From the Ground Up
Since it is possible for a product to come with multiple organic approvals, comprehending why there are so many, as well as how their number affects the integrity of the organics process, would certainly be of some benefit. A good way to understand how everything became so fractured is to start with the USDA.
To begin with, the USDA employs numerous proxy groups to enforce its standards on organics, instead of overseeing it directly. This is partly because, as Oldham explained, there were organic certifiers in place before the USDA had official standards. These groups, like the Texas Department of Agriculture, which monitors SOS From Texas’ cotton growth, were assimilated into the USDA’s program once it came into existence. Other organizations, like trade unions or risk-management firms, popped up after the national program’s birth and became approved to certify under USDA standards.
Then, of course, the USDA is restricted by U.S. borders, which is why there are even more groups for certification overseas. The USDA has accredited some groups in certain countries to act on its behalf, however, certifiers do not exist in every country. Certain major growers, like China and India, are not covered by the USDA, so buyers have to depend on the certifications and standards of independent organizations. Overseas organic cotton production is currently much greater as well, thanks to more chemically clear land being available. As opposed to waiting three years for farms to turn over in the U.S., Buckner said, “It wasn’t difficult to start [in India] because they had so much land that you could go and just grow the crops. You come into the U.S., people have fields that are sitting there ... waiting to get to that point.”
Oldham added, “Here in Texas, we probably raise the most cotton [in the U.S.], and we probably have maybe 20,000 acres, which is a very small amount, compared to all the land that’s farmed in Texas. You know, millions of acres. The standards are strict, and it takes having to go through a three-year period to get the certification, without getting the benefit.”
Buckner and Oldham both encouraged careful scrutiny with any certifying agent, USDA-related or otherwise. Oldham explained the cash flow from the booming organics industry has placed many risk-management firms and trade unions into competition with one another, each vying to be known as the best or most thorough certifier, which he added, is a good thing. However, he also pointed out the same boom has caused plenty of new certifiers to keep popping up, which may be of questionable quality.