We focus on education and research. So we do on-farm research in areas like soil health and nutrient density and financial viability.
I am also a farmer representative to Rodale’s Organic Farmers Association (OFA) on their policy committee. So we’ve been working on issues like hydroponics, livestock rule, the strength of the NOSB.
When we first heard about the Real Organic Project it sort of seemed like, oh, well this is really standing for many of the areas that are under debate right now in organics and that we want to stand on the right side of.
I’m not too much of a person really to be pounding on what we shouldn’t be doing. But there are some things I know we should be doing.
And you know Debra mentioned that we raise poultry on pasture and the organic label has to stand for animals being on pasture. It just has to.
And so my work with the Organic Farmers Association and through PASA, we just really believe that to be able to sustain our soils in order to be able to grow far into the future.
We’ve gotta be feeding our soils. And I’m a big believer that animals on pasture as part of that answer.
Debra: Living in East Africa in an area where many, folks were food insecure, the idea of producing food for people became very important to my dad, as what he wanted to do when he came back and producing it in a way that maintained the health of the soil and the land and the ecosystem around was hugely important, too.
So he, like my grandfather, really believed that in having food that had integrity, and believed that to have food with integrity you need farmers with integrity.
We do have about 35 acres and we only grow in a given year, we have probably 10 to 12 in vegetable production.
So we have a long rotation that includes both perennial cover crops as well as trying to put in short season cover crops wherever we can.
My father was a strong believer and I agree with him that organic farming should not just be input substitution of conventional farming where you’re just applying off-farm inputs in order to keep your plants having the fertility they need, but needs to be provided from the roots up building the soil quality and organic matter and using nitrogen fixing cover crops for your plants.
So we do have both a long rotation, which helps with that having plant material that’s returning carbon and nutrients to the soil as well as we do integrate livestock whether that be our herd of sheep or poultry.
I mean, normally we just have two years in vegetables and then we’ll plant it clover grass mixture and we’ll be grazing for a couple of years.
And we do some of our own on-farm composting, too, that we apply prior to planting cover crops where we’re normally doing off-farm compost for crops we’re planting and harvesting it that year.
But for really getting a good cover crop stand we often apply our own compost ahead of those plantings.
Most people’s parents want them to go off and be a lawyer or a doctor, but my parents really I think I’ve said it once before, but I do believe that they believe that being a farmer is one of the highest callings that a person can follow through with and devote oneself to.
Even if it’s a long day of weeding carrots.
Hannah: She loves to weed carrots, it’s like her favorite thing to do!
Jean-Martin Fortier doesn’t need to be certified with the Canadian Organic Growers. But he is. He doesn’t need to be certified with the Real Organic Project. But he is.
Selling all of his crops directly to eaters and restaurants, JM is a living example of Know Your Farmer. JM (as he is known to his friends) is already seen by his customers as a skilled organic farmer growing the highest quality food. For JM’s customers, Know Your Farmer is a reality. He is one of the most accessible vegetable farmers in the world. His activities go way beyond just growing food. He is also an author, a teacher and a social activist. His best-selling book, The Market Gardener: A Successful Grower’s Handbook for Small-Scale Organic Farming, has sold over 100,000 copies. It has been translated into 8 languages. His sophisticated online training program, The Market Gardener’s Masterclass, has been subscribed to by thousands of farmers around the world. And for eaters, the highly popular reality show “The Farmers” follows the day to day adventures of the crew at JM’s new farm, La Ferme Des Quatre-Temps. His highly selective on-farm training program for the next generation of organic farmers is successful. After two years of training and hard work, crew members are ready to start their own farms, spreading these ideas and techniques like mycorrhizal fungi.
We inspected JM’s new farm a month ago. It was a pleasure to spend a few hours with this gentle man who is so deeply committed to organic farming. He made clear that his reasons for getting certified were more political than economic. He grieves over the corporate destruction of the organic label, and is happy to join other farmers in an effort to salvage that which we have all built.
JM gladly acknowledges his debt to organic pioneer Eliot Coleman, just as Eliot gives a respectful nod to the many who have taught and inspired him. JM’s farm is named after Eliot’s own Four Seasons Farm in Maine, translated to Quebecois French.
After spending a few hours with JM, I was filled with both hope and sadness. He is a builder and example of an alternate path. And he sees the destructive power of our current economic system, that sculpts all of us.
I was struck by the stark contrast between JM’s message and a recent article in Civil Eats called, “After 10 Years of Rapid Growth, What Does Organic Mean Today?” This article asked 4 “organic experts” what they thought the impact was of the last ten years of USDA organic certification. The first thing that struck me was that, while there might have been farmers in the picture, there wasn’t a single farmer in the group of “experts”. All of them are Washington players, quoted in the national media, but unknown to most farmers. This is quite typical of USDA organic conversations. Where are the farmers? Go to any National Organic Standards Board meeting, and you will find hundreds of people wearing suits, but very few farmers in attendance. Sometimes a few of the 4 “farmer members” of the NOSB are not even farmers. Are we so hard to find? In 2017 over 60 organic farmers actually went to the NOSB meeting in Jacksonville. And their testimony was ignored.
Apparently, farmers are not that important in the New Organic. I am still trying to wrap my head around the 2016 OTA presentation that told me that only 1% of organic producers are from North America, but 47% of organic sales in the world are in North America. No wonder so little land in North America has been converted to organic.
The Civil Eats panel was made up of Kathleen Merrigan, Laura Batcha, Abby Youngblood, and Rudy Arredondo. I will let you read the article to learn more about these people, but I was particularly depressed by some comments that Dr. Merrigan made. She was responding to the question from Civil Eats, “There have been reports about fraudulent organic imports, and some consumers are confused about the value or the meaning of organic. There’s also a suggestion that the organic label has been diluted or co-opted. How should the integrity of the organic label be protected?”
Kathleen responded, “I think that [divisiveness] comes from a historic feeling of disempowerment—people who were farming organically back in the day were decried by neighbors, made fun of, not treated kindly at all by government. So there is this historic feeling of disempowerment or minority gotta-fight. And it’s something that I don’t see in other agriculture domains where industry seems to work out differences with their stakeholders in better processes that don’t lead to a public blood bath. Take the recent controversy over the use of glyphosate in hydroponic systems. Well, USDA, in a matter of months, realized the error of their ways and they’re changing [the rule]. But it got blasted all over the place. And consumers don’t get to get the same blast of information when the situation is fixed, or on the way to being fixed.”
I think that Kathleen’s version of events is taking some serious liberties with the facts. Jenny Tucker and Laura Batcha (executive director of the Organic Trade Association also in this article) both knew that we had credible reports that glyphosate was being applied just prior to organic certification of hydroponic containers. Before the debate concluded, we had hard proof.
Apparently, the USDA no longer certifies farms, but rather “containers.”
This usage of prohibited inputs immediately prior to certification was reported months before “it got blasted all over the place.” I actually expected that our earlier revelation would cause a dramatic response of outrage and investigation. But that only happened after we “blasted it all over the place” months later.
Jenny Tucker, head of the USDA’s National Organic Program, knew of these reports for quite a while, and her only response was to continually insist that there was no transition period required for hydroponics. Only AFTER the public blasting began, Jenny finally responded in the most confusing way possible, stonewalling and avoiding the issue. And she is still avoiding the issue of transition time for hydroponic production in greenhouses. Despite certifiers requests for clarification, no clarity is offered.
Which is to say, change only came AFTER people stood up and talked loudly about what was happening. AFTER there was public outrage, and after it became clear that this was “not a settled issue.”
And as leading “blasters” we certainly sent out an announcement about the positive change in USDA policy. It was a victory, and we wanted to share the good news. We are not arsonists. We are firefighters. Don’t blame us that the house is on fire.
So we have a stark contrast between JM and Kathleen. Two good people. A farmer and a bureaucrat. Kathleen has worked her entire life to be a good public servant. She was a powerful positive force in the USDA, after being a co-author of the Organic Food Production Act while working for Senator Leahy. It was not an easy task. She continues to be a force for good as a college professor and serves on many non-profit boards. I acknowledge and bow to her life of service, but I also hold her accountable for her public statements. Her work is not done. Our work is not done. If those in positions of power like Kathleen and Laura were more successful at protecting organic farming (and not just the brand), farmers like JM and many others could stick with farming. But silence has not proven to be a successful strategy for change.
There are three major failures of the USDA in protecting organic:
The USDA certifies CAFOs as organic. This means that some very large dairies and poultry operations are ignoring the requirements to have animals outside on pasture every day that weather permits. These are confinement operations. They sell their calves and buy in conventionally raised replacement heifers. The chickens have never felt the sun on their backs or scratched in the dirt. The outcome is unhappy, unhealthy animals producing inferior milk and eggs sold at prices at which no real organic farmer can survive. This means that consumers can no longer find the organic food they want in stores. Nor can they tell if they have found it.
The USDA certifies hydroponics as organic. This means that very large-scale hydro operations, both in greenhouses and outside on black plastic, are flooding the market with tomatoes, blueberries, strawberries, peppers, and greens grown without the benefits of soil. The nutritional quality must be different. The taste is certainly different. And once again no real organic farmer can survive in selling to supermarkets against such unfair competition. Again, this means that consumers can no longer find the organic food they want in stores.
Fraudulent grain imports continue to flood the US market, helping the CAFO “organic” livestock operations to thrive. Despite enormous public pressure, the USDA seems unable to stem the flow. “This thing gets more bizarre as you go along,” John Bobbe said. “The problem is that consumers are being potentially defrauded, and the price for farmers is going down.” To learn more about this, click here:
Speaking ill of those of us who are working to save the meaning of organic is not helpful. And we are many. Real Organic Project includes many former and current members of the NOSB (National Organic Standards Board), including 4 NOSB chairs. We include leading soil scientists. And of course, we are farmers and eaters. Many farmers and many eaters. We are not the loony brigade and we are not bitter, disenfranchised malcontents. We are the organic movement. We are the spring from which all that industry grows. Please don’t trash us. Please join us.
JM Fortier is a part of the Real Organic Project because he sees it is important, not because he will profit from it. Join JM by signing our petition to Protect Organic.
JM Fortier: I’m super interested in helping with the Real Organic Project because I’m concerned about what’s happening.
Frankly, I feel that some people have worked 30, 40 years promoting organic, educating people about it, being on the ground and developing not only a big business out of it, but just like a sense of awareness, of consciousness.
And then to have it stolen by big corporations, and to have regulations that don’t respect what, you know, the goal of organic is? For me, it’s very shameful and I feel very disturbed by it.
And so however I can support the battle against that, or for something different, I’m on, I’m in, and I’m ready. I’m ready for battle.
Soil fertility for us boils down to not tilling, first of all. So we try to build the soil up. So the first few years we work in permanent raised beds and to clean the beds and to start new crops we tarp them.
So we have a lot of these black plastic tarps that we use to cover the beds. And then it’s the absence of light that destroys what’s underneath. And then we can start fresh. So we don’t till to clean our beds.
And then we have two or three crops per year on these beds, so there’s a rapid turnover. And then one of that three crop will get compost, a heavy dose of compost and then the fertility that we add is chicken manure or alfalfa meal to complement the compost-based fertility program that we have.
One field block is going to be in cover crop for half a year, every four years. The cover crops, we want the root systems to really go down and feed the subsoil but we’re working with compost and we’re working with you know not working the soil. So not to deplete the organic matter and to raise it, rather.
JM Fortier on Real Organic Farming
I believe in organic, that’s the reason why I got into farming.
I believe in soil.
You know, we farm without a tractor. Not because of philosophical reasons, but I like being grounded. I like the soil and I think it’s really good for my health and for the people that I feed with my veggies.
And so, for me, organic is the way to go.
And now there’s problems with the certification because of what’s happening with the USDA and hydroponic being certified, which is terrible because it’s soil-less agriculture.
And I don’t believe in that [certifying hydroponic]. That’s not organic.
In Canada, we have a kind of different setup. So far, the hydroponic systems are not being certified organic, but a lot of the things that are happening in the U.S. then become operating procedures for what’s going to happen in Canada, so…
So for me organic, it’s not just a stamp of approval, meaning that you’re not using pesticides or whatever.
It [organic] means that you’re working with nature, you’re working with the soil and you’re a real caretaker.
That’s what it means to me. And you know eating the food that is not grown in healthy soil, that is grown hydroponically, it’s like being fed like in the hospital when you’re with the medical IV; just like, it’s food, but it doesn’t have the oomph!
And I think that’s why we need farmers that care.
So because we care about soil and then we feed people healthy food and then it creates a vibrant community.
For me, Whole Foods is not the answer. That’s not where it’s happening.
Real Organic Food is Local, Seasonal, and Relational
You know local organic, in-season, with the grower, connecting with a CSA or connecting through a food hub or connecting through, you know whatever, a farmer’s market. That’s where the good food is.
That’s the good food revolution, is to have a lot of these farms present so that we can feed a lot of people. That’s what we need.
That’s something that nobody can ever take away from us and from what I do.
What I’ve observed, this is going to be my 16th – 17th year, is the connection I have with my customers and the kind of vibe that they have coming to my farmer’s stand.
It’s just like they want my food because they taste it, they see the freshness, they feel it, and they see my hands and they see my face and there’s something there that’s real and that’s profound also.
You know and they thank me for the food. And I thank them for being there and there’s a relationship.
And this relationship I don’t think will never be co-opted. I don’t think it’s possible to co-opt this kind of relationship.
From my CSA they’ve come to my farm, I know their kid’s name, there’s this sense of community.
So I think the alternative is going to have a lot of these kinds of circles of like-minded people feeding one another like that.
But you know, there’s going to be a need for a lot of farms to connect on that level, and smaller farms, I think, because if you want to keep it personal, then you’re not wholesaling all the time, you’re direct selling or you’re marketing your stuff in a closer niche market.
So I believe in that. That’s what I do. And I like that.
It really boils down for me to “the food grown with care by people who care.”
And that’s where the farmers, they play a role, because they’re the connector in that way.
Can USDA Organic Be Saved?
Linley Dixon: Do you think organic, USDA organic is salvageable?
JM Fortier: I don’t think it’s salvageable at this time. But that’s very personal. And I wouldn’t want to, you know…
I just feel that there’s a lot of strong forces out there that are not sensitive to… they’re sensitive to money.
And you know, I’m not sure this is going to work out that way.
You know, I think there’s going to be a lot of us from the ground up again. Like it happened 50 years ago. Starting again from scratch.
But I think there is more and more people wanting to connect with farmers. So that’s positive.
It’s not just the label anymore. It’s the farmer. That’s the revolution.
If you’re an organic grower and you’re concerned about this you should definitely check with what the project is doing right now, because it’s creating an alternative and it’s also creating opposition to perhaps counter what’s happening now.
And I believe in that.
Know Your Farmer! JM Fortier
Linley Dixon: Would you like a label that says, “Know Your Farmer”?
JM Fortier: Yeah, I’m down for that. Know your farmer, have a beer with him! You know, that’s the way to do it!
JM to Dave Chapman: Do you sense that I’m not so optimistic? Or…?
Dave Chapman: I feel exactly the same.
JM Fortier: I’m kind of feeling like climate change, the same thing. I’m like, I don’t think we’re going to make it.
Dave Chapman: I feel exactly the same. But I also think it’s the honorable thing is to try.
JM Fortier: Yeah, I agree.
JM Fortier and Dave Chapman on Trying to Stay Positive
Dave Chapman: I’d like to talk a little bit more about what you were just saying, which is that it’s easy to get very pessimistic and you said, we start facing things like climate change and it quickly can become so overwhelming that we become paralyzed.
And the same has been true in my experience with things like the loss of the Organic label and the USDA. It’s either enraging or it completely causes collapse.
So I’m curious what you think about that and what do we do about that. How do we deal with these hard things that we want to change but we often feel powerless to change?
JM Fortier: I don’t have the answer for sure. But I like solutions and I like people that are passionate about it.
Yeah for me climate change and that [the erosion of organic], there’s something very dramatic and sad about organic being stolen.
Like when you think about all the people that have worked towards that, educating people and all that work just kind of being, it’s very, it’s kind of, it always makes me think about Big Brother, and Big Business taking things and just kind of grabbing and yeah we’re fragile, you know.
And I think we should embrace that more, that we’re fragile and we should be careful with everything and stuff and so I don’t know.
I’m in the mood now, I’m not in fighting mode. I’m kind of sad about that.
I’m going to go over, come above it at one point, perhaps do something. But now I’m just kind of like a bit sad about that. At this point.
Dave Chapman: One time when I was in a very rough time in my life Davey [Miskell] said, he said, “well Scott Nearing told me you plant one radish, and then you plant another radish… And it’s just a way of moving from being paralyzed to action.
You know, you live in a world where every day you’re planting and you’re tilling and you’re harvesting, so it’s a world of kind of strong actions and it’s kind of a cure. But what I’m hearing is that it’s kind of a cure for the people who eat your food too. They feel connected to that action.
JM Fortier: Yup, they do.
Dave Chapman: And when they can buy your food and eat it and feel better, feel healthier, they feel like they’re part of some alternative to that…
JM Fortier: Some positive thing.
Dave Chapman:…to that corporate nastiness. To that theft.
M Fortier: Perhaps the spin off is going to be that, it’s going to bring more people to our tables because they’ll doubt. Instead of having the easy solution of just buying Organic from Whole Foods. They’re just going to think, “perhaps not.” Perhaps they’ll make the jump to really go local and really meet the grower and really connect with the food scene on that end. I don’t know.
But there’s going, there’s a need to have consciousness about the problems. You know, before people make that move.
Dave Chapman: Yeah, and they need to see things that are possible, too. The art of the possible is important. So that’s something very important here.
It’s you know, you did this! You, and a bunch of people did this.
JM Fortier:Yeah, yeah, yeah, and it’s true. Being in the positive, action every day is good. And I’m happy about that.
So perhaps more of us doing that. More young farmers. More, just let’s just do it.
Dave Chapman: You say they came in and stole something, but they didn’t.
You’re doing it.
You know as Eliot says he has many grandparents and great grandparents and people whose gifts he passes on to us. And we pass on.
You know I think when they say that they “stole Organic”, they stole a name, but the reality of organic farming continues and thrives and grows, not always thriving – sometimes stealing the name actually does crush the farming – but a lot of times it just springs up again, like a good hardy weed.
JM Fortier: I love it. I’m down for that. I am, yeah. Cool.
Dave Chapman: I think that’s good. Let’s let JM go to his dinner.
I wrote an article that came out last week in the Independent Science News entitled The Hydroponic Threat to Organic Food. Co-editor Jonathan Latham forwarded several responses to me from readers. One from Mark Squire was particularly interesting to me, and I asked for permission to reprint it and respond publicly, which Mark granted. Mark is a co-owner for many years of Good Earth Natural Foods in Fairfax and Mill Valley, California. He said he is glad we are willing to keep this very important conversation going. He is a long time organic advocate and an early member of the CCOF community. He runs a pioneering California store. Here is a video describing the story of Good Earth Natural Foods.
Mark’s letter: “I believe that rejecting the National Organic Program is the equivalent of throwing the baby out with the bath water. I, for one, still think working with USDA and holding their feet to the fire on some of these issues is our best strategy. “If anyone should be blamed on the Hydroponic mess it should really be the non profit, farmer controlled CCOF and other certifiers who pushed ahead with these certifications before adequate guidelines had been established. In fact all members of the organic community could have, and should have, seen this coming from the time the first alfalfa sprout was certified organic back before the NOP even existed. “I understand the USDA bashing but I believe this is an example of barking up the wrong tree. I also believe that as consumers have embraced the organic seal it gives us, as a movement, more possibility, not less, to strengthen the organic program. Organic agriculture for all its warts is making a major contribution to the change we all want to see. Lets not give up on the seal that is currently the only way city folks can readily support growers who are doing a better job of stewarding their land. Maybe in five or ten years we will have an organic-plus seal that will guide their food choices, but we really do not have that much time to turn around the mess that agriculture has created.”
These are important points for all of us involved in the movement to protect organic. I will set aside any response on the California Certified Organic Farmers for now. This is a large topic on its own. Let me speak in this letter to our public criticism of the National Organic Program (NOP).
The Real Organic Project (ROP) made the decision to work with NOP certification as the basis for our add-on label. To be certified as a Real Organic Project farm, you must be first certified with the NOP. So we aren’t rejecting the National Organic Program. We are building on its successes and moving beyond its failures.
I also insist that not all real organic farmers are certified with USDA. Many organic farmers sell locally and know their customers. In Vermont, many of those farmers choose to be certified anyway, as a political statement. But many organic farmers across the country are not certified. Certification serves a vital role in connecting those of us who want to buy organic food with unknown organic farmers who want to grow organic food. Reliable or not, I depend on USDA certification when I am shopping for the food I eat out of the local season and the clothes I wear. My coffee is never local but is always certified organic.
The Real Organic Project was not formed to reform or lobby the NOP. There are already excellent organizations lobbying the NOP such as Organic Farmers Association (OFA) and the National Organic Coalition (NOC) that we support and work with. We share a number of board members with both organizations. Those organizations are fighting a heroic and usually failing battle to maintain integrity in the USDA organic program.
The goal of the Real Organic Project is to create a label that will be more transparent for customers and bring together a national community that has become fragmented. We are a farmer-led, grassroots effort to reclaim the meaning of organic. We have chosen to do this without waiting for permission from the Federal government. In order to make sense of our effort to farmers and eaters, we have to educate people to what is happening with the USDA certification program.
The Real Organic Project was not formed to reform or lobby the NOP. There are already excellent organizations lobbying the NOP such as Organic Farmers Association (OFA) and the National Organic Coalition (NOC) that we support and work with. We share a number of board members with both organizations. Those organizations are fighting a heroic and usually failing battle to maintain integrity in the USDA organic program.
The goal of the Real Organic Project is to create a label that will be more transparent for customers and bring together a national community that has become fragmented. We are a farmer-led, grassroots effort to reclaim the meaning of organic. We have chosen to do this without waiting for permission from the Federal government. In order to make sense of our effort to farmers and eaters, we have to educate people to what is happening with the USDA certification program.
Criticising the USDA presents a double bind that we have found ourselves in for many years. If we publicly criticize the NOP, we risk turning customers away from the organic seal, thus playing into the hands of the chemical industry. They love it when organic farmers attack the NOP. They say, “See, we told you so.” This group sees organic as an enemy.
But there is another group of corporations who have decided it is better to embrace the organic label without embracing the organic practices. We can see Monsanto using a similar strategy when they champion “Climate Smart Agriculture” as a way of advocating for the widespread use of Glyphosate. It is a bitter pill, and unfortunately, it is quite effective at confusing public discourse. When I served on the farmers advisory council to the OTA, there was a serious conversation on whether to support “Climate Smart Agriculture,” not realizing at first that this “movement” was funded by Monsanto.
So if we DON’T publicly criticize the NOP, the corporations twisting organic use our silence as compliance. As Chris Hedges said, “To be complacent is to be complicit.”
If we remain silent, we will continue to see the organic seal lose its meaning, and perhaps even its relevance. To date, private criticism of failed USDA enforcement has proven to be very ineffectual. In the last 9 years, we have seen the loss of some 50% of the organic milk supply to certified CAFOs, and well over 80% of organic egg and poultry supply to certified CAFOs. We have lost over 50% of organic tomato supply to certified hydros, and significant erosion of soil production in berries, peppers, cucumbers, herbs, and greens to the steady invasion of certified hydroponic production. Is that certified organic berry grown in the soil? Who knows? Not to mention the steady loss of real organic grain production replaced by fraudulent imports from Eastern Europe and Turkey. Is it organic? Who knows?
At every turn, the fake organic pushes the real organic out of the market. It is no surprise that industrial-scale CAFOs and hydros can produce food cheaper than real soil-based organic. But they can’t produce real organic food cheaper. Their food costs less, and it is worth less. But the organic seal gives them access to every supermarket in America.
I once had a conversation with the produce buyer for one of the biggest supermarket chains in America. I pointed out that the cheaper Mexican tomatoes were not grown in the soil, and that they weren’t really organic. The buyer said to me, “Dave, they are certified as organic by the USDA, and that is good enough for us.” As a result of that perspective, millions of people are losing the CHOICE of buying soil grown organic tomatoes. And they never know a thing about it.
The outcome is that real organic farmers are going out of business, and real organic customers are being deceived on a regular basis. The choice of buying real organic food in the stores is being lost. How can you tell the pasture-raised milk from the confinement operation? How can you tell the soil grown berries and produce from the hydroponics?
The answer is you can’t. Even the stores don’t know what is real and what is fake.
You can often tell by the taste, but that is not a strong enough factor to change the decision of the stores about what will be on their shelves. What is nutrition worth? What is health worth? Who will protect us from the sharks?
It is my belief that, unless we act, the organic label will become so degraded that it will lose the public’s trust. Trust is very hard to get and very easy to lose. People buy organic because they want something different, something better. For the first time since the formation of the National Organic Program, sales of certified organic milk and eggs were flat last year. All other organic categories continued to grow. Other organic continued to win people away from the conventional market. What happened? The Washington Post published front-page stories on CAFO production of certified organic milk and eggs. People learned the truth.
At what point does the label no longer deserve people’s trust? At what point is not a meaningful way for people to find the food they are looking for? We are not arsonists. We are firefighters trying to save the house. Because people we love live in there.
Enid Wonnacott once said to me that she was concerned about publicly denigrating the organic label over every small failure that came along. I asked her if she thought that hydroponic production was such a small failure, and she said, “No, on this we must stand up.”
We face invading food empires for whom “organic” production is only a business opportunity. For Driscoll’s and General Mills, their conventional production is the large majority of their business. They embrace chemical agriculture as a viable way of producing food and money. Organic is a profitable sideline, not their core mission. Either way, they win. If the organic label is so degraded that it fails, they still win. Will we trust THEM with defining organic?
Some things ARE worth fighting for. Not just worth it, but necessary. If we speak out, we will turn some people away from the organic label. But if we don’t fight, there will no longer be an organic label worth fighting for.
We must remember that the organic movement is not the same thing as the National Organic Program. When we can work together, we celebrate. When we cannot, we must do our work alone. It is not our goal to abandon the USDA. In the end, we will need the government to represent us if we are to survive the climate and social challenges that we face. But we will have to lead the government, not the other way around.
We have built an amazing agricultural organic movement around the world. Because it is successful, others will try to steal it. Real Organic Project is building a label that will represent organic farming in the US as we first intended. I believe it is the same kind of organic farming that many millions of Americans want to support.
Please sign this petition to remind the USDA that this is not a settled issue. Please forward this letter to your friends.
I want to invite everyone who’s here right now who it feels accessible for to stand with me just for a moment maybe stretch a little bit and just ground down your feet because what I want to do right now before I move forward in my talk and what I often do before I start speaking especially in a place that I’m new to.
I’ve not been to New Hampshire in quite some time is to just ground down in the space where we are, in the land where we are in the soil that we all care so much about and give acknowledgement and thanks and respect for the indigenous people whose land we’re on. We haven’t yet had a moment to do that together yet today.
My understanding, this is not where my people come from, but my understanding is that the Abenaki are part of the indigenous peoples of this land and the Western Pennacook I think – but I see some heads nodding and I’d love you to speak the names of some of the native peoples if you know them too. To just gives some recognition, whether they’re original to this land or have come on to this land.
So, these peoples are the roots of this organic movement in so many ways. They stewarded this land before any of us came to it and built those layers of soil and beautiful organic matter that we’re all talking about.
Those weren’t accidental they weren’t works of nature only, they were intentional and so thank you so much for coming together and just grounding down in that experience with me.
I arrived yesterday and last night and I was really so happy to be welcomed on to Dave Chapman’s farm. And so even in the dark I could tell it was beautiful there and I had some wonderful conversations with y’all many of whom are in the room right now, many of whom have spoken today.
I was really so impressed because I could really understand so much of the concerns that we all had. And they were common concerns, and so much of the knowledge I felt just immersed in this environment where we all understood that the centrality of soil to our health and to the growing techniques that we all care about. And I thought how wonderful.
How wonderful to be immersed in that. How wonderful to feel that commonality. And it also reminded me of, one of my own religious practices is actually listening to “On Being” with Krista Tippett. Am I alone? Okay. I am a little obsessed with the show and if you listen to this week’s podcast you might have heard this quote:
“If we live in an environment where we take the right opinion for granted as a given, “now everybody knows that,” maybe you’re called upon to explore ideas that not everybody knows.”
So that was by a thinker, Harvard professor, an essayist, poet Teju Cole, and it made me think about what I could actually come and talk about today with y’all because so many of the farmers that are here already share what I know and love about organic farming and about the soil and we’ve heard so much of that today.
Building Biodiversity and Racial Diversity within the Organic Movement
So what am I called upon to talk about, was my question. And I think what I am challenged to do, what I’m challenging myself to do, and it’s a little uncomfortable for me I have to say, but my idea is:
If we want this movement to grow, for the sake of the planet, for the sake of our pockets, for the sake of your plate, you must care as much about the racial diversity and equity of America’s farmers as we do about the biodiversity of the farmland.
Black and brown farmers are severely underrepresented in farming as a whole and in organic farming in particular.
Black people, my people make up 13% of the people in this country. We make up 1.4 percent of all farmers, organic or not. So for me, stewarding not only the biodiversity of our soil but also of our farmers is one of the key points, the key origins of Farm School NYC and that’s the organization that I’m so blessed to steward.
Focusing on the Abundance within Urban Gardens and Communities
So, Farm School NYC was created by a collective of farmers, urban farmers community gardeners, activists, educators who all came together and really wanted to give back to their communities in a way that they had wasn’t seeing happening.
In particular, they were working in low-income communities mostly communities of color throughout New York City and they were so used to people defining their communities by everything they lacked, right.
Lack of access to fresh healthy foods. Lack of access to education. Lack of access to economic opportunity.
And they wanted to redefine and change that framework to focus on the things that they had in abundance.
600 community gardens that were growing food for communities often free low-income communities, giving that food or embracing the fact that people can feed themselves.
And then “people resources”, knowledge base, expertise of growing for generations in urban areas; we had that in abundance in New York City and so they figured what they really were missing was an opportunity to bring those things together and to train the next generation of growers.
So they created a professional level school that’s comprehensive organization really training farmers and sustainable agriculture adults, everyone’s over the age of 18, and really looking at not only just the practices of organic agriculture but looking at how we do this work as a community and how we do this work grounded in social justice, it’s the key part of Farm School’s mission.
One of the things that I love about Farm School is that we not only really we don’t have our own farm per se because we’re a collective of all these different farms and gardens came together to develop this organization we really go out into the community and go to all these different farms and gardens around the city.
So here you see us at Taqwa Community Farm in the Bronx in 2014 doing a wonderful soil health class together. And these gardens that you see here, this is the real root of my own agricultural history.
So I am a born and bred New Yorker. I was raised on the Lower East Side of New York City. Who here has been to the Lower East Side of New York City recently who was in the New York City Lower East Side in like 1973?
Okay. So that’s when I was born 1973 in New York City and that was the real heyday of this community gardening movement that really birthed me in a lot of ways and my interest in organic and my interest in organic and sustainable agriculture.
There are so many beautiful community gardens in New York City.
This is the ninth Street community garden. It’s a lovely garden a lot of produce grown here. This is another community garden El Sol Brilliante. It is a beautiful community garden tons and tons of tomatoes I’ve picked in this very garden.
I’m so obsessed with community gardens that I actually got married in one. That’s me and my husband at 6pc garden. There’s an incredible lots of beehives right above that garden because there’s so much wonderful fodder for all of the bees to enjoy and appreciate. It’s really beautiful.
So our founders at Farm School really wanted us to ensure the growth and continuity of our city community gardens and urban farms because they knew that I was so vital for the health and self-determination of money poor folk in New York City.
I grew up surrounded and inspired by these community gardens and I still am to this day.
I also remember the epic battles over land on the Lower East Side battles that resulted in these beautiful gardens and battles that still continue on today.
Soil as the Foundation of Urban Agriculture
But Urban Ag is actually older than these gardens. It is as old as the concept of a city itself and since the first plot was first dug in the first city, soil has been at the heart of organic agriculture of urban agriculture, it’s practice innovated and dominated primarily by those who really needed that food for survival the poor and the marginalized and the people of color and it still is.
Urban Ag might be hip, but it’s not new and for the clear majority of urban farmers it’s not soilless.
Soil has always been integral to organic agriculture in urban settings and in my city in New York City, it’s a city of migrants and immigrants and each new wave of these migrants and immigrants brought soil-based practices to our patch of land.
From Italian immigrants using fig trees and backyard gardens to my own black and brown ancestors bringing collard greens and callaloo to church yards.
My ancestors had generations of experience farming marginal land, the only land they could access in the south due to racist practices and business policies and they brought those practices to New York City where the land they could farm was often just as marginalized and worst polluted.
But they believed that the soil could provide and with the hard work of digging and hoeing and testing and amending and stewarding the soils it did provide.
This is a wonderful picture of one of the original farm mavens matrons Carmen Pabon and she was celebrating on the Lower East Side in the 1980s.
I remember this kind of liveliness and vibrancy in this in the community of farms that really nurtured me when I was growing up in New York City so not just food but there was so much cultural and relational richness that were birthed in those gardens which I really loved but also a fair amount of food.
And this is the Hattie Carthan Community Garden in Brooklyn.
There are really hundreds of thousands of pounds of food that are grown sustainably in New York City farms and gardens each year and most of it is in the soil that our residents worked hard to reclaim for over generations.
So in restoring our city’s soil our urban farmers are restorers of our communities our families our local economies our own bodies.
Urban agriculture has been the bedrock of food sovereignty for generations of urban poor because we can do it with a few seeds and the sun and the rain and the soil. We can have control over what we eat and what we grow without a GoFundMe site or venture capital.
We Need More Farmers of Color
We have a stake in urban areas of keeping soils central to the conversation around urban agriculture and sustainable agriculture in general Urban growers especially people of color have fought to reclaim and protect and restore our soils so we seek solidarity with fellow stewards of the soil everywhere and solidarity does go both ways.
We want to see the organic movement embrace and reflect the racial diversity of the growers that we see in New York City and in all of our cities.
We need more farmers of color to be part of the organic organic movement. Farmers of color in this country are much more likely are much less likely to be certified organic but are much more likely to grow fruit and vegetables then commodity crops and they’re more likely to use sustainable farming techniques like biodiversity and closed-loop systems.
In fact, the same external forces of racism and white supremacy that limited our entry into large-scale commercial agriculture may have served to preserve and even innovate the sustainable practices of farmers of color so we really do feel like we’re on the growing edge of this movement.
But more than just diversity we really want to see the organic movement work towards equity.
The Organic Agriculture Community Should Not be Complicit in Racism
We need a shared understanding that racism isn’t just mean people saying racist things but well-meaning folks living quiet lives of inaction while systemic racism lives on.
Just by living in this country where structural racism exists, we are all complicit unless we actively resist it.
And I want to thank you Jean-Paul for bringing up that Buckminister Fuller quote earlier this morning about how resisting isn’t enough, right because I agree fighting against existing realities isn’t enough.
We need a new model that really looks at making old models obsolete, the ones that aren’t working for us.
Places like Farm School we’re training farmers and activists who are building these new models as are organizations like the Black Urban Growers and SAFFON and the White Earth Land Recovery Project and the Real Organic Project has so much to gain by working in solidarity with these efforts and I’m really excited to see that grow in the years to come.
I want to know that this organic movement is willing to investigate and address the ways in which it’s upholding patriarchy and white supremacy just as I am striving each day to do this messy urgent critical work in my own organization and in my own heart and in my own mind.
It isn’t easy work, it isn’t easy for me. Every day it takes guts and courage to stand up in rooms like this to talk about this.
It also isn’t easy in relationship with my own colleagues and comrades of people of color. I stumble, I fail, I fall, I get up, I get help which is so important, from my comrades and my mentors and other people of color and other people and allies and I get held accountable and I keep going.
So when we find ourselves in a room like this – a safe space where the sanctity of soil is a given, where everybody knows the true meaning of organic and its virtues, it’s time for us to get brave in a different way. Let’s go further.
There are powerful forces working to keep us divided and silent but we get to be brave together in spaces like this.
I am going to do something that I every once in a while do, which is to completely deviate from what I’ve prepared.
The speakers that I’ve been hearing today, this has been profound for me.
I work at a university and it’s easy to get lost in the hubbub of just being on a campus, just all the hubbub stuff. And so sometimes I actually feel quite guilty of not having gotten more involved than I have to date in this activity, Real Organic.
Dave Mortensen – National Organic Standards Board
I joined the National Organic Standards Board a couple of years ago and I can tell you one thing I did not know, was what I was getting myself into. And I was so thankful for Francis and Emily and Harriet welcoming me into the fold so I could kind of understand where I might fit into this.
Some people have called me ‘a numbers guy’ which is funny because I’m not a particularly strong mathematician. But I remember, and not to get too personal here, but a close friend of mine was diagnosed with cancer and the surgeon said “We’re gonna do this, that, and the other thing” and we said “Could we see the data, can we see the pictures so that we can make an informed decision?”
And it is kind of the way my mind works, whether it’s genetically modified crops – where I spent 10 years, really about ten years on a somewhat failed effort to prevent herbicide-resistant crops – and then now, with this so-called ‘new generation’ of 2,4-D and Dicamba crops from being deregulated.
All the while that I was working on that – it was the farmers that were supporting the effort – myself and the folks in my lab where we collected the data – I was always struck by how quick we were to make a decision with so little insight.
That was my ten-year project, but I didn’t do so well convincing EPA and USDA not to deregulate. So I honestly was naive when I went off to attend this hydroponics vote for the year. Leading up to it, I was thinking “Well, gosh this is the organic community and they’re going to look out for one another, and it’s not like it’s the GMO thing where I felt like I was fighting against Monsanto and Dow AgroSciences.”
And they were trying to convince USDA and EPA to please make the right decision, we should not do this. And then they (USDA, EPA) would say “Well, you got to think about the stakeholders Dave, that’s where you’re missing the boat. We read your stuff Dave, but you don’t understand that we need to hear from the stakeholders and we’re hearing from them.”
Data, Stakeholders, and NOSB Sub-committees
So Linley and Dave, gave me four questions, including:
“Why do we make decisions that don’t seem to make sense to us?”
And I would say that one of the reasons why we make bad decisions – NOSB, EPA, USDA, APHIS, Animal Plant Health Inspection Service – is that this “stakeholder” thing is nonsense.
That’s one of the reasons why. Because we can just handpick our “stakeholder group”.
Like a group of farmers that will come into a presentation of EPA where the farm, on the bottom right hand corner of every one of their slides, has the Monsanto logo. And they’ll step through their no-till farming practice, right next to Francis’s place on how badly we need to have this legislation go through.
The ‘numbers guy’ would ask, “Where’s the data?”
Let’s look at the data we have, for goodness sakes.
You increase the area treated, the amount of stuff that we put on the land, and the probability of seeing it in our water – groundwater, surface water, our neighbors’ fields – increases by a predictable function. We know that.
We have that data and yet we deregulate and make bad decisions.
Because we’re talking to the wrong stakeholder group.
This is a powerful stakeholder group here. I am deeply moved by what you presented. And Francis and Cameron’s pictures of those aerial images, my goodness, the data are there.
Okay, so we have a problem with stakeholders. And here’s another problem that we have (I think my NOSB colleagues agree though I should not assume that or presume that):
To get really specific, the subcommittees on the NOSB work on things. And that certainly was the case with hydroponics, that the subcommittee was pretty much on the same page. But the subcommittee is only a fraction of the NOSB; the whole group is 15.
The subcommittee – I don’t remember the number – five or six of us. I was, I will tell you, I was surprised by several people’s votes there, that were not from the subcommittee. And all of the team that’s here from the NOSB knows, and I think they all agree, I believe we need way more time in conversation and debate to perfrom our duties as a National Organic Standards Board.
We came to that meeting debating amongst ourselves.
But to sit there in that room for 3 days and then come together at the end for a vote, where you have 3 minutes to say what you think?
It’s an insult to me and to all the rest of the board members. That is not good pedagogy. That does not lead to good decision-making.
We need to create space for conversation.
A Picture of Carbon Sequestration vs. Hydroponics
I had prepared most of this to be about climate change and diversity; we heard it all.
How are we going to sequester carbon or mitigate the effects of plastic reflecting and trapping heat in the air?
We’re not saving carbon. And these hydroponic things? I spent so much time with the students looking at these images and what did we see in hydroponic operations?
We saw lighting, the cost of lighting, compressors, synthetic lubricants, polystyrene, polyvinyl chloride, lexan, tygon tubing, duct tape. That’s what I see in the pictures, you’ve shown them.
This is the same as 2,4-D and Dicamba. This is unacceptable and my goodness, to call it “organic”?
It looked like a paved over roadway through the plastic there.
How is Academia Doing Supporting the Real Organic Project?
“How is academia doing supporting the Real Organic movement?” was this third question and I’ll tell you and I have strong feelings about this.
We could argue about it, or some of my university friends would argue with me about it; University folks are really uncomfortable advocating for anything.
I am serious about that. We write papers about advocacy and neutral arbiters and most of my colleagues are very comfortable being a neutral arbiter.
You, let me look at those plastics, and look at the light transmission quality, and let me look over here – I’ve got some plants growing and we can measure that – and I’m exaggerating, but when they come down and say “Man, we got a problem with that plastic system” you will not hear a lot of University folks go out and make that claim.
Yes it’s what Onika is saying about being passive and being quiet and being like okay. This is a real problem.
I just moved to the University of New Hampshire. Durham, New Hampshire, where I took the role of chair of the newly formed Agriculture, Nutrition and Food Systems program and it’s a progressive thing and I’m very excited about it.
And by the way, I’m looking for some young folks to join me. We’ve got funding for this kind of stuff that I’m – I haven’t even told you the kind of stuff we do, I’m just telling you about NOSB stuff here – but we’re looking for some people. So if you know some people that would like to work on policy or Real Organic, Linley and I were speaking at lunch about how it would be interesting to study farms as a network of farms. A participatory network that contributes data about the quality of their farmsteads.
So enough on the university thing. We can do better and we have. The younger faculty are doing much better than the older faculty; they’re much more willing to engage and that’s really encouraging.
Is the USDA Going in the Right Direction?
As to “Is the USDA going in the right direction and if not what can we do?” personally, I think that the direction that I see this group going in, towards a supplemental label, to me this makes a great deal of sense and I totally support that idea.
As a shopper, I have two sisters that are shoppers, and when they hear me telling them what is going on with hydroponics and they buy organic? They are shoppers that do care actually about not just about the price, and my kids care and not just about the price, and their friends care and not just about the price. So I think it does matter for folks to know what’s going on with this.
And I’m personally also really annoyed with getting vegetables that don’t have any taste.
I am a bagel eater in the morning. A bagel with egg and tomato – and it freaks me out to no end to get a white tomato on my bagel, which is becoming more and more common. A light pink tomato with a white center that doesn’t have any taste.
When Onika was born in 1973 in New York City, I was a junior in high school in New York City. I taught in Spanish Harlem for a while, before going back to graduate school, I taught 5th grade children.
I can’t agree more with Onika that we have to bring the food system and our people together. Together, we have to be touching food and cultivating soil and understanding the difference between something that has co-evolved in the soil to grow in the soil.
We don’t get many wins with the Federal government these days. But we had one last week. USDA had been allowing the use of prohibited substances for hydroponic producers just days before certification. We stopped them from allowing glyphosate and insecticides for hydro berry operations. That means there will be a little less Roundup sprayed in America next year.
It is a small victory, but we must celebrate our wins. The bigger problems of integrity in the National Organic Program continue. Hydroponics, CAFO eggs and milk, and fraudulent imports all continue. Real Organic Project was not created as an advocacy group to reform the USDA. Perhaps that is why we were successful in this organizing effort. We were formed to create a viable add-on label that would represent real organic food to the eaters of America. Still, when we learned about the glyphosate spraying, we couldn’t ignore it.
“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.'”
This was written by Anne Lamott, in her book, Bird By Bird. It is a good story to remember when we face overwhelming tasks.
The News Starts To Come Out
I started to raise this issue of spraying prohibited chemicals in a session at EcoFarm last January. It was a panel on add-on labels that was facilitated by CCOF Executive Director, Kelly Damewood. It included Laura Batcha, Executive Director of the Organic Trade Association (OTA), Elizabeth Whitlow, Executive Director of Regenerative Organic Certification, and Paul Muller representing Real Organic Project. At the end of the panel, Laura made a statement that the NOP would NEVER permit the use of herbicides in certification. I stood up at the microphone and told her that I had reports that glyphosate WAS being permitted just weeks before receiving certification in hydroponic berries.
Her brief reply was, “If you have proof, file a complaint.” I have since gotten to hear that line a lot.
I can’t think of many examples where filing a USDA complaint led to a positive outcome. The complaint against Aurora Dairy following a front-page expose in the Washington Post led to a perfunctory USDA investigation. The sole visit to the Colorado CAFO was announced ahead of time. Unsurprisingly, the cows were on pasture THAT day.
More to the point, where was the outrage of these organic leaders at my report?
Finally, Public Outrage
The outrage came months later, after I put out a very public letter. I wrote about meeting with Jenny Tucker (Head of NOP) and asking if such practices were being permitted by the USDA. She said yes they were permitted. The public outrage following that was so extreme that some even accused me of making the whole thing up. Some insisted that this could not be happening. In an interview with Civil Eats, Jenny Tucker claimed that she had investigated these reports with the named farms and certifiers, and that they were not following these practices. It was another failed “investigation.” Then at the Seattle NOSB meeting, Jenny stopped answering all questions relating to the issue, claiming these were all “hypothetical.” Apparently, she thought she didn’t need to answer because the certification of hydroponics was “a settled issue.”
The Americert Letter
Recently I was able to send out compelling evidence that this spraying was, in fact, happening. A letter from the accredited certifier Americert clearly laid out that prohibited pesticides such as glyphosate had been used just prior to gaining certification in hydroponics operations, and that the USDA knew about it.
The USDA responded to my last letter by immediately issuing a memo to certifiers imposing new standards on transition time for hydroponic producers. They are now requiring that hydroponic producers follow the same three year transition time required of real organic farmers. Of course, the memo simply applies the laws codified in the Organic Food Production Act. It doesn’t contain new rules. It just insists that the old rules be applied.
One of those rules (6504) states that organic crops shall “not be produced on land to which any prohibited substances, including synthetic chemicals, have been applied during the 3 years immediately preceding the harvest of the agricultural products”. So that seems clear. The only question is how they thought that this would not apply to hydroponic producers? Is that because they aren’t really organic? USDA Certified Sort Of Organic?
They also state that:
“The OFPA, Section 6502 defines a certified organic farm as ‘a farm, or portion of a farm, or site where agricultural products or livestock are produced.’”
So that would mean that greenhouses are included in this “decision”. They might not have any “land” but they are certainly sites where agricultural products are produced. Unless we can’t even call hydroponics “agriculture”.
But wait a minute. They go on to say:
“This memo clarifies that the legal requirements related to the three-year transition period apply to all container systems built and maintained on land.
“Certifiers must consider two questions when certifying container systems:
• Eligibility: Is the land eligible for organic production?”
I’m just wondering if USDA considers greenhouse and enclosed factory production to be “land”?
Is It Clear Now?
So amazingly, even the clarification isn’t entirely clear. This is not a minor question, with the prospect of hundreds of acres of conventional hydroponic greenhouse vegetables transitioning overnight to become “organic.” That is coming quickly. So please, Dr. Tucker, answer this question. Does your clarification include ALL certified organic production, or only that outside, in the fields?
The memo goes on:
“Certifiers must evaluate the compliance of the overall system, including maintaining or improving natural resources, supporting nutrient cycling, promoting ecological balance, and conserving biodiversity.
“This memo applies to all new container systems that have not yet been certified under the organic program. It is not retroactive to already certified operations and sites. All currently certified container system operations retain their certification as long as they maintain compliance with the regulations.”
Well, that first paragraph is a whopper. How is it possible for a hydroponic system to support nutrient cycling and promote ecological diversity? Is the USDA going to honestly evaluate that?
The second paragraph is a whopper as well. They have earlier said that none of this is happening. Now they are saying that yes, it has happened, and yes, it was against the law, but we are letting them keep their certification. We are giving them a mulligan. Because…???
Call To Action
I ask that the USDA reverse this position. Make these producers go through the 3-year transition period like all other organic growers. Failing that I ask that they tell us which farms have sprayed prohibited chemicals. Don’t we, as customers, have the right to know? And which certifiers approved them in the first place?
Having written about all the problems, let us take a moment to enjoy that we won something. This is our first win of any significance since they passed the 2010 NOSB recommendation to prohibit hydroponics. It has been a long dry spell.
What Did We Win?
I believe that the most important victory here isn’t the shift in USDA policy. It is still an immensely flawed policy that permits hydroponics, CAFOs and fraudulent imports. We don’t need to change the laws to fix all this. We “merely” need to enforce the laws we already have. As it turns out, that is not easy.
A respected certifier recently wrote to me:
“We always caution container folks that they are going to be required to meet ALL requirements. We certified a hydroponic grower back around 2010. I took that app because “everyone else” was doing it, so we thought we would jump in. It lasted about a year and a half and when that grower surrendered we notified NOP and the world that we would no longer certify hydroponics. When we did an audit in 2012, (a coworker) asked me why. I slid the copy of the regulations that were on the desk over towards him and said: “If NOP tells me which regulations to ignore, and which to apply when certifying hydroponic, we’ll consider it”. He quickly closed the regs, slid them back, and said we didn’t have to if we didn’t want to.
“We’ve never seen an application from anyone who even approached CAFO status – but know this – there is nothing in the new OLPP that we did not already require/look at. To us, all of the livestock requirements were already in plain view and still are.”
It really isn’t better laws that we need. It is enforcement of the good laws that already exist. Hydroponics are already forbidden. CAFOS are already forbidden. Fraudulent grain imports are already forbidden.
But who will police the police?
The important victory we won last week is the coming together of the organic community. As we wake up from our trance of helplessness against the power of the government/corporate alliance, we remember that the government only functions with our permission, and the corporations only thrive with our support. We do have choices that we can make. This conversation has been going on all of our lives, and it will continue much longer than we will. Unless we fail so badly that there are no people, corporations, or governments left.
The Real Organic Project is thriving with your support. Our certification program for our add-on label is growing splendidly. Linley inspected 12 farms last week. Applications are coming in a steady stream now. And so are donations. Our thanks to all of you who are being so generous. Our special thanks to the two large donors in the last two weeks. One angel donor made such a large and generous anonymous donation two weeks ago. But to all of you, large or small, your donations make our work possible. We are building a new system, and we don’t want the foundation of this movement to be the backs of the farmers. They are already carrying enough weight.
Please share this letter with your friends. I apologize for the lawyerly details, but such is government policy. To help create the change, please sign our petition to take back organic.
Is a three-year transition required for all operations in USDA organic?
We finally have proof of the answer.
Zero transition time means that glyphosate, malathion, and other egregious materials can be permitted the day before organic certification. With no transition time, what is there to stop some cynical hydroponic producers from transitioning in and out, taking a week between crops to “bomb” their greenhouses with an insecticide or “clean up” their fields with an herbicide? Then the next week they could bring in new “containers” and get recertified as organic.
And what if people find out?
They will say, “Surely this isn’t allowed!”
But when the National Organic Program (NOP) has been asked, they have given very confusing answers. NOP head Jenny Tucker told the National Organic Coalition on several occasions that NO transition time is required for hydroponic to be certified. When I asked Jenny if a producer who sprayed glyphosate a week before certification would be disqualified, she said no, confirming her earlier statement to NOC. Then, in an interview with Civil Eats on April 23, Jenny seemed to be giving confused and contradictory answers. And in repeated questioning at the Seattle meeting of the NOSB, she simply refused to answer at all, saying that the questions were hypothetical. And she said she wouldn’t answer hypothetical questions.
This is not a hypothetical question. What is the policy of the USDA?
Another simple question is whether this is actually happening? Have some hydroponic producers already been certified immediately after using prohibited substances?
“The USDA NOP organic rules in section 205.202(b) requires that “any field or farm parcel from which harvested crops are intended to be sold, labeled, or represented as “organic,” must: . . . Have had no prohibited substances, as listed in §205.105, applied to it for a period of 3 years immediately preceding harvest of the crop”. Previously, Americert had not applied this requirement to container based operations, including systems of raising perennial crops in containers where the onsite soil was not a component of the production (i.e. the soil onsite was not used in the container based production and the containers did not have direct contact with the ground), as it was determined, consistent with 2010 National Organic Standards Board guidance on container based systems, that the requirements of this rule did not apply to container based systems. However, there has been recent controversy generally about container based production and specifically about field based container systems. As a result of that controversy, Americert reached out to the USDA National Organic Program for clarification of whether or not Americert was interpreting this aspect of the rule correctly and in line with the NOP’s current thinking on this issue. On the one hand there has been widespread (but not universal) adoption of the approach taken by Americert, and there has been comments and discussion with NOP officials which appeared to suggest that such an approach was in line with the NOP standards and the NOP’s approach to this issue. There is also the NOSB 2010 proposed criteria for container based production which is consistent with Americert’s approach on this issue. On the other hand, there have been some few but vocal critics of this approach. Not all certifying agents use this approach. On this basis, we asked for confirmation from the NOP that the approach used by Americert was a proper interpretation of the NOP rules. We have not been able to obtain a clear statement from the NOP one way or another on this issue. It may be that the NOP itself, having not previously considered this issue deeply enough, does not know where it stands on this issue. To date it has not publicly and specifically approved of the practice, but neither has it specifically and publicly disapproved of this practice. While the NOP is aware that many certifying agents, including Americert has interpreted the rules in this manner, it has not issued a Notice of Noncompliance to Americert on this basis, and has not issued specific guidance or a specific statement approving or condemning the practice. It appears that on this issue, we are left on our own to determine how to proceed.”
The highlights of the letter are:
Certification immediately after the use of prohibited substances has been “widespread.”
The National Organic Program has made comments implying support of this policy.
Americert has asked the National Organic Program for clarification on this practice and has gotten no answer, forcing Americert to make up their own standard.
In a burst of caution and based on their own judgment, Americert has changed their own “best guess” standard for ongoing certification, limiting approval of prohibited substances on the ground where containerized plants are at least 6” above the ground.
Which means that Americert is still allowing the use of glyphosate (or any other prohibited substance) immediately prior to certification if the pot is sitting on a 6” base or bench.
Hypothetical? It is happening. According to Americert, it is “widespread.” Why did the NOP state in Seattle that they wouldn’t speak about hypotheticals? According to the Americert letter dated April 26, the USDA knows it is happening. And the USDA has not stopped it.
It appears that the USDA has a very warped idea of what organic means. One starts to wonder if the USDA WANTS to destroy the organic seal, or if they are simply very bad at their job. To serve and protect? Integrity and transparency?
The reason the USDA is thrashing around so helplessly is that they no longer have a North Star to guide them in their decisions. Earlier, the NOP was guided by the law. The Organic Food Production Act (OFPA) is clear that soil is the foundation of organic agriculture. In fact, OFPA Insists that the maintenance and improvement of soil fertility is the basis for all organic farming. Organic farming is a process, not just a thing. Not just a list of approved ingredients. The law is clear. It is a good law. But who will enforce it?
Hydroponics has no place in organic farming. Nor do CAFOs and animal detention centers. We mustn’t get sidetracked on trying to “reform” organic hydroponic or organic CAFOs. Better standards on how many years a producer is allowed to cover the soil with black plastic and pots before “responsibly” disposing of them are not the answer. Better porches on detention centers are not the answer.
Nor do we need to protect hydroponics or CAFOs.
They are already flourishing as the epitome of conventional agriculture. They are doing fine without allowing the USDA to redefine organic. Organic farming is meant to be something different. Americans are hungry for real food. They are desperate to find food grown differently. And they are turning to organic as a hopeful solution.
We must not allow them to be cheated. There MUST be a genuine alternative to all that.
The Real Organic Project is our attempt to return to the original organic. Return to a pioneering way of farming that was imagined as a genuine alternative to the industrial-agricultural complex.
That phrase can sound hackneyed, but it describes a reality that is only intensifying in its damage to us all. Let us turn away from “Certified Sort Of Organic” and build a movement that can feed everybody real food.
Have you ever heard a young child say something over and over, hoping by repetition they can make it true? That is what the USDA has done this winter, saying over and over that hydroponics in organic is “a settled issue.” It is not. Clearly, the USDA doesn’t know what they are doing, They are staggering around making up new regulations by whim. The USDA has the arrogance and clumsiness of power. They don’t have the right to tell us what organic means. It was their task to protect organic, not to redefine it. And without our permission, they don’t have the power either.
Harriet Behar – National Organic Standards Board Chair
Hello everyone, thank you for being here. So, I’m coming to you from the Upper Midwest. I live in Wisconsin on a small farm.
I’ve been certified organic since 1989.
I was one of the original people that helped start Organic Valley; I actually came up with the name ‘Organic Valley.’
I have a unique background in that:
I was the first marketing person for Organic Valley – I did the marketing for about nine years.
I get dirt under my fingernails as an organic farmer.
I’ve been an active organic inspector since 1992.
I’ve trained organic inspectors.
I now educate farmers.
I’ve moved a lot into educating farmers. I’ve been doing that for about 15 years, but meanwhile, I still keep doing everything else. I don’t know how but I do.
So, I see a kind of a unique perspective and I really want to talk about trying to be as inclusive as we can in our message. I’ve been on a lot of organic farms, I’ve talked to a lot of organic consumers, and I understand the marketplace and the need for people to feel that they need to make a living.
I care about the earth and that’s why many of us are in this. We know we share this beautiful blue marble and we know that organic farming really respects life and understands that interdependency we have with all living things, both below the soil line and above.
And we have a really positive message.
The Most Common Answer to “Why Did You Go Organic?”
In my time working with organic farmers, I’ve been on many organic farms where it’s their first organic inspection. And I would always say to them “So, why did you go organic?”
And I would say as a significant portion, maybe thirty percent, would say that there had been sickness in their family or there had been sickness in their neighborhood.
And you know, I’m talking about out in Iowa and in Wisconsin, Michigan, Kansas, Missouri – you know big tracts of land and many generations of farmers.
Many farmers also spoke to their understanding of the ‘dead zone’ at the base of the Mississippi River. And even though I am at that Upper Mississippi River region, we realized that what we’re doing there is affecting the shrimp farmers down in the Gulf of Mexico, and these farmers didn’t want to contribute to that degradation.
They also recognized that there was a chemical treadmill that once you start kind of killing off soil bacteria – when you go in and you kill insects, you’re not only killing the problem insects, you’re killing the beneficials, too – and that just leads to needing to use more and more and stronger and stronger chemicals. And we know that to be true.
We’ve seen that already with Roundup and the super weeds and now we’re moving on to who would have ever thought 2,4-D and Dicamba – known carcinogens that we really don’t want to be using, and the farmers really know that.
I wish that the consumers knew more about what was going on in agriculture, because they would be shaking their fists and saying “How could we be spraying Agent Orange all over our land?!”
Big Ag Wants Farmers to Just ‘Phone It In’
I was also very impressed that many farmers would say that they were sick of Monsanto running their farm.
That they (Monsanto) just didn’t like this independent streak that many farmers have.
These farmers didn’t want the multinational corporations basically owning them and they didn’t want to really be “farming by phone” where they basically just call up the co-op, a guy comes out, takes a soil test, someone else comes out and they spread the chemical fertilizer and then the farmer plants the crop, and then they come back out and spray what they (Monsanto) say and then, at the end of the year, the farmer brings in their crop and gets what little is left after they’ve paid for all the chemicals that were put on the land.
And a lot of farmers also wanted to be able to earn a better price on a small acreage – and there really is nothing wrong about wanting to make a living from your farm.
So you know, the hydroponic people are saying “Well this is the best way I know how to make a living” – and I just think they’re quite misguided.
Many Organic Farmers Are Dedicated Students of Nature
And lastly, there’s a whole group of organic farmers that just love organic farming for the opportunity of learning. Just because it’s so exciting to feel a partnership with nature, and because of all the different things that you get to learn over time about your place on the planet and what you can do to continually improve it.
I spent a lot of time out in fields with farmers and I’m always wondering you know, when I’m looking at their crops, what are they thinking?
Maybe they’re just thinking about the money. But you know what, if that brings them to organic farming I think that’s good. If they need that to start out – but I’ll tell you, if they don’t fully embrace the organic foundational principles, they won’t be in it for long because they won’t be successful.
When Jean-Paul (Courtens) was just talking about the shovel, there’s times when I’ve been out doing a first-year organic inspection and the farmers are like “Well you know, I’m just going to kind of get into it, you know, it’s such a better price” and then, if I show up at that farm again maybe four years later (I never know when I’m going to be assigned to a farm) and the farmer is so excited to see me, they’re always like “Wow, you wouldn’t believe it! You wouldn’t believe all the earthworms I have now! You should see all the birds that are living in my fields and I’m just so excited!”
And then he throws a shovel in the back of the truck – and I’m there, the inspector, and I’m thinking “I’ve got another inspection in four hours and I’m never gonna get off this farm.”
Those are some of the people who came to Organic because of the money, but stay because they see the benefits and that’s where we have to go and recognize the power of our positive message.
So, as Linley (Dixon) said, this is the actual definition in the USDA Organic regulation for organic – and it doesn’t say anything about not using synthetic chemicals. This is about integrating cultural biological and mechanical practices that foster the cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.
And so, when I teach organic farmers, I say “What does this mean to you?” You know, how can this be?
We will not achieve this on all of our farms but what a wonderful goal to reach for.
Owner-Operator Model vs. Industrial-Corporate Model
I’m talking to a lot of owner-operators – and I think really what we’re finding here now is that the higher price has brought the kind of industrial corporate model into Organic, which really offers a great danger to the owner-operator.
Because it’s the owner-operator who has that long term vision for their land. Passing it on to their family, and even if they don’t have family to pass it on to, they want to feel that every year they’re making improvements on their land, just as Jean- Paul showed on his little graph there.
And Organic really can offer differentiation in the marketplace.
This morning when I was taking a shower I opened up my bar of soap and it said “Vermont Organic Solutions Soap” right, so the word organic means something to people.
I looked at the ingredients on it, not a single organic ingredient in their soap. What, was I gonna be their organic policeman? No.
But the point is that we already have a word that means something.
But it’s true that the USDA, and especially under this administration, has very much narrowed our focus to what they think we should be looking at, and has narrowed the focus from the bigger picture of what organic is to just a substitution of acceptable inputs.
Exploring Inclusion in Organics
One thing that I do believe that we in the organic world can tend to do, is that when we see the problems that the other side has, we sometimes exaggerate the worst to make a point, but we don’t really need to do that. We should have integrity in what we are saying as well.
Instead, we really need to be exploring ways to be inclusive to others and to listen to their concerns.
I’m part of the National Organic Coalition which has environmental groups, retailers, wholesalers, manufacturers, farmer groups – and believe me when we sit around and talk about organic issues we do not all agree. But we find a way to understand where each other is coming from and we find a way to find a compromise that meets all of our needs. And of course, when we come together on a tough position, it usually has a very strong foundation because we’ve taken everyone’s needs into account.
Consumers need to be able to afford food, right? We should be trying to not just sell only to the elite – we need to make the art of practices available to all and to listen and understand the cultural and social values that people bring and how to reach them.
I learned on my high school debating team that if you use other people’s concerns and then frame your position to meet their concerns, they usually have to agree with you because you’re meeting their concerns.
Like I said, it’s important to share personal stories that are positive and to not just only focus on the negative.
Organic Delivers Biodiversity; Hydroponics Never Will
Organic can result in just an abundance of wildlife and beauty.
The methods that we have of encouraging biodiversity, the incredible tools that nature provides of parasitic wasps eating the pest worms, releasing beneficial insects, etc.; when you talk to consumers about all of that, they’re in wonder.
But then, when you look at the hydroponic side, where is the biodiversity?
Where are they encouraging more beneficial insects and healthier soils and in sequestering carbon?
There are so many things that when, like with hydroponics, you just only rely on the input side of things that you’re missing out on, including this great opportunity when we grow in nature that we have for improving our environment for the future.
I believe most of, many of you, are consumers, we’re all consumers, but we have such a positive message in organic.
So if an organic inspector shows up at a farm and the before picture is what they see, they will be written up in their inspection report and they will be encouraged to use the resources of the Natural Resources Conservation Service to really cover their land.
But think about it – is the farmer gaining more for their animals by having them on a grass-covered pasture rather than keeping them on a feedlot? Of course they are and that is it’s beneficial not only to the farmer but also to the greater environment.
So, I wanted to speak a positive message but we also have to not be too mamby-pamby about it. I mean because we do have problems.
Touring CAFOs Firsthand
I used to work for a group called MOSES – the Midwest Organic Sustainable Education Service – and we used to go to the large farm progress days which moves around the state of Wisconsin and is basically focused on conventional agriculture. I mean like the biggest tractors you’ve ever seen, and it’s like six stories tall.
For the past few years they move these huge tractors around to these CAFO conventional farms and have a tour of the farm and it’s like “This is modern farming and look at all the wonderful things we do for the calves” and they basically have the calves like in a maximum-security prison. The calves are in these pens with solid walls so high that they they do not even see any living thing since they’ve been born from their mother until they’re 6 months old, and all they hear is other calves mooing and crying all around them.
I mean, the stalls are so high they don’t even see the people who are feeding them milk and water and so this is not the one I was in but they let us you know they took us in a school bus through this calf barn that had like 1,500 calves in it and by the time I got to the you know at the end I’m just like bawling and crying I can’t stand it to see these animals treated like this and I you know I happen to be towards the front and the Extension Agents is like “everything is for calf comfort, look there’s slatted floors so they don’t have to lay in their manure” and I just lost it. I couldn’t stand it.
We don’t do this in Organic and we have to make sure this is not what Organic looks like.
Because what we’re doing here is, we’re basically starting out by having mentally and physically inferior animals. And this is not the kind of food that we want to be consuming nor the way we want to approach agriculture.
If any of you believe in karma, this is not the way we want to be tied to it – and if you’re eating that kind of food you’re encouraging it.
The same thing is with hydroponic operations.
I believe hydroponics is kind of like CAFO’s for plants.
There have been studies that the food on organic farms is higher in antioxidants, not only because there’s a better balance of nutrients and more soil biology for transferring those nutrients, but because the plants have to deal with wind and sun and maybe a little weed pressure – so they have to develop stronger immune systems themselves.
They have some insects feeding on them and this builds the antioxidants that we then consume and make us healthier. But if we’re basically growing food in a laboratory, in an industrial situation, we are losing those benefits that we could have possibly gotten in addition to all the other things (biodiversity, carbon sequestration).
We have to look and encourage farmers and consumers that the short-term monetary gain is not worth it versus long-term resiliency and the health of all living things.
The Real Price of Our Food
I really think that with climate change and all the things that people are seeing, people are starting to learn that, you know, this year’s profits are not worth ten years from now not even having a farm, or not even having an environment.
Although, my senator (I have one good senator and one I don’t get along with) but he’s actually said “If it’s cheaper, I don’t care where we buy it. You know, we could buy all our food from Brazil as far as I’m concerned” and this is the senator from Wisconsin when I was trying to tell him that we should be investing in the dairy infrastructure in Wisconsin he goes “well, if you could buy it for ten cents cheaper from New Zealand that’s where we should go.”
I almost fell off of my chair.
So, soil-based agriculture and livestock production respects that natural behavior of the animal and the plants. And what is the natural behavior of a plant? It is not roots in water. It is that complex soil-based system.
I was talking with someone earlier about how you sometimes see plants growing out of rocks, like along a river or a lake. You don’t see those roots going for the water, right, they are reaching for soil.
Studying Nature is as Important as Studying Tech
The other thing too is even at land-grant colleges and universities, the study of nature’s systems can be incredibly exciting. I mean we don’t have to turn our backs on “technology” but we are learning more about the complex systems that nature has evolved over time can be really, really exciting and I agree if we had been spending all the money that we had put into genetic engineering and chemicals, if we have been studying natural systems, just think how far along we would be, but hoping the next generation will bring us there.
So it’s very clear, it’s clear to me, that the reductionist organic regulations that only look at the inputs as what matters does not live up to the immense promise that organic agriculture provides and I am the current chair of the National Organic Standards Board and I have been working very hard to figure out how to get through to the USDA bureaucrats and I’ve had a few small wins.
I don’t know if I’ll be able to get hydroponic back on the work agenda, but I certainly have planted a few seeds to see if I can at least try to bring forward some discussion of some of the worst aspects of especially the container growing where they come in and they spray herbicide and then lay down landscape cloth and then put containers on top and then call that “organic agriculture”.
The positive message id that Organic offers the best hope for environmental balance and health for all, the humans, the animals, the worms, the birds. And nature can be very resilient if we provide the space and conditions to let her heal from the damage that we have. I’ve seen this on my own farm.
I bought a farm that was kind of old and tired and had been abused and over time. I just can’t believe how I’ve seen the organic matter go up, I’ve seen the diversity and I’m constantly planting more diverse items out there. I have honeybees, so I’m very aware of the need for pollinators.
We cannot give up on soil-based agriculture for organic because that is truly our only hope.
We need to keep spreading the good word across the whole landscape and get those not just five acres here and ten acres there but break through to the people who are growing a thousand acres and ten thousand acres and some of them are coming to organic for the money, but if we can help them actually do that ecological balance that organic actually means to just think of the change that we can make.
And lastly I am very aware as most of us in this room are is that the USDA organic label has been steered off of its foundational principles but I’m going to be optimistic and I’m going to say we can bring it back and that I really do see the Real Organic Project as something that to show the organic label the people at the USDA that it can be done and it is being done and it’s a viable marketing system and that we don’t have to be reductionist in order to bring everyone to the table.
Good morning everybody. So, the solution I think, is in this room. And the question is, “How are we going to apply it to the mainstream on behalf of our children and our grandchildren?”
The concept of pesticide reliance is not a new one to folks in this room.
The question is, “How are we going to move beyond that?”
Rachel Carson explained that to us back in the 60s and the interesting thing is that every time I reread the book, what I glean from it is her attention to complex biological systems. Or, as she called them ‘communities.’
And that there were solutions she pointed us to. She also said we needed to devote more of our energy and resources to developing new solutions. She thought we should use our ingenuity in that way.
So my goal is to listen, to follow the research in the science, to educate through public awareness, to advocate, to seek policy adoption so we can institutionalize the changes that you all have adopted, to follow the implementation of that policy and to affect marketplace change.
We originally started out calling ourselves a National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides because we didn’t want to offend anybody. We wanted people to focus on their misuse.
I showed up at a meeting one time with a bunch of farmers, a lot of conventional guys, and one of them said “You think any pesticide use is a misuse.”
And I realized he was right.
So we changed our name, about 20 years ago to Beyond Pesticides. And our focus was on identifying unacceptable and unnecessary poisoning while advancing solutions by listening to the victims – from farmers to farm workers.
We heard stories of adverse health effects, of cancer, of reproductive damage, of nervous system poisons.
Robert MacNeil, MacNeil/Lehrer PBS News Hour, 1989: “President Bush today proposed legislation to make it easier to remove pesticides that are thought to be harmful from the market. He referred to widespread public concern over stories about the cancer-causing chemical alar on apples and the fungicide EBDC on fruit and vegetables.”
President George Bush, 1989: “And it is true that some of the public’s perception is based on valid concerns about the government’s slow and cumbersome process for removing pesticides from the market and that’s why we’re here today to announce a major new initiative.”
Robert MacNeil, MacNeil/Lehrer PBS News Hour, 1989: “Environmentalists attacked the plan. Criticism also came from another environmental group, the National Coalition against the Misuse of Pesticides.”
Jay Feldman, speaking on behalf of the National Association for the Misuse of Pesticides, 1989: “The president is more interested in calming public fears about pesticide than actually doing something substantive about it.
In fact, the proposals, if implemented, for the most part would mean business-as-usual, when in fact the public is calling for a dramatic change in safety of food in their grocery stores.”
End Video Clip.
So contaminated food brought people’s awareness to this issue, but we realized that we needed to go beyond food safety issues and connect people at their dinner tables to what was going on in the fields.
I spent two years traveling the country meeting with farm workers and small farmers, farm workers like these who’d been contaminated by Benlate in Florida, a fungicide widely used. We talked about adverse effects, collaborated with Cesar Chavez, and these folks helped to form the Association of Florida Farm Workers.
So bringing environmental justice into our discussion is key and it’s part of what we’re trying to do with our work, We have a database that is called Eating with a Conscience where we connect people to the adverse impacts.
But the outrage comes from the fact that we’re not always moving forward despite the proclamations of a president.
We actually repealed the Delaney Clause back in the 80s and early 90s, which was intended to remove carcinogens from the food supply. Yet as an environmental community, as people concerned about health who pushed for banning carcinogens – today we find that glyphosate is in our food, every food group that’s evaluated.
I think the ecosystem is one of the biggest failings of our regulatory system.
California Beekeeper: “We started looking at pollen samples and we started seeing things that nobody ever knew was there. Looking at pollen samples we’re finding as high as 127 different contaminants, just in a little sample of pollen, about the size of the end of your little finger.”
End Video Clip.
So I’ve been spending a lot of time with conventional beekeepers who take their truckloads of bees to the almond orchards of California, because pollinators don’t exist out there and they’re experiencing an insect apocalypse.
“We appear to be making vast tracts of land inhospitable to most forms of life and are currently on course for an ecological Armageddon, and I find these guys are the best ones to talk about it.” – Dr. David Goulson, Sussex University, UK
In back of this rally in front of EPA, this is Dave Hackenberg a beekeeper and his truckload of bees dead bees, standing right in front of the EPA.
So what do you do when you identify a problem like this? You write a report, right? So that’s what we did, we wrote a report. It was called Unnecessary Risks and was inspired by a board member, an organic farmer on our board who was also a PhD chemist, and we went about the process of identifying that there were no benefits evaluated by EPA related to pesticides. So, we felt more empowered to ask for pesticide free zones.
We went into communities and said “we don’t need these pesticides” and then we identified the regulatory bias that is associated with the regulation of pesticides.
And if you look at this cartoon you’ll see “could you please hurry up and find a cure for cancer?” That would be so much easier than prevention.
So we were asking for a shift in the paradigm. We’re asking to go from a risk assessment based system to one that’s precautionary. And that’s what we did when we started introducing laws in Congress to institutionalize what we knew was happening on organic farms.
The ’82 the Organic Farming Act failed. The Agricultural Productivity Act.
Bob Rodale came in and we actually used the “O word” in the agriculture committees of Congress. That started, that did pass, and it started the Low Income Sustainable Agriculture Program which then became SARE, and later, in 1990, the Organic Foods Production Act.
So now we’re into this new era of talking about organic integrity based on an existing law. And the law is really intended to address some of the frustrations and the failures of those failed processes that the president said we were going to fix back in 1989.
So those foundational processes that are in the Organic Foods Production Act really for me stems from democratic decision-making, transparency, stakeholder assessment, and control of allowed substances, reliance on science and farm experience, and meeting consumer expectations. All of these things take a high degree of public involvement.
You know the saying goes “democracy only works if you choose to use it.” The same is true for the Organic Foods Production Act.
So we are looking at core values, which you’ve already heard about this morning – a systems approach to looking at the ecosystem, biodiversity enhancing ecological harmony, which is part of the Organic Foods Production Act.
What’s different here is that we’re looking at a systems approach which ae don’t do when we regulate pesticides. It is purely reductionist. We’re looking at NPK, we’re looking at feeding soluble nutrients to plants, we’re not looking at the ecosystem in which those are functioning.
That’s how EPA allows chemical after chemical to be included and we move from organochlorines to organophosphates to synthetic pyrethroids to you know, to the newest – neonicotinoids, and in each iteration, each generation we experienced new problems. Deeper problems, more insidious problems.
We’ve now gone from cancer to epigenetic effects to trans-generational effects.
This is a systems approach and it requires that we look holistically from cradle to grave; a full lifecycle analysis of what that input is and what it does from manufacturing through production to disposal, taking into account all forms of exposure whether it’s through ingestion, inhalation, absorption – what the emissions are, what the contamination is.
That’s a holistic analysis. That is part of our law. That is what we have to make happen. But it’s not always happening.
How do we evaluate those adverse health effects?
That’s our job when we’re on the National Organic Standards Board. That’s our job in this room.
So we’re looking at biological and chemical interactions in the agro-ecosystem, that’s the mandate. Now when we assess synthetic inputs (which a lot of people tell me I start to sound wonky when I’m talking about,) this is where the rubber meets the road. Because if you don’t focus on the system, which you do – everybody in this room does, but if we allow the law not to focus on the system, that’s when we allow Big Food to come in and identify inputs as the basis of organic production.
That’s when we lose that ‘whole system analysis’ and we lose the outrage associated with EPA’s failure to do it.
So how do we prevent a Big Food takeover like that?
Well we make sure that the stakeholders on that board represent the groups, the farmers, the environmentalists, the consumers, the retailers. We make sure that their voice is strong and we lobby our sector. We go there. We know who our farmer is on the NOSB.
Do you know who your farmer is on the NOSB? Who’s your consumer rep? You’re also a consumer, right? You’re an environmentalist – who’s your environmental rep?
You also shop at a retail store. Who is your retailer on that board? That retailer is representing your retailer, and if that retailer is not saying what you think he or she should be saying then we need to get in their face.
So the default assumption for natural inputs, in accordance with standards, is that we go through this checklist of ensuring that it doesn’t cause adverse effects in a holistic cradle-to-grave analysis.
We make sure it’s compatible with organic systems. That it does not adversely affect biodiversity, that it’s building and enhancing soil, that it’s protecting the ecosystem, and we make sure it’s essential. We ask: is it necessary?
You can meet the first two factors here health and compatibility, if it’s not essential, if it’s not necessary, go away because you know what you’re asking us to allow a synthetic input into organic production and I don’t care what anybody says, there’s always going to be an uncertainty, whether it’s an inert ingredient, whether it’s a mixture, whether it’s a synergy effect, there are going to be unknowns associated with that.
So there’s a petition process. The petition is rigorous, right. You’ve got to show that you meet all these factors. And then, there’s the sunset process.
You know I don’t care how much research we do, I don’t care how many models we have of good work, if we want to create a mainstream movement, which we need to do, we need to convert the 2% to 98% of agriculture, we need to understand that we cannot allow an erosion of the processes around what the inputs are in organic production. And this is a very informed and robust discussion.
Farmers come in, explain the essentiality, explain their experience with the product, the scientists or the science is informed by technical review documents but this process must default on a cycle bit, this was the intent and spirit of the original law, was intended to have these materials sunset off the list.
Why? Because different from EPA and that madness that I showed you at the beginning of this presentation, different from EPA is the idea that we DO want to modernize, that we DO want continuous improvement, that we DO want to hear far more experiences. We DO want farmers to come in and say “I don’t use this material, this is why, this is what I do”.
We want that to inform the debate. And that’s how we stay modern and we don’t get into the rut that we see on the pesticide side. And then, so then the question is, is that relisting? Is that just relisting these materials.
Just because you sunset a material, does not mean that it can’t come back as a relisted material.
This is an iterative process and it’s an interactive process. It’s transparent, but it only works if we participate.
If the knowledge in this room doesn’t come before the NOSB then we fail. We fail to grow the experience. We fail to grow the models.
Models grow by bringing that information to a format in which we can institutionalize these changes.
We can see continuous improvement under this law and we will.
All of this has happened with tremendous all of this the things like sunset which are being eroded, the makeup of the NOSB is being eroded, the materials that are allowed are being eroded.
This industry is the result of a rigorous program – look at this, a fifty billion dollar industry from basically nothing, grown with a rigorous program. I think that’s evidence that we should make it even more rigorous and maintain the integrity. And that’s what the Real Organic Project is about.
We need to drive the market, we need to maintain this integrity, we need to grow the integrity. We’re only as strong as our weakest link. If we allow that weak link to emerge in the public it threatens the value of the label, it threatens people’s trust in that label, it influences their decision when they’re standing there deciding are they going to go with the Non-GMO Project, or the bird friendly project, or the rainforest alliance project, or the organic project?
What are they going to do? They need to be drawn to that organic label and trust it. This for me is the bottom line.
Here’s a study out of Washington State, I guess this is a (Charles) Benbrook study. So, look at this on the right side, look at what Organic is doing for us. I mean there’s no question – this is the solution to our problems.
Whether we’re talking about nutritional quality, yield, soil quality, minimization of energy use, biodiversity, water pollution, profitability, total costs, ecosystem services (which a conventional farmer doesn’t seem to get most often,) employment of workers, reducing worker exposure, that is an incredible benefit on an organic farm – and it’s also minimizing pesticide residues.
Whereas on the conventional side you can see it’s totally out of whack it’s not offering solutions. It’s taking us in the wrong direction.
So, the only option for a livable future is organic. And the Real Organic Project.