Q & A with The Cornucopia Institute

Cornucopia Institute Cows

Harvest Market’s commitment to a more just and sustainable food system naturally lends itself to our support of The Cornucopia Institute. The Cornucopia Institute engages in educational activities supporting the ecological principles and economic wisdom underlying sustainable and organic agriculture. Through research and investigations on agricultural issues, Cornucopia provides needed information to consumers, family farmers, and the media. We are so thankful for the work they do and the chance to share their message of integrity with our Harvest Market community.


Cornucopia Institute LogoHarvest Market: Please tell our readers about The Cornucopia Institute and how it got started.

Cornucopia Institute: When farmers lobbied Congress to pass the Organic Foods Production Act in 1990, their intention was to create a level playing field in the market and to affirm the credibility of organic labeling in the eyes of consumers. But small-scale farmers continued to get pushed off the land, and the landscape was particularly grim for independent organic dairy farmers. In 2004, as large corporate dairy farms edged out smaller competitors, The Cornucopia Institute was founded to examine and rectify inequalities in the organic dairy farming industry. The focus expanded as the organization took on the role of a farm policy research group addressing every type of organic farming. While Cornucopia’s work continues to evolve, we are as committed as ever to our underlying principles: highlighting the most ethical organic farmers and agricultural practices across every industry, staying abreast of regulatory issues, rallying consumers and producers to action, and investigating and reporting on fraud and dubious practices within organic agriculture.

Harvest Market: What sets your organization apart from other groups which also advocate for a more just and sustainable food system?

Cornucopia Institute: Our bold voice and unwavering focus on accountability in the marketplace and the environment. We unapologetically call out industrialized food producers that exploit loopholes in the organic regulations and engage in marketing subterfuge to cash in on an increasingly lucrative market. David Bronner, CEO of Dr. Bronner’s, summed up our role well: “Every industry needs a watchdog,” he recently noted. “Having Cornucopia as a vigilant watchdog of the National Organic Program keeps it way more honest.”

Harvest Market: Your scorecards are a hallmark of your work. How do you assess the products you review?

Bogus Organic Chicken Farm
Cornucopia photos from May 2014 aerial flyovers of Idalou Egg Ranch, an organic factory farm in Idalou, Texas.

Cornucopia Institute: Each of the scorecards is designed differently, depending on available data and relevant criteria. The egg scorecard, for example, rates companies that market name-brand and private-label organic eggs based on 28 criteria that are important to organic consumers. These include flock size compared to Animal Welfare Approved standards, ownership structure (family farms and farmer cooperatives that market their own eggs receive the most points), the integrity of the brand’s organic certifier, origin and nutritional content of the birds’ feed, indoor and outdoor space per bird, the farm’s manure handling systems, and much more.

All of our scorecards showcase ethical family farms and their brands, while exposing factory farm producers and brands to avoid or scrutinize. Our egg scorecard identifies emerging organic brands that advertise their eggs as “pastured,” yet house their birds in fixed buildings. The gold standard in organic egg production is truly pastured hens, generally in smaller flocks, in portable houses that farmers rotate to keep the birds on fresh pasture.

Greener Pastures
Authentic organic chicken

Harvest Market: How can consumers support a more sustainable and just food system?

Cornucopia Institute: Supporting a more sustainable, just food system requires access to credible information. Shopping for groceries is both an inspiring exercise in voting with your dollars and a frustrating lesson in how slick marketing has replaced transparency. (Is that chicken truly organic or is the smiling farmer on the packaging a work of fiction created by a skilled graphic designer?) It’s confusing out there, and the battle for your food budget is being waged with big bucks. The good news: Consumers hold enormous purchasing power. Using Corncuopia’s scorecards, consumers can help impact the market, both by imploring companies with low ratings to improve their practices and by moving more of their food dollars toward brands with the highest ratings. Reviewing our research-based findings, then turning that knowledge into action, supports the farmers who are genuinely committed to the health of their animals, their customers, and the planet.

Of course, activism transcends what happens in the marketplace. By lending their voice to our regulatory and watchdog efforts, consumers can stay engaged in the threats to our food system that warrant our collective attention and vigilance.

Deep Roots
At Cornucopia’s 2019 staff and board retreat, their team documented a vision for the future, including a firm commitment to organic farms with a deep respect for the soil.

Harvest Market: Tell us about your recent accomplishments.

Cornucopia Institute: Our policy staff continues to be at the forefront of the investigation into organic grain fraud. Evidence suggests that this fraud is ongoing. Consider this: Importers known to engage in questionable trading and certification practices continue to flood our market with cheap grain of unconfirmed origin.  Cornucopia’s work has documented how a small number of multibillion-dollar agribusinesses came to dominate the U.S. organic grain industry following the systemic failures of the USDA’s National Organic Program to curb the infiltration of questionable organic grain imports. They detail how, for over a decade, the USDA has looked the other way as the U.S. became a dumping ground for imports of fraudulent organic corn, soybeans, and other commodities. So far, this has prompted two of the largest offenders to quietly surrender their organic certification, though many of their corporate affiliates remain certified and in good standing with the USDA.

At Cornucopia, we also spend a lot of time digging into consumer research. This year that research has yielded two new reports: the Cottage Cheese Report and Scorecard and our new Plant-Based Beverage Report and Scorecard. Stay tuned for our eagerly awaited Organic Poultry Report and Scorecard, coming in mid-December. This year we also launched a campaign stating that we will not tolerate the intrusion of genetic engineering into organics; you can add your name here.

Cornucopia in Kyiv
Cornucopia’s International Policy Director Anne Ross, JD, recently traveled to Kyiv City, Ukraine to attend the International Conference of Organic Processing and Trade. The conference agenda included ways to address fraud, a topic on which Ross (front row, third from left) has written and spoken extensively about in her role at Cornucopia.

Harvest Market: What are the main challenges you face as we approach 2020?

Cornucopia Institute: Small farms lack the marketing budgets of their industrial agricultural competitors, which have their eyes on the organic market. Big Ag continues to encroach, making it increasingly difficult for consumers to choose food they can trust. We’d like to encourage more farms to certify organic, while simultaneously making it clear to consumers that there are really two categories under the organic label: authentic organic farmers who are nurturing the soil and raising their animals with humane practices and imposters who are using their powerful marketplace position to win over consumers.

Harvest Market: How does climate change play a role in the work you do?

Cornucopia Institute: Many farmers are hurting after the wettest season in more than a century. Given the heavy rains that swamped U.S. farmland, grain imports will certainly increase. Cornucopia is committed to investigating the authenticity of these shipments, while advocating on behalf of authentic organic grain farmers who are struggling to compete. In addition to our fraudulent organic grain work, we will continue to shine a light on the authentic organic farmers who steward the soil. In turn, healthy soil degrades wastes, sequesters carbon, filters and holds water, and helps control pests and disease. We are just scratching the surface in terms of what we know about soil’s potential; the soil and water cycles are intertwined in ways that scientists are still uncovering.

Harvest Market: Who inspires you?

Sandy Seven Stars
Cindy Dunphy of Seven Stars Farm

Cornucopia Institute: Authentic, organic farmers—people like Cindy Dunphy of Seven Stars Farm in Chester County, Pennsylvania. Twenty years ago the previous owner of Seven Stars endured a catastrophic farming accident that left him paralyzed from the neck down. Cindy and her family immediately stepped in to rescue their friends and neighbors from the unyielding demands of the farm. In 2014, Cindy started a new life as an organic farmer and matriarch of Seven Stars farm.

Cornucopia visited Cindy and her self-sufficient farm earlier this fall, as the herd of Jersey cows grazed on certified organic pasture and held onto the last of the season’s warm weather. On the rest of the farmland, her sons cultivate haylege, small grains, and hay that feed the cows in the winter. (It’s not enough to know where her food comes from, Cindy pointed out. She wants to know where her cows’ food comes from, too.) On a recent visit, she shared her insights about her circuitous path to organic farming, a duality of immense challenge and meaningful results: “Why else would we be doing this, if we didn’t think this was the right way to farm?”

Harvest Market: Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers at Harvest Market?

Cornucopia Institute: Cornucopia recently welcomed Jonathan Rosenthal, former co-founder of Equal Exchange, to the role of Interim Executive Director. In a recent letter to our donors, Jonathan remarked on his journey to Cornucopia and the invitation to fill the interim role. “I said yes, without hesitation,” he wrote, “because I believed I could help support the Cornucopia team in growing the organization to become a more effective leader in the movement to build a healthier farm and food economy. I said yes because I saw this was an organization with the integrity, commitment, and capacity to make a significant impact.”

Follow our work at cornucopia.org and on social media (find us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter), then support us on Giving Tuesday. Each time we gather at the table and give thanks to our farmers, we are reminded of what’s at stake.

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