Once upon a time, all you needed to be an organic farmer in America was a pair of Birkenstocks and a commitment to keep your products chemical-free. Those idealistic days of the 1990s are long gone. Today, organic farming is a $30 billion industry dominated by Big Agriculture, backed up by Uncle Sam and a federal rulebook that gets longer every day.
In the halls of Congress, the rhetoric never changes: Vote against new regulations and you side with big business; support tough rules and side with the little guy. But history tells us that, far from restraining the power of big companies, an overbearing regulatory bureaucracy benefits them just about every time. Last month, the White House released e-mails detailing the deal it cut with PhRMA — the drug industry’s lobbying arm — to win support for Obamacare. And the size and market share of America’s biggest banks have only grown since the passage of Dodd-Frank banking regulations.
But if those examples hold too much partisan history for you, how about organic farming? As The New York Times reported recently, “the industry’s image — contented cows grazing on the green hills of family-owned farms — is mostly pure fantasy.”
In 1997 the US Department of Agriculture first proposed a set of national standards for the industry. They became the law of the land in 2002. Today, the National Organic Standards Board keeps a list of 250 non-organic food additives that can be used under the “certified organic” label. That’s three times the number listed just 10 years ago. As the Soviets proved time and again, a good central committee can kill just about anything.
Only a few farmers saw this coming. I was in the US House when the national standards were first proposed, and around that time I was approached by a smart, passionate, organic farmer from Vermont. Like many of his peers, he was part of a local association that certified the practices of its own members. At that point, they were mostly concerned about two issues: the use of sludge from municipal waste water treatment plants as fertilizer and the use of microwaves to kill foodborne pathogens. They wanted the federal definition of “organic” to exclude both.
As a consumer, neither practice particularly bothered me (although the less time spent thinking about organic fertilizer, the better). But as an American, my feelings were strong: The organic farmers of Vermont — or New Hampshire or anywhere else — can decide for themselves what constitutes “organic.” I was happy to weigh in with the USDA on their behalf, but my larger message to them was a warning.
Many of them mistook federal rules as a way to keep standards high and the corporate world out. In reality, the federal stamp of approval helped big companies control the entire space. Local farmers might win the battle over sludge, but they would lose the war once power was firmly in the hands of a national regulator. Deciding what is allowed in ostensibly organic foods is easily the most important thing the National Organic Standards Board does, yet the list of allowed additives keeps getting longer at big farm companies’ request.
All regulators want to be efficient; many want to be liked. That makes them subject to influence by those they oversee. Regulators solicit endless input on questions ranging from how to organize the bureaucracy to what new rules should say. Inevitably, the biggest fish in the pond are best positioned to influence their regulators. It’s called regulatory capture, and the likelihood of it should always be part of the debate.
Pushing back against the regulatory tide isn’t about favoring big business; it’s about containing the power of the state. Just because something is a good idea (organic farming), doesn’t mean it should be a law; and just because something should be a law doesn’t mean it should be a federal law. Obsession with turning every good idea into law has also given us federal bans on two-gallon toilet flushes and Edison’s incandescent bulb. The winners of this Washington micro-management have been the biggest plumbing and lighting manufacturers in the country.
My friend from Vermont had a vision: organic products produced on local farms, delivered to appreciative customers at an honest price. When that dream was turned over to the federal government, it pretty much died. Whether tyranny flows from the monarch or the bureaucrat, big government never serves the little guy well — a lesson that organic farmers of America have learned the hard way.
John E. Sununu, a regular Globe contributor, is a former Republican US senator from New Hampshire.