Home » Do We Dare Speak Out? Organic Farmers Are Going Out of Business

Do We Dare Speak Out?

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 Squire California Natural Foods Store Owner Speaks

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.”

Young Mark Squier California Natural Foods Store Owner
A younger Mark back in the day.

My response:

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 Standards Board in Fairlee, Vermont
Our standards board includes board members from OFA and NOC. Though separate organizations, we are all working towards the same goal, which is organic that people can trust.

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.

What does usda organic mean eliot coleman and other protesters march in jacksonville

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.”

close up black and shite photo of woman putting a finger to her lips, as in shhhh

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?

greens being grown hydroponically in an artificial indoor environment

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.

usda organic logo with black background

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?

a variety of sharks swimming in water

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?

A farmhadn works in rows of soil on an organic farm

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.

Many thanks,

Dave