Thursday, December 8, 2016

Grace, the Organic Revolutionary

The organic movement has managed to change the food debate quite a lot. It has been less susccessful in converting farmers than consumers though. The rise of the ”organic industry” also demonstrates the process by which the prevailing paradigm manages to defuse a theatening revolution and how the forces of competition and market adaptation transform a underground movement to a gentrified lifestyle and a government code.

Grace Gershuny was in the middle of this development for decades and she recently wrote Organic revolutionary, a memoir of the movement for real food planetary healing andhuman liberation. The book is not only about the organic movement. It blends the development of the organic sector in the USA, Grace’s family, marriages, child and other interests of Grace, including Social Ecology and Buddhism.

In 1994 Grace Gershuny accepted a staff position at the USDA’s newly formed National Organic Program (NOP). The job was to transpose the 1990 Organic Food Production Act (OFPA), into manageable rules for organic production, certification, accreditation and oversight. From that time I remember that many of my US colleagues believeed that most of the job was already done with the OFPA, but it took ten years to bring the NOP to implementation. Grace was one of the principal authors of the NOP and much of the book is about her efforts to steer the development of the rule between the demands for purity from self claimed organic grass-roots, the realities of farming, recalcitrant bosses, US government politics and the interests of businesses. 

When the proposed rule was published 1997 it was met by a virtual shitstorm. The proposed rule had the highest number of public comments ever and almost all of them were damning based on the belief that the proposal had been corrupted by agri-business.  Grace Gershuny took it hard, especially as some of the vocal criticisers were people she had been working with for years.  

Her roots were not in the humongous United States Department of Agriculture which has more than 100,000 employees. She came from a “back-to-the-land” and social activist background. Grace Gershuny and her first husband bought a derelict Vermont farmstead in 1973, and she lost 35 pounds in that first season of gardening, and was hooken on it. It is one thing to grow, another to sell and Grace ended up organizing a farmers market in 1975.

Step by step she was pulled into the job of organizer, advisor and advocate, a fate shared with many early organic acvtivists. But she didn’t cease to reflect and wanted understand how things came to be and soon enough she realised that how we farm is not determined by ideas of farming but that:

“How we treat the soil is bot a function of lack of knowledge, but of social, political and especially economic factors that demand exploitation of the earth and most humans for the sake if enriching a privileged few”.

Her quest to develop the understanding of both the human self and the human society lead to the Institute for Social Ecology, which was founded by Murray Bookchin, one of the few socialists of this time which tried to integrate the lessons of ecology into human society and political thinking; he wrote about global warming already in the sixties. But the work with the Institute as well as with the organic farmers’ organization convinced Grace Gershuny that “the greatest obstacles to our cause were an egocentric lack of empathy and compassion”. She found answers to those concerns in Shambhala Buddhism.  

But back to organic. The early organic people were strongminded people swimming against the tide. They were mostly sticky on their particular view on what was good and what was bad organic. Before the National Organic Program there were many organic organizations which certified their members as organic according to their own standards and requirements. When the market grew from local to national and international the fact that the different organizations didn’t accept the others guarantees became a major impediment for trade and an issue for constant battles about who had the higher standad. There were efforts within the movement to sort out the differences within various initiatives, but in the end, a law was needed to bring them all to the same table. This development was mimicked also in Europe, where an organic regulation was put in place in 1992.

The allure of purity, of “higher standards” has remained. And high mostly means strict, difficult and with no flexilbility, no consideration to the actual conditions.  Those advocating flexibility will often be branded collaborators with big business, the ones supposedly benefiting from lax standards. Grace Gershuny goes a great length to explain why the quest for a perfect standard is dangerous and also that it seldom is to the benefit of the small farmer or food producers. It also threatens to box in organic as an eternal niche:

“the push for higher standards has actually made it easier for the large, professional business organizations than for small owner-operators. They are simply better equipped to deal with the increasingly finicky and paperwork-heavy demands of organic certification. So the demand for higher organic standards has helped create the very situation that organic activists feared the most: intensified bureacratization of organic certification, increased barriers to acces to the organic market by small producers, and near elimination of the possibility that organic production systems might become any more than a small niche in American agriculture”

Meanwhile, she agrees with those that think thar the organic soul was lost in the effort to convert it to a market claim represented by a governmental logo, but she claims that the ”organic watchdogs” are at least as much to blame for this as the corporations.  She concludes that she has ”lost hope that this situation can be redeemed”. But she sees a bigger role for organic outside the regulations and certification as a lever for change of the food system and of the whole society.

The book provides a much needed perspective on the process of reconciliation of radical politics with the world of the government administration and the growing organic market increasingly dominated by big companies. The form of a “memoir” makes it easy to read. Ocassionally, the personal matters take over the story, but that is what they do in most peoples’ life. It adds flesh and blood to the book.

The book can be ordered at

A shorter version of this review was published in the organic standard 182

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