As of Saturday, Mark Kastel, the outspoken co-founder of The Cornucopia Institute, is no longer heading this organic farm policy group.
In a statement posted on Cornucopia’s website on March 30th, it announced “a change in leadership” and gave no specific reason for this decision.
Seeking more details about this move, Organic Insider received a response from Cornucopia on April 2nd which said, “Mark is stepping down from his Executive Director role with the Cornucopia Institute. While he may continue to be involved in policy analysis and research efforts, Mark is moving toward retirement.”
For those individuals who are entrenched in the policy and regulation of organic, this announcement was devastating news.
“Losing Mark as a fierce advocate for the regulations that have made organic a powerhouse at the grocery will further damage the organic system I know and love. His knowledge, sharp eyes and ears, and fierce fight on behalf of the integrity of organics cannot be replaced,” said Stephanie Strom, former food business journalist at the The New York Times and someone who has covered the industry for many years.
The timing of this move is quite curious.
A few weeks ago, Cornucopia released its most important and controversial work ever — the organic certifier scorecard.
This scorecard was a direct and unprecedented challenge to the industry’s status quo and exposed which certifiers are certifying organic factory farms and hydroponic operations — both of which are viewed as illegal and incredibly damaging in the eyes of many industry stakeholders. By compiling this information and pushing it out to the public, the report put the cash flow of these multi-million dollar organic certifiers at risk.
As a result, one could easily speculate that the board of Cornucopia faced tremendous pressure to remove Mark Kastel from his position.
This seems to be the opinion of some industry observers.
“It troubles me greatly that Cornucopia’s board has apparently buckled to the pressure put on it by major certifiers and their big company clients. Everyone knows that the certification system has favored larger clients, who pay bigger fees and are thus more lucrative for certifiers than small farmers,” said Stephanie Strom.
WHY THIS MATTERS SO MUCH
The fact that this move at Cornucopia would cause such concern speaks to the precarious nature of what is truly happening in our industry; namely, the serious lack of support and cooperation from the USDA and how its failure to protect our industry is weakening the organic seal.
Here are a few examples that illustrate this point:
* Factory organic farms have been allowed to proliferate under the USDA’s watch.
* The USDA ignored repeated warnings about the massive problem of fraudulent imported organic grains until The Washington Post’s investigation came out in 2017.
* The USDA’s refusal to clarify rules in organic dairy has created a situation where every organic certifier is interpreting the rules differently, something that is contributing to the demise of many small organic dairy farmers. Melissa Hughes, General Counsel and Chief Mission Officer at Organic Valley, said there is “a new level of inconsistency we have never seen in 30 years of organic dairy.”
With the USDA failing to protect and safeguard our industry, it has fallen into the hands of groups such as Cornucopia to do this job.
Yet, with so few others willing and capable of taking on this role, who will replace Mark Kastel?
While he may have ruffled some feathers along the way and had an approach that did not sit well with everyone, the quality of his work was impeccable, and his integrity was unquestioned. There is a reason that the nation’s leading publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR and many others, continually quoted and worked with him on stories.
“Mark has been a tremendous asset in the battle to protect organic integrity, and he has proven time and again he will not shy away from controversy,” said Jim Gerritsen, a Maine organic seed farmer and President of OSGATA.
After years of tireless work and dedication, Mark Kastel built The Cornucopia Institute into what it is today — one of the most trusted and vigilant watchdog groups in the organic industry.
If Cornucopia fails to follow through on its organic certifier scorecard and does not maintain its very aggressive stance, which was established by Mark Kastel, this esteemed organization will soon become irrelevant.
And organic farmers and consumers will end up suffering the most.
Max Goldberg, Editorlivingmaxwell
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