Digging Into Local Organic Policy

Kelly Damewood, CCOF Policy Director

David Lester, student at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, recently completed a summer internship with CCOF. Over the course of two months, he completed an in-depth review of county regulations that may support or encourage certified organic agriculture. Read on for an interesting and worthwhile summary of his findings.

For over thirty years, CCOF – one of the first organic certification agencies in the United States – has worked on landmark law and policy such as the California Organic Food Act of 1979 and the National Organic Program (NOP). CCOF continues to advocate for policies that encourage organic agriculture at the county, state, and national level. To support CCOF’s ongoing advocacy, I examined the impact of county regulations on the viability and abundance of certified organic operations in certain regions of California.

Table 1: Growth in Organic Acreage since Establishment of Certification Agency


My study had two core objectives: 1) to identify what county regulations, if any, encourage farmers to certify their land as organic; 2) to evaluate correlations between the implementation of county policy and subsequent increases in organic acreage.

Potential County Policies Encourage Organic Certification

After completing my initial research, I identified the following two policies as having the most potential impact on organic certified operations: 1) the presence of an organic certification agency through the Agricultural Commissioner’s office, and 2) a countywide moratorium on the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Agricultural Commissioner Offices and Organic Certification Assistance

The first county policy that may have an impact on organic certification is the presence of an Agricultural Commissioner office. Though this correlation needs closer examining as the correlation between an established Agricultural Commissioner office and organic certification is weak. 

A prime example is when Marin County established a certification agency as part of the office of the Agriculture Commissioner to help farmers comply with paperwork and costs. As seen in Chart 1, the growth of organic acreage in Marin County does align with the establishment of the Marin Organic Certification Agency (MOCA). However, other developments, such as the growth of the organic food industry as a whole, occurred around the same time, making it impossible to responsibly attribute growth to any single factor. While growth in Marin is higher than other counties, the growth is much less than the growth in Humboldt County, which does not have an organic certification agency. Notably, Humboldt County and Marin produce significant amounts of organic dairy. Thus, the growth of organic certification, at least for counties such as Marin, is more likely attributable to exceptional growth in consumer demand for organic dairy products than to any single county policy.

Chart 1: Growth in Organic Acreage & Sales since Establishing County Organic Certification Agencies


County Bans on GMOs

The second county policy that may impact certified organic operations is the implementation of a countywide moratorium on GMOs. Organic standards do not allow GMO inputs, and organic farmers must take precautions to prevent contamination of their crops by GMO crops. Thus, GMO contamination is a serious concern for organic farmers. As a result, I theorized that organic farmers may be more inclined to operate in counties where GMO use is banned because it may lower the risks of contamination. However, the available data showed no correlation.

For example, Santa Cruz, Marin, and Mendocino counties have countywide bans on GMO cultivation. Santa Cruz passed the ban in 2006, while Marin and Mendocino passed bans in 2004. I hypothesized that this ban could restrict farmers from using normal conventional inputs that contain GMOs, effectively encouraging them to transition their land to certified organic production. However, as seen in Table 2, the rate of growth of organic acreages does not suggest that the ban impacts organic farming acreage in either Mendocino or Santa Cruz county.

Table 2: Growth in Organic Acreage since Establishing GMO Moratorium

Some underlying factors in my research on GMO bans and organic certification is whether farmers make business decisions based on countywide regulations, or other factors such as cost of land and access to markets. So a question for future research is: When does policy — rather than economic incentives — impact organic certification?

The correlations between county policies and organic certification may be correlative, but it is certainly not conclusive. Ultimately, to further the research on county policy and organic certification, more data must exist on organic acreage and rangeland. Thus, a key take away from this research project is that more efforts should be dedicated to tracking, monitoring, and recording certified organic activities.