Shades of green: should there be more organic licencing options?

Agriculture & Food, Sustainability

Organic food shoots itself in the foot with its elitist principles, say a recent article in Farmers’ Weekly.

Organic isn’t yet what one might call ‘mainstream’, so they may have a point. For too many of us, being organic comes at too high a cost: at the till, in labour costs, paperwork, effort, and time. It takes a great deal to meet the commendably high organic standards.

Is there a way this burden could be reduced whilst preserving the core principles?

Let’s consider some examples

  • If you collect horse manure* from nearby stables where the horses are well cared for and fed organically, should using their manure on your  veg beds disqualify you from an organic classification?
  • If you take a non-organic seed (not GM, not sterile) from a conventionally farmed field and plant it in an organic farm, and look after it organically all its life, should that count as organic?
  • If you buy some ducks to patrol as organic pest control, and keep them to organic standards – but the ducks themselves were not raised organically for the first few weeks of their lives – should you still be able to sell your produce as organic?

None of these examples are allowed under organic certification. (You can get a derogation for some of them if you ask politely and give good reasons, but that’s just MORE hassle, not less.)

So we have a situation where it’s ok to go up and down the fields in a diesel tractor and the attendant pollution it leaves, or to use an gas flame thrower to get rid of weeds, but it’s not ok to use a duck or horse manure? Something is amiss.

It’s a problem of degrees. Even if you farm 100% organically, if you use any input which is not of certified organic origin, you can no longer claim organic status. Even though the horse manure might be 100% organic, it is nixed because it doesn’t come with a bit of paper to prove it. Getting that bit of paper is expensive, time consuming, and not of sufficient benefit to any of the people who might make it happen. So rather than using cheap, local, (self-certified) organic manure, the farmer is forced to buy lorry loads of expensive manure from the council. Is that what we want organic to stand for?

From an inspection point of view, it’s clearly more manageable to say that “certified organic” means 100% organic, 100% of the time. Yet this does seem rather blunt, and the strictness hurts and alienates the allies who are working towards the same goals.

A pragmatic solution could be to have more types of licence.

There is a parallel to draw with copyright, in which a work is either 100% copyright protected, or not at all.

In 2001 a non-profit organisation was formed to address the copyright’s failure to offer any licences to sit between the extreme ‘all’ or ‘nothing’ positions. It created new licences which allow creators to have shades of grey in the rights they reserve and which rights they waive.

For example this blog has an ‘attribution & share-alike’ licence, meaning you can copy as much of it as you like as long as you remember to link back to this original source, and if you do copy it you must share any derivative works under the same licence.

You can immediately see that such a system is going to encourage more creativity since, like copyright, we still receive acclaim for our creativity; but unlike copyright, it intrinsically acknowledges that all human efforts are cumulative, and preserves your right to continue evolving any ideas I may have put down. (It also highlights the observation that to deny anyone else their right to build upon your efforts for at least 70 years is almost as destructive as it is creative, but that’s for another day.)

Each licence is free of charge, and self-certified, and comes in three versions: human readable, lawyer readable, and computer readable; and links through to a simple plain language explanation (here’s mine.)

It has  caught on like wildfire since it is designed for sensible people in the 21st century, and offers the simple versatility and breadth of options which works to help the majority rather than to protect a minority.

Could organic certifiers bring this type of flexibility to organic?

Imagine how many more organic products we might have on the shelves if we added just two extra categories

  • Organically certified production (the original and best)
  • Organically certified production using self-certified inputs
  • Organically certified production with approved inputs of non-organic origin (ie ducks, seeds, piglets)

Before we get into a long debate about how this devalues the meaning of organic or makes the market too complicated for consumers to navigate, let’s remember three important things:

1) the urgent and paramount importance to develop a food chain which is sustainable, not dependent on ever-diminishing fossil fuels, and which provides good food for everyone in a resilient and healthy manner.

2) it wouldn’t be that hard to implement (eg self-certification with random spot checks with high penalties) and would engage more people in the transition to be more organic.

3) these new classifications can happily co-exist with the highest, original organic certification, in the same way that it already co-exists with other food labelling schemes such as Freedom Food and Red Tractor.

And this invocation of the Red Tractor and Freedom Foods brings us to the final important point. If you worked with almost any group of consumers to deliberate upon what they would expect from animal welfare standards, they would most likely develop a set of rules closer to those laid down by the Soil Association’s organic certification than those set down by the Freedom Food standard.

There are turbulent times ahead for food and farming, and it seems likely that we’ll see a few more revolutions in food labelling before the decade is out. Food scares and the low marginal cost of data conspire to make it almost inevitable. In these turbulent times, it seems more desirable to organic beacons guide us by using responsible food labelling which urges more sustainable practises, than being led astray by the type of deliberately misleading commercial marketing campaign which puts a Union Jack on the packet just because it was packaged here.

To summarise

  1. Change is inevitable
  2. We want all changes to nudge us in a better direction
  3. Only a very few organisations can be trusted to lead with authenticity
  4. Making it easy for people to start being good is important. Once we start, we do the rest of the journey on our own.
  5. Expect the best from people, and they will likely deliver it.
  6. New technology changes what’s possible, new information changes what’s required. Keep up, or fall behind.
  7. Implementation is easy if the leadership is bold and has the courage to let go and empower.

* There is a similar argument to be made for human sewage, too, but I didn’t raise it in the main article to ensure we didn’t get distracted. When organic standards were set, sewage processing was not as good as it is now, and unwelcome chemicals and diseases could contaminate the resultant manure. But times have changed, processing standards have improved, and treated human sewage is routinely used in conventional farming, sensibly and sustainably minimising waste and making good use of a locally sourced, energy-rich resource. Isn’t that in keeping with the organic principles?

Ed Dowding

Ed Dowding

Founder, strategist, writer, gadfly, TED talker, world-record holder, and (foolishly) reality-TV farmer. DOES: Innovation, Product, Advocacy THINKS: Regenerative Systems, Institution design, 300 year horizons


  1. Ed: exactly the right train of thought. It seems to me much worse that food certified as organic has been flown out-of-season half-way round the world than that people should be able to buy produce locally that’s been grown/raised by environmentally-friendly but not rigid organic methods.

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