First Person Certified, Part II

April 24, 2015

I first wrote about first person certified food back in 2010, inspired at one of our field days by all of you: our customers. I was responding to a question about whether or not we were certified organic. My response: “We’re first person certified.” I had just returned from a trip to Washington D.C. where I was lobbying for healthier school lunches as part of my job at one of the nation’s largest organic food companies. It occurred to me, right there in front of 100 of our customers gathering around tables for a slow lunch on the ranch, that relationships we were building were more important than a third-party approval from politicians on the other side of the country. (I’m still in favor of healthier school lunches, sourced from local farms and ranches.)

Field Day lunch under the oaks

Building connections with farmers and consumers at our Annual Spring Field Day lunch

A food producer can’t pay to be first-person certified. You either are or you aren’t. It’s up to our customers to decide – you are our auditors and if we don’t pass your inspection, we’ve just lost a sale. Another issue with organic standards is that they were written for produce. They don’t even apply to grassfed meat production. Our own standards require that cattle are raised and finished on green grass, in open pastures and moved often to prevent overgrazing.

Organic became an issue in the 1970s and 80s in response to farmers who used the term “organic” but were spraying pesticides. Those growers who actually did follow organic practices wanted to differentiate themselves so they established a set of standards, eventually passed as the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990. The rules regulated everything from what growers could put into the soil to how crops are harvested & washed. The rules do nothing to address problems with conventional meat production. (What modifications have been made came later and were heavily influenced by the conventional meat industry: the same folks who actively work against grassfed beef producers.)

Although the dairy industry has modified organic standards to be specific to its operations, prohibiting the growth hormone BST in milk and mandating that cows at least have a view of the outdoors, the beef industry has largely tried to apply the USDA national organic standards developed for produce to its own operations, a pitiful attempt at capitalizing on the marketing value of “organic” with little attention to the health of land, animals or people. A single organic certified hamburger, for example, can be made up of ground beef from more than 100 different cows, confined in a feedlot and fed grain as long as it’s made from organic corn. Big deal. It does nothing to improve our soils, the animals’ lives, or our own health. We do not use any synthetic additives, even if they are approved organic. None of these requirements are part of the USDA’s organic standards for meat. To put time, effort and money into a certification that does not meet our own high standards is not only bad policy, it’s counterproductive to our goals of healthy rangelands, animals and people.

Our friend Douglas Gayeton of the Lexicon of Sustainability describes it this way:

Local – “Local brings you back into a relationship with the source of your food, with the land, the animals, the plants, the farmers, and with each other.”

LOCAL: The New Face of Food and Farming in America, by Douglas Gayeton

Organic –“A labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.”
– according to the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP)

Local Food System – “A regional food system is one that supports long-term connections between farmers and consumers while meeting the economic, social and health and environmental needs of communities in a region. A food system includes everything associated with growing, processing, storing, distributing, transporting and selling food. A food system is local when it allows food producers and their customers to interact face-to-face; regional systems serve larger geographical areas, often within a state or metro area.”
-Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture

Face certification – “A direct contact between farmer and consumer that creates an environment for trust and faith.”
LOCAL: The New Face of Food and Farming in America, by Douglas Gayeton

In a previous post titled Think Big. Be Informed.  I described my six years in the organic food industry, an eye-opening experience that taught me the difference between Big Organic and local food. If you care about the long-term connections between farmers and consumers and/or the economic and social impacts of your food purchases, it comes down to two, simple questions: Who made this food? and How was it produced?

Organic certification does not require that a company pay its workers a living wage or support its local community, but first person certification mandates it. I was thrilled to learn recently that the large organic produce company I lobbied for, based here in San Benito County, has joined the board of our local Chamber of Commerce, after 25 years in the community. Management is creating an environment for trust and faith in the community where the majority of their employees live, a great step toward becoming first person certified. And they don’t even need to pay for it.

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