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Something is Working in Denmark -- A National Organic Policy

(Members of U.S. Congress recently visited Denmark to learn about the country's organic initiatives. Photo courtesy of Paul Holmbeck.)

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When it comes to advancing organic, Denmark is leading the way.

According to statistics from Organic Denmark, three out of four Danes buy organic food every single week, and in 2020, 12.8% of Danes’ food purchases were organic products, the highest organic market share in the world.

Even more impressive is how organic has made serious inroads in the public sector. 89% of the food consumed in the City of Copenhagen’s public canteens, such as day-care centers, nursing homes and schools, is organic.

Seeking inspiration and education, several members of the U.S. House Agriculture and Appropriations Committees — including Chellie Pingree (D-ME), Cheri Bustos (D-IL), Shontel Brown (D-OH), Stacey Plaskett (D-USVI), Lois Frankel (D-FL) and Alma Adams (D-NC) — recently visited Denmark to learn its strategies for success.

And if there is anyone who can articulate why organic has gained such traction there, it is Paul Holmbeck.

A dual citizen of both the U.S. and Denmark, Paul has been advocating for organic in the country for nearly three decades, most recently serving for 21 years as political director of Organic Denmark. Needless to say, he has seen it all from the ground floor, witnessing what has worked and what hasn’t.

When asked what the U.S. should be doing differently to gain more acceptance from both consumers and government officials, his answer was clear.

“In the U.S., there is a standards board (the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board) but is there a national organic policy plan?” he asked. “Since the mid-1990s, Denmark has had an organic policy platform. In the beginning, there was infighting and tension, but there was dialogue. Eventually, we made a plan with 64 recommendations, and 49 were implemented completely. We had to fight for money from the government, but over time, our plans went from catalogs to actual policy. Our approach was multipronged and very collaborative, and we never talked negatively about conventional agriculture.”


While it may not be well known to most people, particularly to those who were not politically engaged in the organic industry from 2000 to 2010, the U.S. does have a national policy plan.

Published in January 2010 and representing the culmination of five years of meetings that engaged diverse stakeholders across the country, the National Organic Action Plan (NOAP) articulates a vision for the future of organic food and agriculture in the United States.

According to Liana Hoodes and Michael Sligh, long-time industry veterans and the two main co-authors of the NOAP, it was presented to the USDA and all of its agency and section heads, members of Congress, and at many organic conferences.

Some of the report’s specific USDA recommendations were adopted, including the creation of a cross-agency USDA organic policy coordinator, a role that greatly helped to educate all USDA agencies on organic and helped to engage different parts of USDA that had never before addressed organic. Other recommendations have been taken up as well, such as the creation of a (non-governmental) Organic Farmers Association, deepening organic ties to farmers of color, as well as increased support for organic research, transition to organic, and organic crop insurance.

As is evident from reading the NOAP report, it is a very ambitious, exhaustive, inclusive and thorough effort, which resulted in tangible benefits. Furthermore, it is an extremely comprehensive planning tool befit for a $62 billion industry, especially one which aims to be a critical component of our nation’s food supply and an answer to our environmental challenges. It is exactly what our industry should have.

In an ideal scenario, the NOAP is a living, breathing document that is updated on a yearly basis; all key stakeholders collaborate on it, endorse it and use it to advance policy when speaking with USDA officials and members of Congress; and it is widely considered to be the single organic policy platform in our industry.

Reality, however, is telling us something else.

The most recent version of the NOAP is from 2010, and there are no concrete plans to update it. Most key stakeholders in the industry operate in silos and are not using the NOAP as a unifying policy platform to advance critical goals. Also, far too many individuals in organic do not even know that the NOAP exists.

An uncomfortable truth in our industry, which many people refuse to publicly acknowledge, is that there has been a severe lack of trust and little collaboration between the most important organic non-profit groups and the Organic Trade Association (OTA). The OTA plays a valuable role in the industry, particularly with promotion and research, and it has considerable political influence within the USDA. However, it is a trade group — not a watchdog organization — and far too many people conflate the two.

“There are nine national organizations that operate in the public interest keeping a close eye on the organic program — Beyond Pesticides, Center for Food Safety, Organic Farmers Association, National Organic Coalition, The Cornucopia Institute, Organic Consumers Association, Consumers Union, Wild Farm Alliance and OrganicEye — and on all of the hot button issues, their views are diametrically opposed to those of the OTA,” said Mark Kastel, Co-Director of OrganicEye.

All that being said, for our industry to maximize its potential and gain much greater support among politicians and consumers, we would benefit from a single, national organic policy platform that all key stakeholders can get behind and promote.

Whether that is a revised NOAP or a scaled-back version that is nothing more than agreeing on the following four points:

– All forms of genetic engineering, including gene editing and synthetic biology, should be never be allowed in organic.
– Stronger rules and enforcement to prevent fraud in organic, both here and abroad.
– 20% of farmland in the U.S. to be organic by 2050.
– The USDA should not be allowed to appoint Special Government Employees to the National Organic Standards Board.

….that is for the industry, as a whole, to determine.

Despite what has happened in the past, we should continue to look across the ocean for inspiration.

While Denmark still has a long way to go in terms of optimal market penetration, it is further ahead than any other country. As such, there is plenty to learn from this nation.

“The lesson of Denmark is that a single, coordinated organic policy and a mobilized private sector helped drive change. If you want influence, you have to join forces and agree on enough things to have a common framework,” said Paul Holmbeck.

With gratitude,

Max Goldberg, Founder

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