Thomas Harding, Jr.
President of Agrisystems International
First President of the OTA (then OFPANA) Board, 1985–1987
regulated standard—and that was a
What drove the creation of OFPANA?
OFPANA was created to be an umbrella organization where
we could all work together to get the message out about or-
ganic. At that time, standards were all over the place and we
needed a common voice for the industry as a whole. We also needed to clearly
define organic foods and create a system consumers could trust. They needed
to know the difference between organic and conventional, as well as organic
and natural. We not only had to educate the consumer on how organic food
was different—what it did for the land and people—but we had to educate the
government too. We had no political recognition. The guys in D.C. thought “or-
ganic” was just some magazine from Rodale. It was thought of as more of a
counter movement than a legitimate agricultural food production system.
Looking back on your original goals, do
you have any insight for OTA today?
It’s just as important today as it was 25
years ago that we have a forum where
all voices can be heard. OTA should
also never become representative of
one group versus another and the size
of company should never be the common denominator. We as an industry
need to raise the bar on sustainability
as well, and make sure that sustainable
strategies—whether it’s water quality,
sustainable packaging, energy conservation, soil quality or taking care of the
community—are all really engaged in
all aspects of organic from seed to
What were some of the biggest victories during your time leading OFPANA?
For me, it was being able to have everybody around the table, regardless of
their political leanings, talking about the common problem we had in front of
us. We had knock-down battles but we
all ended up coming together to develop a common standard in the end.
One major accomplishment that helped
define organic was a position paper stating that organic food is a production system, not a pesticide-residue-free system.
In other words, we didn’t want organic
foods to be determined by analytical laboratory testing, we wanted to be proven
by the land stewardship, the quality of
the food and the type of farming. This
helped us get the government’s attention as well. Toward the end of my term,
I met with Senator Leahy (D-VT) and
talked about the importance of having a
common definition of organics. I
stressed that his Farm Bill really should
include organic agriculture and have a
provision for a common, recognizable
label in the marketplace. OFPANA had
defined all these principles in two pages,
so we gave those to him and he actually
adopted those principles. This eventually led to the Organic Foods Production Act. OFPANA’s voice was starting to
be heard on the Hill and we were ready
to have a labeling rule. Many didn’t
want to see the authorities get involved
and the industry didn’t agree on everything, but it would give us a common,
IFOAM President and Senior Associate, Wolf, DiMatteo + Associates
First Executive Director of OTA, 1990–2006
What are the biggest opportunities and challenges for OTA and the
The biggest opportunity is placing organic within legislation wherever
appropriate—research, rural development, conservation, climate change, food safety,
etc.—and providing comment on regulations that advance and protect the organic sec-
tor. Kathleen Merrigan, Deputy Secretary of USDA, announced her goal to integrate or-
ganic into all the departments within USDA. OTA should help in this effort by providing
information and resources and building strong relationships with key agency leaders.
One of the biggest challenges for the future of organic is the self-appointed watchdog organizations that undermine consumer confidence in the NOP and, by extension,
the credibility of the organic brand. Another challenge is the growing support for “
almost” organic standards, systems and seals that are promoted as sustainable and are
drawing consumer and retailer interest away from organic. OTA’s promote-and-protect
mission must continue by providing a consistent and persistent counterpoint, and possibly by undertaking an aggressive campaign to discredit both the unregulated and misguided claims. Through OTA, the industry should discuss such challenges and develop
strategies for action, then participate actively in support of these actions.
What are some of your best memories of your years with OTA?
There are so many positive memories, but two really stick out: one was the press conference OTA held after the first proposed rule was published in 1997. Because of the intense investment OTA had made to work with NOSB, NOP, the members and other
stakeholders, as well as the press, OTA organized a press conference almost immediately that informed the industry, the community and the public that the proposed rule
was flawed. OTA launched a public comment campaign that helped generate 180,000
comments. The second was the press conference in October 2002 with NOP and NOSB
to announce the implementation of the NOP. It was held at Whole Foods Market in
D.C. and was a joyous celebration of the many hours of work by OTA members. OTA’s
role was important because it was a representative organization that had built consensus among its members and with the larger stakeholder community in order to support
a meaningful and effective NOP. During these two press conferences, OTA was clearly
recognized as the voice of the organic sector.