Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association

By Russell Libby

Investment bankers and others are getting into the booming organics “industry,” selling stocks of natural food stores and suppliers on Wall Street. Maine is still on the periphery of that interest, although we’ve seen little pieces of it with inquiries from Israel, Japan and Europe for products this year.

Apparently exports are the future for everyone, regardless of size, location or product. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the trade wars with Europe over food products essentially are over because the multinational food companies have integrated U.S. ingredients into so many of their products. Continuing fights over food labeling are conceding the larger ground – control of local food production – and dealing with the side issues.

This past week at the Farmer to Farmer Conference, Deb Soule reported on language in the Food and Drug Administration reauthorization legislation that would require “harmonization” with international trade standards for various medicinal products. If we take that language to the same conclusion as Germany and Norway, herbs and vitamins in non-standard doses or formulations would only be available through prescription.

As I write, Congress is poised to give President Clinton authority to negotiate multilateral treaties under “fast track” provisions. Almost all international trade is subject to the rules of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and Codex (a UN organized group that tries to create uniform standards for any and all products). Codex is now considering proposals for international standards for organic foods, as well as tighter regulations of vitamins and herbal and homeopathic medicines.

The solutions to our daily problems will not come by conceding control of how we live to a faceless international market with uniform standards. The survival of Maine’s farms is going to require us to “put a face on our food,” what’s called “seikatsu” in Japan. If the average consumer can “see,” in his or her mind, the farms where his or her food comes from, there’s room for MOFGA farmers to build their businesses.

How do we do that? Part of it is just talking, with our friends and neighbors, to make sure we keep our base committed. We need to go to places we normally don’t go to continue building the base of Maine consumers.

Farmers and gardeners need to talk with other farmers and gardeners to build connections and support networks. Emily Carlson, in her Farmer to Farmer keynote talk, described how Vermont farmers are forming pasture groups to provide that face to face communication.

Finally, we need to tell our story wherever and whenever we can. Winter is a great time to go to schools, to talk with local business and social groups, your legislators, and your neighbors. The international system may seem appealing because most people don’t hear about our alternative – a local, organic food system. It’s our job to be sure they do.

MOF&G Cover Winter 1997