Originally published on Civil Eats
Rodale Institute—one of America’s most renowned organic institutes—announced today it will help transition more than 50,000 acres of farmland to organic production by forming an unlikely alliance with Cargill, the largest privately owned agribusiness company in the country, and chicken producer Bell & Evans.
The project is called the U.S. Organic Grain Initiative, and it’s designed to help more farmers adopt organic practices and fill a gap in domestic organic animal feed.
While organic product sales have more than doubled over the past decade to hit $55 billion in 2019, certified organic cropland has not kept pace. Looking at cropland alone, organic production accounts for just one-half of 1 percent of all U.S. acres. That gap in supply has created a massive opportunity for the sale of fraudulent organic grain, especially in imports. As a result, some organic producers end up feeding their livestock non-organic grain without knowing it, and the Organic Trade Association (OTA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have been working to address that fraud.
While organic product sales have more than doubled over the past decade to hit $55 billion in 2019, certified organic cropland has not kept pace, totaling just 0.5% of all U.S. acres.
But many farmers and advocates believe the simplest fix is eliminating barriers that prevent U.S. farmers from transitioning to organic, to both boost domestic supply and reap environmental benefits. Several big companies have signed on to support various efforts. Clif Bar and Kashi have participated in initiatives that pay farmers more for grain during the three-year transition to organic. In 2018, General Mills announced an agreement to help a Minnesota farm transition 34,000 acres to organic to supply wheat for Annie’s Mac and Cheese. Even beer companies have jumped on the bandwagon: During the 2020 Super Bowl, Michelob Ultra declared it would help transition six square feet of farmland to organic for each six-pack of its organic Ultra Gold beer customers bought.
“We’re trying to transition as many acres and farms and farmers to organic as possible. In order to accomplish that, we need partnerships,” Rodale Institute CEO Jeff Moyer told Civil Eats. “We recognize that in order to transition these farms and these acres, we have to overcome some barriers, and partnerships can help us do that.”
Some proponents of organic agriculture applauded the partnership for that reason. “The foundational mission of the Organic Trade Association is to expand organic agricultural practices, and to increase the accessibility of organic food for all,” said OTA CEO and Executive Director Laura Batcha. “Private initiatives like this are important to fill the growing demand for organic by working directly with farmers to help them through the transition process and securing dependable markets for their organic products.”
“We’re trying to transition as many acres and farms and farmers to organic as possible. In order to accomplish that, we . . . have to overcome some barriers, and partnerships can help us do that.”
But others were surprised that Rodale would align itself with Cargill, a company seen as embodying the industrial-scale, chemical-dependent agricultural systems Rodale initially set out to disrupt. In recent years, Cargill has come under fire for failing to end large-scale deforestation in its international supply chains, stop slavery and child labor in cocoa production, and reduce pollution from its industrial beef and grain production in the U.S. Nevertheless, Cargill has made public commitments to advancing regenerative practices and has partnered with other leading sustainable agriculture organizations, like Practical Farmers of Iowa.
Anna Lappé, food system expert and author of Diet for a Hot Planet, said that while the partnership would potentially improve environmental outcomes on the acres involved, corporate commitments should be considered in a larger context. “It’s important to ask: What is Cargill’s real impact on farm policy and farmland globally?” she said.
How the Organic Grain Initiative Will Work
Cargill already operates a vast corn and soy supply chain in the U.S., including providing those crops to Bell & Evans, a Pennsylvania-based chicken company, for feed. As such, it will actively recruit farmers who are interested in transitioning to organic.
Farmers must be located in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, or Pennsylvania and have at least 150 acres available to transition. Once the farmer signs up, Rodale Institute will be on hand to help with organic system planning, certification assistance, weed management guidance, crop rotation planning, and other work to address the technical challenges involved in switching from a conventional to an organic system.
Farmers will also be given a two- to five-year contract guaranteeing a buyer—Bell & Evans, by way of Cargill—for the organic grain. That increase in organic supply will help Bell & Evans continue to expand.
“Organic is really a growing part of our business. That’s where the demand is,” said Margo Sechler, Bell & Evan’s executive vice president. The company produces chicken at an industrial scale but has differentiated itself from the larger poultry industry over the years through various improved practices, from eliminating antibiotics from its supply chain early on to raising a higher-welfare breed and sourcing its feed domestically. (It has also had some food safety concerns of late.)
It first got into organic poultry in 2009. By 2020, a little more than a third of its chicken was certified organic. Now, the company is in the process of completing construction on a new certified organic processing plant that will significantly increase its capacity. And if they’re going to sell more chickens, they’ll need more feed.
Rodale’s Moyer said that by pairing the Institute’s technical expertise with Cargill’s established supply chain and the market opportunity provided by Bell & Evans, the initiative would take care of many of the concerns farmers have when considering whether to transition to organic. “We have consulting backed by science. We have a buyer. And we have the broker in the middle who knows how to purchase, handle, and store the grain,” he said. “We’re working to minimize the barriers to encourage more farmers in this direction.”
Max Goldberg, founder of Organic Insider, a publication that tracks the industry closely, called the Organic Grain Initiative “a phenomenal development.” In spite of encouraging government efforts, he said, grain fraud continues to be one of the biggest issues facing the organic industry, especially because it means U.S. farmers following organic standards get undercut on prices and lose money. In other words, it’s much cheaper to grow grain conventionally, so fraudsters can charge lower prices for grain they simply label organic, which makes their product more appealing to buyers and in turn keeps meat prices cheap.
“The best way to address the situation . . . is to bolster our domestic production of organic grains and encourage the consumption of these grains. This will help increase a fully traceable supply, add jobs to our economy, and alleviate the concerns of consumers who may question the legitimacy of organic eggs, dairy, or meat,” he said. “While I have no issue with purchasing organic products from other countries, such as bananas, coconuts, or cacao, it makes no sense to be importing such a huge quantity of organic grains when we have the ability to grow them here.”
Doing Right by Farmers—and Upholding Organic Ideals?
However, Oren Holle, a lifelong farmer based in Kansas, is skeptical that the partnership will serve farmers well. As president of Organic Farmers Agency for Relationship Marketing (OFARM), an organization that works to get fair prices for organic grain farmers, Holle worries that multi-year contracts with Cargill could eliminate marketing options for growers, tying them to a lower price. “Market access in no way implies market fairness,” he said.
“Cargill’s not out there to see how much they can pay the producer. The goal is going to be to drive down the cost of production in order to make the end product more competitive with the conventional price.”
“What they’re going after is captive supply,” Holle continued. “Cargill’s not out there to see how much they can pay the producer. The goal is going to be to drive down the cost of production in order to make the end product more competitive with the conventional price.” Cargill said its goal is to “provide market-based solutions to farmers and help them maximize profitability.”
Another barrier for farmers that the initiative only partially addresses is the period during which farmers have to take on extra expenses without getting paid a premium for their crops, since certification cannot happen until the soil has been free of chemical inputs for three years.
Cargill’s team told Civil Eats that during that period, growers “can market their grain to Cargill as conventional or non-GMO . . . Non-GMO market access will be subject to both location availability and Identity Preserve (IP) requirements, and non-GMO premiums will be subject to market price/premiums.” In other words, in some cases, farmers will get paid a little more for non-GMO crops, but in some they won’t. It will depend on several factors, including whether Cargill has infrastructure in a given area that can keep non-GMO grain separate from conventional.
Overall, Holle said the contracts and other aspects of the initiative fit into a broader “move to the industrial model of organic food production.” Holle and other organic farmers and advocates don’t think Bell & Evans’ operations align with organic ideals either—because of the concentration of chickens raised primarily indoors. “The CAFO-style production model was never intended to be allowed in the program that earns the USDA Organic seal,” he said.
Bell & Evans farms are smaller than some of their conventional counterparts. Sechler said farmers typically have two to four barns holding around 35,000 chickens each, and chickens have access to a fenced-in outdoor area. Conventional operations often have six to eight barns that hold upwards of 50,000 chickens each, with no outdoor access. The Cornucopia Institute, a watchdog group that rates brands on how honestly they adhere to organic standards, gives the company high marks, assigning it a “four-bird” rating out of five. But Bell & Evan’s model is still a far cry from what Rodale, for instance, sees as the ideal.
Considering the Big Picture
Moyer also said the team at Rodale liked the prospect of moving “large acreages in one big swath.”
Fifty-five thousand acres will represent a substantial increase for the organic industry, but some advocates for organic food and farming point out that the acreage is a drop in the bucket compared to the 643 million acres of total cropland in the U.S., 175 million acres of which are in corn and soy. And advocates that track companies like Cargill at a global level say projects like this one distract from serious destruction the company is causing in the U.S. and abroad.
In 2019, environmental organization Mighty Earth published a report titled “Cargill: The Worst Company in the World” that detailed the company’s failure to eliminate practices like deforestation, child labor, and water pollution from its operations around the world. Since then, it has continued to track the company’s deforestation in Brazil via a satellite-based system.
“Unfortunately, Cargill continues to be one of the worst performers in the industry,” said Lucia von Reusner, a campaign director at Mighty Earth. Despite a 2014 pledge to eliminate deforestation in its soy supply chain by 2030 (and halve it by 2020), the organization says Cargill is linked to clearing more than 150,000 acres of forests in Brazil since March 2019 alone.
In response to a question asking if the company had met its specific goal to halve deforestation in its soy supply chain by 2020, Cargill said “we continue to accelerate efforts in this area” and referred Civil Eats to a land-use timeline that includes very little data.
“The loss of our global forests in Latin America is such a huge source of greenhouse gas emissions that [Cargill is] so well-positioned to mitigate,” von Reusner said, “and yet what we’ve seen is consistent obstructionism and a general refusal to actually stop deforestation.”
Von Reusner said Cargill is also actively working against efforts to establish solutions for sustainable soy production in Brazil. In the U.S., the company has been involved in lobbying efforts to block the expansion of Clean Water Act protections that would regulate pollution across more waterways.
“Of course there’s nothing bad about moving 50,000 acres to organic—that’s what we need to do for all farmland—but to achieve the real transformation needed, that requires regulatory and policy change that will support all farmers to make this transition,” Lappé said. “To the extent that Cargill is blocking such progress, through its lobbying or corporate donations, for instance, this partnership will have as much effect as spooning sand out of a sandbox while a dump truck pours more back in.”
Moyer, for his part, said he understood why some might criticize Rodale’s decision to work with Cargill but that the institute’s goal of transitioning as many conventional farmers to organic as possible inherently requires them to engage with the industrial system. “We have to work with partners that are in the conventional world,” he said, “because that’s who we’re trying to convert.”