, and that hybrid cars can be a good thing for people who are in situations where a car is convenient (especially if they used them through a car-sharing service rather than owning them). It's just that they are mitigations: they're much easier to implement in one's own lifestyle, but they are also less effective in the overall picture.

This uncovers the hypocritical juxtaposition of the term "conservation" in Luntz's formula. He stresses the political expedience of labeling oneself a "conservationist" while simultaneously stressing the political expedience of terms that are expedient precisely because they stop short of calling for conservation: "Energy independence. Energy self-sufficiency. Energy security. Energy diversity." When no one challenges this contradictory rhetoric, you can have people who call themselves conservationists without actually calling for an ounce of energy conservation.

In my mind the real rhetorical challenge for American environmentalists has been, and will continue to be, dissolving the Catch-22 whereby their message is only popular when it's insubstantial, and always unpopular when it's substantial. Their challenge is to dissolve it before it's too late.

As George Monbiot says, "My fear is not that people will stop talking about climate change. My fear is that they will talk us to Kingdom Come." Talking us to Kingdom Come: that sounds like an apt description of Frank Luntz's job.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

From Cape Cod to Cape Hatteras: Wind Energy

From Renewable Energy Access (via BloggerJohn at Daily Kos):
February 7, 2007
Mid-Atlantic Offshore Wind Potential: 330 GW
by Tracey Bryant

The wind resource off the Mid-Atlantic coast could supply the energy needs of nine states from Massachusetts to North Carolina, plus the District of Columbia -- with enough left over to support a 50 percent increase in future energy demand -- according to a study by researchers at the University of Delaware (UD) and Stanford University.

[snip]

The scientists examined current wind-turbine technologies to determine the depth of the water and the distance from shore the wind turbines could be located. They also defined "exclusion zones" where wind turbines could not be installed, such as major bird flyways, shipping lanes, chemical disposal sites, military restricted areas, borrow sites where sediments are removed for beach renourishment projects, and "visual space" from major tourist beaches.

[snip]

The scientists' estimate of the full-resource, average wind power output of 330 gigawatts over the Middle Atlantic Bight is based on the installation of 166,720 wind turbines, each generating up to 5 megawatts of power. The wind turbines would be located at varying distances from shore, out to 100 meters of water depth, over an ocean area spanning more than 50,000 square miles, from Cape Cod to Cape Hatteras.

In comparison to the oil and natural gas resources of the Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf -- the submerged land that lies seaward from 3 miles offshore and is under federal jurisdiction -- the researchers found that the shelf's reported energy sources would amount to only one-tenth of the wind resource and would be exhausted in 20 years.
Currently, the US gets about 6% of our energy from renewable sources. Almost all of this 6% comes from hydroelectric power and biomass, two somewhat controversial renewable energy sources. Wind power still accounts for only 0.14% of our total energy. Solar energy accounts for even less: 0.063%. (Remember, this is total energy, not just electricity generation.)

However, wind is the second largest growing energy source in the US, behind, unfortunately, natural gas. The investment wheel is starting to turn for wind energy, but it needs to speed up. With the finding described in the fourth paragraph excerpted above, on relative energy potential of oil and gas versus wind, this study challenges the assumption that fossil fuels are the rule and renewables are the exception. On the contrary, by definition, nonrenewable resources are burned up and become the exception, whereas renewable resources become the rule, by definition.

This study should be a huge eye-opener for the American public and those in the halls of Congress. It should be a huge eye-opener for those who have some vague skepticism which says that renewable energy cannot play more than a minor role in supplying our nation's energy demand. It should be a huge eye-opener for those that stubbornly maintain that nuclear power is the only way out of our energy and global warming crises. It is time to accept that renewable energy plus efficiency plus conservation can carry us into a sustainable future. It has always just been a matter of will.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Of Groundhogs, Shadows, Global Warming, and Winter (Or Lack Thereof)

On Friday morning, at approximately 7:25 AM, day will break over the small Pennsylvanian town of Punxsutawney, and the world's most famous groundhog (envied by many rivals) will be called upon to make his yearly prognostication. Yet if Phil's great charge were retrospection, he would see his shadow just about as well as Bush saw WMDs in Iraq. (Remember the rubric: shadow = more winter; no shadow = spring is coming.)

[Insert cute, public domain closeup of Punxsutawney Phil here.]

That is because, save Denver, the first part of winter seemed more like a mere shadow in many parts of the country. Of course, far be it sensible to cite only a pushover half of one winter as proof of global warming (although in Pat Robertson's case, we'll take it), but far be it necessary as well, because much stronger evidence is available:

* every year since 1992 has been warmer than 1992;
* the ten hottest years on record occurred in the last 15;
* every year since 1976 has been warmer than 1976;
* the 20 hottest years on record occurred in the last 25;
* every year since 1956 has been warmer than 1956; and
* every year since 1917 has been warmer than 1917.
Ever increasingly, the public is seeing the light of global warming research and how the connection between our greenhouse gas emissions and the occurrence and future threat of climatic and meteorological disasters is begging us to take dedicated and substantial steps now to decrease their likelihood. In similar terms, we need to Step It Up.

Which brings me back to shadows, for they, unfortunately, have obscured some of that light, and I don't mean cute groundhog shadows. I mean a coordinated cavalry of shadows commanded by a few corporations and think tanks (exxonsecrets.org website down) and a few pundits and politicians (like Jim Inhofe taking on the dual roles of both shadow puppeteer and puppet). If you haven't lived the last few years in shadow, you know this is happening. But a new report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, Atmosphere of Pressure: Political Interference in Federal Climate Science, uncovers the extent of it.
Out of concern that inappropriate political interference and media favoritism are compromising federal climate science, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and the Government Accountability Project (GAP) undertook independent investigations of federal climate science. UCS mailed a questionnaire to more than 1,600 climate scientists at seven federal agencies to gauge the extent to which politics was playing a role in scientists' research....

[snip]

At the same time, GAP conducted 40 in-depth interviews with federal climate scientists and other officials and analyzed thousands of pages of government documents, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and inside sources, regarding agency media policies and congressional communications.

These two complementary investigations arrived at similar conclusions regarding the state of federal climate research: while scientists hold a high regard for the quality of federal climate change research, there is broad interference in communicating scientific results.
The report shows that Jim Hansen, NASA's top climate scientist, is not alone. In fact, it now takes a whole periodic table to catalogue all the politically-motivated meddling in communicating scientific findings to the public.

Which is really bad, because, God forbid, petty politics can actually have dire consequences in real life. Living, breathing, loving humans live in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, and New Orleans. Remember that, oh shadow casters. They would like to try to enjoy life and pursue happiness without the presence or increased threat of flood-and-hurricane, drought, and hurricane-and-flood, respectively. In the short and long runs, is a little bit of profitability really worth the sustained ignorance of the severity of global warming? Of course not. I hate to break it to you, but your shadows actually affect the state of the world. Negatively, we can reasonably conclude.

Fortunately, the rhetorical chunks of ice from which global warming skeptics cast their shadows are melting more and more every day (like, unfortunately, the real chunks of ice upon which polar bears depend for food.) One wonders how the skeptics will react this weekend, because Phil won't be the only one prognosticatin' on Friday. (In fact, Dunkirk Dave would be quick to interject that Phil won't even be the only groundhog prognosticatin' on Friday.) That is the day the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will release the first part of its 4th Assessment Report.
The IPCC report due out on Friday is likely to contain stronger wording than its previous assessment, in 2001, on the likelihood that human activities are principally responsible for the climatic changes observed around the world. (BBC News)
There has been some uncertainty as to what extent of sea level rises the report will predict, but a recent announcement (see above link) by the World Glacier Monitoring Service that "[m]ountain glaciers are shrinking three times faster than they were in the 1980s" may have an effect on the wording.

So if Punxsutawney Phil or Dunkirk Dave or Shubenacadie Sam or Balzac Billie or Staten Island Chuck or -- you get the picture -- if any of our esteemed panel of rodent meteorologists sees his or her shadow and foreshadows (no pun intended) six more weeks of winter, it may be the only recourse left for climate skeptics. ("But Phil is correct 100% of the time," John Stossel could tell Fox and Friends. "But the groundhogs are American; that climate report is French," Glenn Beck could point out on his CNN show.)

Personally, I think it would be cool (albeit anti-climactic [albeit pro-climatic]) for Phil himself to present the final draft of the IPCC assessment to the anxious Punxsutawney crowd, and, by virtue of his fame, the American public at large. Who would listen to some boring UN spokesperson?

In lieu of that, we can use Friday's meteorological messages to spread the word about what each one of us can do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions:

1. Step It Up 2007 - April 14, 2007, save the date. It will be, by far, the world's largest collective rally on global warming. Individual rallies are springing up all around the country, 508 in 45 states, at the time I'm writing this.

2. Smart Growth - A key to more sustainable cities

3. Rethink our food system. Buy local, organic when and where you can. Visit Recipe for America.