Dear USDA – What will it take?
Most organic farmers do not know what the NOSB is. Most of us don't even know what the NOP is. Huh?
The NOP is the National Organic Program. This is the branch of the USDA that administers the organic certification program for America. They guard and protect the biggest organic market in the world (with over $50 billion in annual sales.) Yowza. That is almost as big as the Cruise Ship industry.
The NOSB is the National Organic Standards Board. This group of fifteen people is selected by the Secretary of Agriculture to advise him or her (well, not yet…) about organic standards.
There are a few things you might want to know.
The appointments can be very political. The four “Farmer” representatives have sometimes been chosen from mid-level management of multinational corporations. Only in former Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack's wildest dreams would Driscoll's employee Carmela Beck be called a “farmer.” And yet that is who he chose to represent us farmers. I'm pretty sure that was not what the authors of the Organic Food Production Act had in mind.
Also, the USDA has not implemented a single NOSB recommendation passed in the last ten years. There have been 20 recommendations passed. None acted on.
Prohibit hydroponics? Require animal welfare? Uh Uh. No way.
The USDA hasn't liked the recommendations. When asked about this at a Congressional hearing, Undersecretary Greg Ibach said he was looking forward to choosing new members of the NOSB.
Oh, dear….That doesn't sound good.
This week I gave virtual testimony to the NOSB. Normally, testifying to them involves a long flight, two or three nights in a ridiculously expensive hotel room, getting dressed up and nervously standing at a podium to offer three exciting minutes of testimony to help the board in their deliberations. This is followed and preceded by hours of sometimes stultifying (to me) testimony given by paid lobbyists in suits. They speak on the necessity of some unpronounceable synthetic amendment for food processing or CAFO production of poultry. The podium is roped off from the board to prevent any sudden attempts at a sit-in (following just such an event a few years back). It is reminiscent of a Vermont Town Meeting with attitude. Except that most of the attendees don't get to vote, and the decisions are ignored anyway.
Which is to say, it is an intoxicating blend of excitement and total boredom. Kind of like being the goalkeeper on a soccer team.
After the grievous defeat at Jacksonville, I stopped going to NOSB meetings. I was done with the whole mess. I felt the process was so broken as to be beyond repair, and it was time to move on and create a different way of identifying and supporting real organic food.
But a funny thing happened. I changed my mind! Not about the NOP being broken. It is. So much of our government is broken right now. But rather I changed about the process being so broken it could never be repaired.
I have come to believe that we NEED the government to follow us. We need collective action to deal with the real problems of climate change and world peace. In the end, we simply can't do it without the government.
And they can't do it without us.
As Michael Pollan has said, until we can light up the switchboards, we don't have a food movement. We need to build movements so powerful that we can transform government. Huge ask. That is an unlikely goal to reach, but we have little choice if our children and grandchildren are to survive and thrive. We cannot expect government to lead, but we can demand that they follow.
And so people of goodwill must keep trying. That doesn't make us naive. It just makes us unreasonable. Let us celebrate being unreasonable.
The rest of this letter is my three-minute testimony given this week. Fewer than a hundred people heard it at the time, but three organizations have asked for copies. And thousands of you might read this letter, especially if you forward it. Let us build a movement of thousands and then millions. Let us take back organic and save the planet.
I am Dave Chapman, owner of Long Wind Farm in Vermont. We grow delicious organic greenhouse tomatoes in fertile soil. I am also Director of the Real Organic Project.
I am speaking today to introduce some of the newer members to the challenges that we all face as an organic community. Most of us speak glowingly about the importance of healthy soil and its critical role in human nutrition and in reversing climate change. These are easy words to say, but the reality of the National Organic Program is going further and further from these words, certifying hydro and CAFOs, and allowing annual spraying of hydro greenhouses with prohibited pesticides. This is not because of the personal beliefs of the Deputy Administrator. It is because of the institutional realities of the USDA. Government is paid for by taxpayers dollars, but it is steered by corporate lobbyists. As a result, the NOP has failed to enact a single NOSB recommendation in ten years.
You are certainly not a group of radicals, and yet your decisions have been too radical for the USDA. Undersecretary Ibach’s publicly stated solution is to pick different members for the NOSB who will be more agreeable with the USDA’s perspective. If they have chosen you with that in mind, I hope that you will disappoint them.
At the moment there are three lawsuits against the USDA concerning issues of organic integrity. These lawsuits are focused on two major issues of animal welfare and the certification of hydroponics. The lawsuits are trying to force the adoption of two recommendations the NOSB has passed. Moderate though they are, if enforced, they would lead to the decertification of three-quarters of the “organic” eggs in America, according to former NOP director Miles McEvoy. They would lead to the decertification of a billion dollars of hydroponic produce, according to the Coalition For Sustainable Organics. That is why they are not being acted on.
The impact of these outcomes makes it likely that these powerful corporations will simply have the law changed if they lose the lawsuits.
They can do that, and have already done so in the past with the Harvey lawsuit.
As a community, we are faced with a dilemma. If we accept that organic doesn’t really stand for healthy soil, we participate in its destruction. If we insist that organic must be based on healthy soil, we are accused of “attacking organic.”
We can’t claim that organic is an alternative to CAFOs, AND simultaneously permit CAFOS to be certified. We can’t claim that organic is based on healthy soil and simultaneously permit hydros to be certified. If we do this, we allow organic to become a nice brand in the marketplace that actually means very little. The Organic label will die a sad death in that mushy indifference.
20 years ago, when the whole grass-fed thing started it was considered pretty weird. When we started, our neighbors asked “when are you going to put those in a feedlot” – it was just what you did.
At that point, the few people who were doing this crazy thing were true believers, so grass-fed beef was always really grass-fed. It wasn’t always good – it’s hard to raise consistently good grass-fed beef – but the people were passionate about being stewards of the land. Everyone was really into “animal husbandry.” If you take that word apart it’s related to marriage, and that’s how we feel about our animals: their wellness connects completely with our wellness, and it’s not just about food; it’s also about our psyche. If they aren’t doing well, we aren’t doing well.
Most of the documented health benefits of grass-fed beef are from studies done during this era.
But now enter corporate agriculture, which encourages producers to look at things very mechanistically: a cow is just a thing that produces protein. From that perspective, a feedlot is “good husbandry” because it results in steers that gain weight well, and it produces a high quantity of food. It’s a totally different way of looking at things; you’ve really lost the essence of grass-fed.
-Glenn Elzinga in an interview with PaleoLeap.