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Farmers Assemble to Reclaim Integrity for Organic Standards

The Real Organic Project launches to create transparency in organic food and farming practices.

For Release
Contact: Blair Fitzgibbon, 202-503-6141, blair@soundspeedpr.com

As the integrity of the USDA organic standards continues to erode, a broad coalition of organic farmers and advocates have formed the Real Organic Project. The nonprofit is working to promote the practices of traditional organic farming. Farmers believe this effort is needed as the current USDA National Organic Program is now permitting hydroponics and CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) to be certified as organic. The Real Organic Project requires improving soil fertility and that animals have adequate outdoor access and pasture.

Today the Real Organic Project is announcing the release of their provisional standards for the add-on label. As the organic movement continues to grow, it is seeking to reclaim transparency when identifying itself to farmers and eaters.

In late March, the newly formed Standards Board for the Real Organic Project came together in Fairlee, Vermont. Twenty-one Project board members traveled from all over the country for the meeting. The Standards board consists of eleven farmers, a policy director from a retail store chain, a scientist, an inspector, a consumer advocate, and representatives from non-profits. They met for two intensive days of debate and hard work after many weeks of preparation.

Real Organic Executive Director Dave Chapman said, “All we are seeking is transparency. Our message is clear and simple. Organic farming must be based on healthy soil, with plants and animals as an integral part of that soil ecosystem. The only radical thing about our new standards is that they have been rejected by the USDA. They are a return to the fundamental beliefs of organic farming.”

The add-on standards are:

  1. Origin of Livestock. In current NOP rules, producers can continuously transition dairy animals into organic over time. This standard ends that loophole.
  2. Grazing Requirement. There is strong evidence that current NOP grazing requirements are not being met. This standard tightens the current standard, and it will be enforced.
  3. Grown in the Ground. Current NOP decisions permit 100% hydroponic production with no relationship between the soil and plants. This standard mirrors the recently passed EU standard that requires crops to be grown in the soil, in contact with the subsoil, in contact with the bedrock.
  4. Soil Management. Current NOP language requires certified farms to maintain and improve the fertility of the soil, but these standards are often not being met. This standard simply reinforces the language and intention of The Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) and the NOP language.
  5. Greenhouse Production. NOP standards around greenhouse production have never been set. This standard prohibits the use of 100% artificial lighting and requires an energy plan to show steady progress in reducing the carbon footprint.
  6. Animal Welfare. Following the recent rejection of the Organic Livestock and Poultry Production (OLPP) recommendation for improved animal welfare, CAFO production of poultry has become accepted in NOP certification. This standard requires genuine outdoor access for all animals. It also addresses other animal welfare concerns, such as preventing tail docking and beak trimming (used in farming systems that allow overcrowding of livestock).
  7. Split Farms. This standard limits the circumstances in which an organic farm can produce non-certified crops.

View the standards here: https://www.realorganicproject.org/provisional-standards/

“These are the standards that most in the organic community support and want enforced by the USDA,” added Real Organic board member Lisa Stokke, Executive Director of Next7.org. “These are the basis of our wrap-around add-on label, and they are the foundation of organic.”

The farmers believe that this label will bring transparency back for organic consumers.  The vast majority of certified organic farms in the US will easily meet these “new” standards. The provisional standards will be open for public comment this fall.

“These seven short organic standards are the missing heart of the NOP standards,” said Linley Dixon, Standards Board vice chair of the Real Organic Project. “They have all been discussed at great length by the NOSB over the years. While some were passed by the NOSB and then ignored, others were debated but never passed at all.”

The Real Organic Project will be managing a pilot program this year certifying a limited number of farms. This pilot program will test the certification process in preparation for the label going public in 2019. Further details about the program will be released this summer.

“The Real Organic Project will restore organic farmers’ ability to convey that they are producing real organic food, in the tradition of pioneer farmers who began the organic movement. It is unfortunate that this add-on label is necessary, but USDA has demonstrated over the past few years that it is unwilling to uphold the full integrity of the organic label,” stated Francis Thicke, organic dairy farmer from Fairfield, Iowa, current Real Organic Project Standards Board chair and former National Organic Standards Board member.

To learn more and support, visit: www.RealOrganicProject.org

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The Standards Board in Fairlee, Vermont

Real Organic Project Update 5/15/2018

The Real Organic Project was formed in January of 2018 to educate, promote, and advocate for traditional biological farming, which has come to be called “Organic Farming.” The Real Organic Project is intended to fill the void left by failures of integrity, transparency, and public process in the USDA National Organic Program (NOP). As the NOP has been increasingly reduced to a marketing brand, it is clear that a catalyst is needed to reinvigorate the organic farming movement.

Because the need is so clear, the Real Organic Project has quickly gathered forty-five prominent organic advocates to serve on the three boards (Executive, Standards, and Advisory). Twenty-eight of the board members are farmers. Five are current members of the NOSB. Eight are former NOSB members. Eight have PhDs in soil science. The many board members’ commitment is a clear demonstration of the depth and breadth of community support for this effort.

Our planned projects are intended to raise the public awareness and participation in the movement to sustain an agriculture based on improving soil health. We support the traditional model of small family organic farms, but we also welcome larger farms that seriously follow the principle of “feed the soil, not the plant.” We advocate for farming based on pastured livestock and soil-based cropping.

To support the Real Organic Project, please visit www.realorganicproject.org to become a member.

Our initial efforts are focused on the creation of an add-on label to the USDA organic label. This wrap-around label will prohibit hydroponic and CAFO production, instead requiring practices that maintain and improve the health of the soil. Our simple standards for the wrap-around label were set by the Real Organic Standards Board in late March.

The fifteen-member Standards Board came together in Vermont from all over the country. They met for two intensive days of debate and hard work after many weeks of preparation.

People came from all over the country to prepare the standards.
People came from all over the country to prepare the standards.

The result is a thirty-one page document that lays out the standards. The Real Organic Project has released the Provisional Standards on our website:

Real Organic Provisional Standards 
www.realorganicproject.org/provisional-standards

These seven short standards are the missing heart of the NOP standards. They have all been discussed at great length by the NOSB over the years. These are the standards that most in the organic community support and want enforced by the USDA. They are the basis of our wrap-around ADD-ON label, and they are the foundation of organic.

To sum up briefly, the standards are:

  1. Origin of Livestock. In current NOP rules, producers can continuously transition dairy animals into organic over time. This standard ends that loophole.
  2. Grazing Requirement. There is strong evidence that current NOP grazing requirements are not being met. This standard tightens the current standard, and it will be enforced.
  3. Grown in the Ground. Current NOP decisions permit 100% hydroponic production with no relationship between the soil and plants. This standard mirrors the recently passed EU standard that requires crops to be grown in the soil, in contact with the subsoil, in contact with the bedrock.
  4. Soil Management. Current NOP language requires certified farms to maintain and improve the fertility of the soil, but these standards are often not being met. This standard simply reinforces the language and intention of OFPA and the NOP language.
  5. Greenhouse Production. NOP standards around greenhouse production have never been set. This standard prohibits the use of 100% artificial lighting and requires an energy plan to show steady progress in reducing the carbon footprint.
  6. Animal Welfare. Following the recent rejection of the animal welfare standard (known as OLPP), CAFO production of poultry has become accepted in NOP certification. Our standard requires genuine outdoor access for all animals. It also addresses other animal welfare concerns, such as tail docking and beak trimming, that are needed in farming systems that allow overcrowding of livestock.
  7. Split Farms. This standard limits the circumstances in which an organic farm can produce non-certified crops.

To see the full standards, please visit
realorganicproject.org/provisional-standards/

We listened carefully to each other. Electronic devices were banned for two days!
We listened carefully to each other. Electronic devices were banned for two days!

It is important to note that none of these standards are radical or extreme. They are conservative in embracing some of the foundational ideals of organic farming. They are meant as a return to the root. As the USDA organic seal is being stretched by the economic forces seeking to take advantage of the strong desire among consumers for healthier food, it is easy to forget that consumers are not just looking for another label but rather for food that is actually being grown in a different way. This label will be an attempt to bring transparency back to the NOP. The vast majority of certified organic farms will easily meet these “new” standards, which have been well vetted by countless hours of discussion over the years. It is the small number of CAFOs and HYDROs that will not qualify. And it is those same farms that are hiding behind the organic label to sell their products to an unsuspecting public.

All we are seeking is transparency. Our message is clear and simple. Organic farming must be based on healthy soil, with plants and animals as an integral part of that soil ecosystem. The only radical thing about our new standards is that they have been rejected by the USDA. They are a return to the fundamental beliefs of organic farming.

Our thanks to the people who worked for weeks and then traveled from all over the country to create these standards. This is a group of highly respected organic champions. They are farmers and advocates. Five are former NOSB members. Four are current NOC members. Six are Committee members of the Organic Farmers Association. Three are Board or staff of the Cornucopia Institute. All have worked for many years to protect organic. They came from California, Texas, Iowa, Georgia, North Carolina, Florida, Pennsylvania, Maine, Colorado, Washington DC, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Vermont.

We lived on organic carrots and Green Mountain coffee for two days.
We lived on organic carrots and Green Mountain coffee for two days.

The standards will be tested in 2018 in a Pilot Program involving approximately fifty farms around the country. We have hired an Associate Director to coordinate the Program applications and to be responsible for the inspections. Some of the inspections will be done working with a few trusted certifiers at the same time as the NOP inspections, but most will be done by our own inspectors, traveling around the country to the participating farms.

Farmers are already volunteering to join in the Pilot Project. We will select strong candidates from different regions across the country representing diverse farm types. At present, certification will be limited to U.S. farms and will not include processing.

Tentative fees for the certification will average $200 per farm.

We are planning to conduct third-party on-site inspections every five years. For the four years between on-site inspections, farms will fill out an affidavit reporting on their practices. Any concerns or reports of problems will result in more frequent and immediate on-site inspections.

The inspector will film three-minute videos of each farm that will be posted on our website so that customers and other farmers can see for themselves how the food is grown. Know your farmer.

We believe that the label will gain national attention due to farmer and community support in spreading the word. We are working with a lawyer to ensure we have as little exposure to lawsuits as possible, but if we are sued, we intend to turn that into another opportunity to let people know what is happening. We have an enormous microphone, and we will use it.

These are the seven NOSB members who voted to block hydroponics last November in Jacksonville. Six of them are current board members of the Real Organic Project.
These are the seven NOSB members who voted to block hydroponics last November in Jacksonville. Six of them are current board members of the Real Organic Project.

These are the seven NOSB members who voted to block hydroponics last November in Jacksonville. Six of them are current board members of the Real Organic Project.

At the Real Organic Project, we haven’t given up on reform. Indeed, five of our board members are current members of the NOSB. Nine are former members. This is not a group that has given up on the NOP. But it is certainly a group that sees how very difficult real reform will be. Until reform succeeds, we must be trying other strategies.

As CAFOs and hydroponics become an ever bigger part of the certified organic products, the public is being ever more misled. And the real organic farms who still make up the vast majority of certified operations are being lost in the shuffle. A recent story written by Cornucopia noted that the remaining 6 “organic” dairy farms in Texas (all large CAFOs) produce one and a half times more milk than the 450 certified family dairy farms in Wisconsin. We now see the organic family dairy farms being driven out of business in Vermont and California by CAFOs every day.

Aurora Dairy in Dublin, Texas. Photo by Cornucopia Institute
Aurora Dairy in Dublin, Texas. Photo by Cornucopia Institute

Many of our Board members are also members of the Organic Farmers Association and were involved in Congressional lobbying efforts this Spring. The news in Washington on the upcoming Farm Bill was grim, as the House and the Senate are taking turns tearing apart the integrity and accessibility of the NOP to American farmers. The House is proposing to cut off cost-share funding that helps farms get certified. This will have the biggest effect on the smallest farms and beginning farmers. At the same time, the Senate is proposing to open OFPA (Organic Food Production Act) to restructure the NOSB to be even more favorable to industrial farms.

Dave Chapman meeting with Bernie Sanders and NOFA VT's Maddie Kempner during an OFA fly-in to Washington before the Farm Bill in April.
Dave Chapman meeting with Bernie Sanders and NOFA VT’s Maddie Kempner during an OFA fly-in to Washington before the Farm Bill in April.

It is chilling to see that all of the requests to the Senate by Theo Crisantes of Wholesum Harvest are coming to pass. When Crisantes testified to the Senate Ag Committee less than a year ago, he made three radical requests:

  1. That hydroponics be fully permitted by the NOP.
  2. That the NOP stop working on “outlier” issues like animal welfare, and in particular on outside access for poultry.
  3. That the NOSB be reformed to include more representation for industrial farming and the bigger corporate chains.

It is hard to believe that so much has been lost in such a short time. Since Crisantes testified in July of 2017, hydroponics have been fully approved by the NOP, despite language in OFPA and the 2010 NOSB recommendation to the contrary. The USDA has rejected ANY standards on animal welfare as being irrelevant to organic certification. And now the Senate Ag Committee is working to change the NOSB for the worse in the newest Farm Bill.

Theo Crisantes of the Coalition for Sustainable Organics testifying to the Senate in 2017
Theo Crisantes of the Coalition for Sustainable Organics testifying to the Senate in 2017

When Crisantes testified to the Senate, he was speaking as the owner of Wholesum Harvest, but he was also speaking as the spokesperson for the Coalition For Sustainable Organics. The Coalition is a secretive group of hydroponic producers. We don’t know who their members are, nor how big their budget is. We do know that they managed to gain an invitation to speak for the organic community to the Senate Ag Committee, when well-respected groups like the National Organic Coalition have never been permitted to speak.

This can only happen through well-paid lobbyists exerting tremendous influence. We discuss this dark chapter because we have to understand what we are up against. These groups are promoting an “alternative organic” quite different from the traditional meaning. So please contact your legislators asking them to protect organic integrity in the Farm Bill.

A bright note is the recent vote by the European Commission to extend the current EU ban on hydroponics in organic to all of the EU countries. This ban will be slowly moved to full enforcement in the three Nordic countries where some form of hydro is currently permitted in certification. The same bill (much like the U.S. Farm Bill) calls for a prohibition on allowing USDA imports of hydroponics as organic.

We are not alone.

Many thanks,
Dave Chapman

p.s. Please forward this letter to any friends who might be interested.

p.p.s. Please post the Rally video on Facebook to spread the word:

p.p.p.s. if you’re new to these letters: I’m Dave Chapman, organic farmer at Long Wind Farm in Vermont. I write occasional updates on important things I think you’d like to know about the organic farming movement.

A quick update on the Real Organic Project

Since my last letter to you on February 16, a lot has happened! Here’s a quick update on where we are now, what’s coming up in March, and something you can do now that will help our friends at the Cornucopia Institute. —Dave

p.s. if you’re new to these letters: I’m Dave Chapman, organic farmer at Long Wind Farm in Vermont. I write occasional updates on important things I think you’d like to know about the organic farming movement.

If you enjoy this newsletter, perhaps you’d like to share it with your friends by sending them to www.realorganicproject.org and inviting them to give us their email address.

Rally to Protect Organic at Jacksonville
Rally to Protect Organic at Jacksonville

We are hard at work on the simple standards that will define our organic add-on label. In three weeks our fifteen-person Standards Board will come together in Vermont from around the country to create the provisional standards. We will send out an update after that meeting to describe progress on the upcoming pilot project.

Dave speaking at NOFA Summer Conference 2017
Dave speaking at NOFA Summer Conference 2017

This Saturday I will be giving the keynote address at the NOFA CT Winter Conference in Danbury. I will talk about why the Real Organic Project was formed, and what we hope to accomplish in the coming years.

Please join me if you can make it. We will be showing the short film of The Rallies to Protect Organic at the beginning of the talk. Sign up for the NOFA conference or to stream the keynote:

Sign up for NOFA CT Winter Conference

Campaign: “Just Ask”

Ask store teams about what they are selling as organic
Ask store teams about what they are selling as organic

One of the programs we are most excited about is the “Just Ask” campaign, urging eaters all over the country to ask the staff where they shop whether the certified organic tomatoes and berries offered are hydroponic or are they real organic grown in the soil. And eaters will ask if the eggs and meat and milk came from CAFOs or from farms where the animals got real access to pasture every day.

The “Just Ask” campaign has the same goal as the current effort from Cornucopia Institute to Demand Real Organic Food From Real Organic Farmers. Cornucopia wants all organic eaters to send them a card asking major retailers to offer genuine organic choices. If we speak up, the stores will respond. Please visit them and support this campaign:

Demand Real Organic Food

There has been a flurry of articles about the Real Organic Project:

Modern Farmer:
The Real Organic Project: Disgusted With the USDA, Farmers Make Their Own Organic Label

IEG Policy:
Organic farmers launch effort for add-on label after disappointing NOSB actions

Agri-Pulse:
Organic purists hatching an auxiliary label

Organic Farmers Association:
Organic Farmers Write Letter to Secretary Perdue

Finally, we have had a few more people join the Real Organic Advisory Board since my 2/16 letter. We are very proud of many voices that have come together to support us:

David Montgomery and Anne Biklé
David Montgomery and Anne Biklé

Anne Bicklé & David Montgomery are Dig2Grow, a husband & wife and a pair of writers who live in Seattle. Dave is a broad-minded geologist and Anne is a free-range biologist with a bad case of plant lust. They chose Dig2Grow because “that’s what happens when you write, talk, and act on things that matter to the well-being of people and our one-and-only planet.”

They both speak widely on the complex world of soil, plants, and animals. They have become champions for the revolution of regenerative agriculture taking place worldwide.

David is a professor of geomorphology at the University of Washington. He is also a MacArthur Fellow. Anne is a biologist with wide-ranging interests that have led her into watershed restoration, environmental planning, and public health.

David has written Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life and Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations. Anne and David co-wrote the book The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health.

Maddie Kempner
Maddie Kempner

Maddie Kempner is the Policy Director of NOFA VT. Maddie worked with the VT Right to Know GMOs Coalition to help pass Vermont’s GMO labeling law. Maddie is passionate about advocating for positive food and farm policy change.

She has a Master of Environmental Law and Policy from Vermont Law School. Active in the movement to Keep The Soil In Organic, Maddie has spoken at Rallies in both Vermont and Jacksonville, Florida. She has testified numerous times to the NOSB to protect organic integrity.

 

Zoë Ida Bradbury
Zoë Ida Bradbury

Zoë Ida Bradbury. Born onto a sheep ranch along the southern Oregon coast, Zoë grew up birthing lambs in the spring, watching salmon spawn in the fall, and taming plums and tomatoes into canning jars all summer. Her love for food, farming and rural livelihood ultimately lured her back to her native southern Oregon where she has run a diversified fresh market farm — Valley Flora — since 2008, on land shared with her mother and sister.

With her two young daughters in tow, she cultivates a couple hundred varieties of vegetable, berry, fruit, herb and flower crops for local restaurants, foodbanks, farmstand, u-pick, and 100+ CSA shares (all with the help of one old electric tractor, one young diesel tractor, three draft horses, and a couple of wonderful employees).

She graduated from Stanford University and has a masters degree in Community Change and Food Systems. She is a Food & Society Policy Fellow, has written for a number of publications over the years, and co-edited Greenhorns: 50 Dispatches from the New Farmers’ Movement.

Steve Ela
Steve Ela

Steve Ela is a farmer from Colorado. He is co-owner of Ela Family Farms, which has been certified organic since 1996. He is a current member of the National Organic Standards Board. He was an Organic Farming Research Foundation board member from 2001–2011 and previous OFRF board Chairman.

Steve has been an organizer for several National Organic Tree Fruit Research Symposiums and has participated in and written grants for numerous research projects. Steve has a Master’s in Soil Science, and has served on a wide variety of Boards and Advisory Committees addressing food and agriculture issues nationally, regionally, and locally.

Mary Ellen Chadd
Mary Ellen Chadd

Mary Ellen Chadd started Green Spark Farm in 2009 and now farms full-time year-round with her husband and two little daughters. Mary Ellen attended Evergreen State College majoring in Ecological Agriculture and Community Food Systems.

Before starting her farm in her home-town area in Maine, she worked with the New American Sustainable Agriculture Project there, writing curriculum and training refugees and new Americans in farming systems, marketing for farmers, and farm business planning.

She contributes to the new farmer community by speaking at MOFGA classes and events. Her farm has employed and mentored six young farmers who have gone on to start their own farm businesses.

Will Allen
Will Allen

Will Allen grew up on a small farm in Southern California. He served in the Marine Corps. Will earned his Ph.D. in Anthropology in 1968, studying tropical forest farmers in Peru. Will taught at the University of Illinois and later at the University of California.

He began farming organically in the Santa Barbara area in 1968. He founded Ganesha Growers in 1977 and was one of the first organic farmers in the San Joaquin Valley. He served on the board of California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) and helped write the first organic handbook for CCOF. He served on the board and conference committee of the Ecological Farming Association for a dozen years. Will founded the Sustainable Cotton Project (SCP) in 1990 to help farmers learn how to grow organic cotton, convince garment makers to use organic fibers, and reduce farmworker pesticide injuries. SCP convinced Patagonia, Esprit, Levis, Marks and Spencer, Nike, and other garment makers to use organic fibers.

In 2000, he took over the management of Cedar Circle Farm, in East Thetford, Vermont along with his wife Kate Duesterberg. Their activist efforts resulted in the creation of a coalition for labeling GMO products in Vermont. They were successful, and Vermont became the first state in the US to pass a GMO labeling law in 2014. In 2016, Will transitioned his focus to co-found a new non-profit organization called Regeneration Vermont. The goal of Regeneration Vermont is to redirect Vermont agriculture toward regenerative methods that protect and enhance the natural environment, produce healthy food products, provide economic justice to farmers and farm workers, promote animal welfare, and implement climate change remediation through an understanding of, and commitment to, healthy, living soils. Will serves as the Research Director for the organization.

Will’s first book, The War on Bugs, was published by Chelsea Green in 2008.

Kate Duesterberg
Kate Duesterberg

Kate Duesterberg received a Master’s Degree from Southern Illinois University in Community Development & Ag Economics. Since graduate school, Kate has worked to promote local, organic farming – from the perspective of policy advocate, community organizer, institutional change advocate, and farm manager. She started her activist career as Sustainable Agriculture program coordinator at Illinois Stewardship Alliance and then at Rural Vermont, two NGOs working to promote sustainable farming. Kate worked at the University of Vermont (UVM), where she helped establish the UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture. A major focus was to organize programs to help farmers and agricultural professionals (Extension, NRCS, Department of Agriculture) learn about sustainable and organic farming techniques, calling upon experienced farmers as teachers. Kate also worked with the Women’s Agricultural Network at UVM and the Sustainable Cotton Project in California as managing director.

Since 2000, Kate has co-managed Cedar Circle Farm in East Thetford, Vermont. In 2016, Kate, Will, and their partner Michael Colby founded a new non-profit organization called Regeneration Vermont. The goal of Regeneration Vermont is to redirect Vermont agriculture toward regenerative methods that protect and enhance the natural environment, produce healthy food products, provide economic justice to farmers and farm workers, promote animal welfare, and implement climate change remediation through an understanding of — and commitment to — healthy, living soils.

The Real Organic Project is born

Dear Friends of Organic,

I just wanted to let you know that the Real Organic Project has been born. I’d like to review the past and take a look at the future of certified organic farming. If you care about organic, please forward this letter to your friends.

The Past

It has not been a good year for the National Organic Program. Since the November NOSB (National Organic Standards Board) meeting in Jacksonville failed to prohibit HYDRO, the organic community has gone through a period of questioning and searching. We are wrestling with the basic question, “Can we trust the USDA to protect organic integrity?”

Following a series of devastating articles about the NOP (National Organic Program) in the Washington Post last year, all the news from the USDA has been bad. In September, the USDA exonerated the enormous Aurora Dairy CAFO (Confinement Animal Feeding Operation) of any wrongdoing at their Colorado “farm.” This dairy operation was described in detail in one WaPo article, along with compelling test results to prove the cattle weren’t on pasture. The government approval set the stage for Aurora to build several new CAFOs that will dwarf the current 15,000-cow operation.

For the supporters of CAFO Organic: Mission Accomplished.

A certified “organic” Aurora dairy facility. Image courtesy of Cornucopia.
A certified “organic” Aurora dairy facility. Image courtesy of Cornucopia.

Then the USDA abandoned the animal welfare reforms (called OLPP) which had finally been approved under Obama. This rejection by the USDA was the result of intense lobbying from such groups as the Coalition For Sustainable Organics (in their Senate testimony), American Farm Bureau, and the National Pork Producers Council. They were championed by the ranking members of the Senate Agriculture Committee, protecting enormous “organic” egg CAFOs in their home states. The USDA thus cleared the way for CAFOs to continue receiving “organic” certification.

Once again, for CAFO meat, milk, and egg operations: Mission Accomplished.

This is a conventional CAFO. There are no pictures permitted of “organic” CAFOs, but they look the same.
This is a conventional CAFO. There are no pictures permitted of “organic” CAFOs, but they look the same.

Then in January, the USDA announced that “Certification of hydroponic, aquaponic and aeroponic operations is allowed under the USDA organic regulations, and has been since the National Organic Program began.” This was an interesting rewriting of history, but who cares about the facts?

For the soilless HYDRO growers: Mission Accomplished.

Wholesum Harvest, which insists that it is not a hydroponic producer.
Wholesum Harvest, which insists that it is not a hydroponic producer.

Finally, the USDA recently told the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) that, going forward, they will be severely limited in the scope of their work. They will not address big questions about organic integrity. They will not set their own agenda. They will limit their focus to defining what substances will be permitted in organic certification.

These outcomes (allowing hydro, setting aside animal welfare, and reducing the role of the NOSB) are exactly what Theo Crisantes of the Coalition For Sustainable Organics called for when he testified before the Senate Ag Committee last year.

Mission Accomplished.

Theo Crisantes testifying for the Coalition For Sustainable Organics to the Senate Ag Committee.
Theo Crisantes testifying for the Coalition For Sustainable Organics to the Senate Ag Committee.

It would appear that the USDA is no longer even bothering to woo the organic community with sweet talk. They are bluntly speaking their truth, which is that “Certified Organic” means whatever they want it to mean, and to hell with the organic community. And apparently, to hell with OFPA as well. Organic is all about marketing, isn’t it?

For the many people who have spent years working hard to build the integrity of the NOP, this is a dismal moment. We have lost the helm, and the New Organic will not have much to do with the ideals of such pioneers as Albert Howard and Eve Balfour. It will have to do with money. Money will decide what is called “certified organic” and what isn’t.

And so, if we still care about those ideals, we must move on. The National Organic Program will continue to flourish. Many people will still turn to it to find safer food. Many good people will still work hard to make the NOP as honest and positive as possible. But the NOP will be controlled by politicians and lobbyists who have no belief in the mission of the organic farming movement.

Two amazing cartoons by Gary Larson show the evolution of the corporate takeover of the NOP. The first cartoon shows the beginning of seeing that it is easier to win if you look like the sheep.

So ten years ago, some CAFO farms started to “talk organic.” They discovered that a lucrative market could be exploited while still embracing the conventional model of confinement feeding of livestock.

"Hey! I think you’ve hit on something there! Sheep’s clothing! Sheep’s clothing! . . . Let’s get out of these gorilla suits!”
“Hey! I think you’ve hit on something there! Sheep’s clothing! Sheep’s clothing! . . . Let’s get out of these gorilla suits!”

"Wait a minute! Isn’t anyone here a real sheep?"
“Wait a minute! Isn’t anyone here a real sheep?”

The second Larson cartoon shows where the National Organic Program is headed in another ten years. What happens when the organic market is mostly filled with CAFO and HYDRO production? Will eaters still trust the USDA Organic Seal?


 

The Rallies

Last Fall we saw an unprecedented turnout from the organic community trying to reclaim the NOP. This culminated in the final Rally at Jacksonville and two days of farmer testimony.

The sad outcome was that the farmers were ignored. It turned out that many members of the NOSB really didn’t understand what organic meant. We failed to win even a simple majority in the NOSB vote to prohibit HYDRO. We faced an enormous and successful lobbying effort by the protectors of HYDRO such as OTA, CCOF, and the Coalition For Sustainable Organics. These seem to be the Champions of New Organic.

There is now a short video of the many Rallies. It’s an inspiring short watch, please give it a click to view: Facebook // YouTube

Keep the Soil in Organic Rallies Video
Keep the Soil in Organic Rallies Video


What happens now?

Real Organic ProjectThis winter, a growing group of farmers and eaters have formed the Real Organic Project. The Real Organic Project will work to support real organic farming.

This will involve a number of efforts, starting with the creation of a new “Add-On” label to represent the organic farming that we have always cared about. It will use USDA certification as a base, but it will have a small number of critical additional requirements. These will differentiate it from the CAFOs, HYDROs, and import cheaters that are currently USDA certified.

This group grew out of several meetings of Vermont farmers who believed that the USDA label was no longer something that could represent us. Starting a new label is not a small task, but we can no longer find an alternative. That small group of Vermonters has grown quickly into a national group. This amazing group of organic advocates has gathered to build something new. Scroll below to see who we are.

Standards Board // We now have a 15-member Standards Board (listed below), based on the model of the NOSB, but with much greater representation from the organic community. The 15 volunteers have a wealth of experience in both farming and regulation. There are 9 farmer members, as well as representatives from NGOs, stores, consumers, scientists, and certifiers.

The group includes 5 former NOSB members, as well as leading farmers and advocates from across the country. They will meet in March to set the first standards. They will continue to meet once a year after that to review and update. This first year there will be a pilot project with a small number of farms to test the certifying process and work out the details.

Advisory Board // There is also a distinguished Advisory Board that currently has 18 members, including 4 former NOSB members and 3 current NOSB members. It also includes many well known organic pioneers such as Eliot Coleman and Fred Kirschenmann.

Executive Board // And finally, there is an Executive Board of 5 people that includes one current NOSB member.

These boards will work together to reconnect and unite our community. Our intent is transformational. We will create a label that we can trust again.


Please Join Us

We can only succeed with your support. Go to realorganicproject.org to become a member. Make a donation to help make this new label into a reality. We are only supported by our sweat and your generosity. We can reclaim the meaning of the organic label together.

Join the Real Organic Project


Upcoming Events

This weekend, Feb 17 and 18, there will be a roundtable discussion both days at the NOFA VT Winter Conference. We will meet after lunch (1 to 2 PM).

  • On Saturday we will be discussing “National Organic Program: Where Are We?”
  • On Sunday at the same time we will be discussing “National Organic Program: Where Are We Going?”
  • NOFA will be showing the Many Rallies video at the lunchtime Plenary Session.
    For anyone interested, I will be giving the keynote address at the NOFA CT Winter Conference on March 10. I will be discussing these issues and be giving an update on the Real Organic Project.

The Night They Drove Organic Down

And all the bells were ringing.

The Organic Movement: Try. Fail. Fail again. Fail better. A call to action from an organic moderate.

 

 

Jacksonville

Looking back on the USDA meeting in Jacksonville, I am left with anger, grief, and a sense of urgency that we keep moving forward. The meeting of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) was a historical turning point for the National Organic Program (NOP). It was a watershed moment.

After massive scandal and fraud in recent years, this was our last chance to regain the lost integrity of the organic seal. The regulatory issue up for a vote was whether soil is the necessary foundation for organic farming. If soil isn’t required, hydroponics will lead the way to a New USDA Organic. But the bigger issue was the integrity of the National Organic Program. Does it stand for real organic, or has it become a marketing tool for industrial agriculture?

This has become an international issue, as a debate takes place between the organic movement and the hydro industry. Organic has always been about the soil. In our world of Walganic, soil is easily forgotten by recent converts. They ask, “Isn’t it just about pesticides?”

No.

All of the organic philosophy is about building the health of the soil. All the benefits of health and climate come from a fertile soil. If you can get the soil right, then you don’t need pesticides. Not all traditional farming is organic. Some of it was very destructive and created most of today’s deserts. There was a time that Afghanistan more closely resembled Austria.

But at the same time that the European Commission is strengthening organic standards to prohibit hydro, the National Organic Program is collapsing like a house of cards.

The hydro forces were arrayed against us with Driscoll’s, Wholesum Harvest, Organic Trade Association, California Certified Organic Farmers, and United Natural Foods Inc working together to get hydro approved. We were wearing t-shirts that said, “Protect Organic.” But they wanted to Protect Money, not Organic. Money is what connects these groups.

The Jacksonville meeting had a feel of the gunfight at the OK Corral. Organic pioneers and advocates came from as far away as Europe, and from as close as downtown Jacksonville. We were united by common beliefs about soil and health. We were there to celebrate and defend real organic, not to attack hydro.

Washington Post: Pioneers Of Organic Farming Are Threatening To Leave The Program They Helped Create

Wholesum is big by my standards, but Driscoll’s dwarfs them as one of the two biggest organic producers in the world. They are also the biggest conventional berry producer in the world. They are BIG. If we took Driscoll’s out of the equation, the whole fight would have disappeared. Driscolls brought Organic Trade Association and CCOF to the hydro side. Without them we would have won this years ago. The “debate” would be over.

There was a Rally to Protect Organic, with 65 farmers and eaters during the lunch break on the first day. We marched behind a brass band and spoke at a plaza to recall what the word organic stands for. There were 14 other rallies across the country leading up to Jacksonville, but there has never been such a gathering as took place that day. Farmers who have taught the rest of us for many years, such as Eliot Coleman and Fred Kirschenmann, inspired us with their call to action. Younger farmers such as Linley Dixon, Dan Bensonoff, and Tom Barrett traveled far to support real organic.

The march was led by Anais Beddard, a 29 year-old farmer who is the second generation to run Lady Moon Farms, and Eliot Coleman, the 78 year old pioneer who helped the USDA write its first report on organic farming 37 years ago (8 years before Anais was born!). Between them marched 92-year-old Emily Dale, who attributes her long life and health to eating organic food.

To hear Eliot Coleman talk about the importance of soil, click here.


Four current NOSB members and six former NOSB members, joined us at the Rally, as well as farmers from all over the country.  Most of that crowd was well qualified to serve on the NOSB as well. They included scientists, policy activists, and eaters. Anglos and people of color. Women and men. Young and old. They were people who cared about food and how it is grown. They were highly informed leaders of the organic movement.