“If I were asked to sum up the results of the work of the pioneers of the last 12 years or so on the relation of agriculture to public health, I should reply that a fertile soil means healthy crops, healthy livestock, and last, but not least, healthy human beings.”
– Sir Albert Howard, 1945
“I fought the law, and the law won.”
-Sonny Curtis and the Crickets, 1958
Dear Real Organic friends,
I fought the law, and the law won. I have used the words from Sonny Curtis' great rock anthem in earlier talks. It made me smile to use the lyrics describing an outlaw loner fighting a losing battle. But now I have to change it.
WE fought the law, and the law won.
This is not about a loner. I was just one of a group that sued the USDA last year. It was a surprise to me to be in that group. Suing the government seemed a bit above my paygrade. It is not the first time that citizens have sued the USDA over the organic rules. In fact, in a famous case in 2002, Arthur Harvey won such a case.
We were suing the USDA for certifying hydroponic as organic. The premise was simple. The law repeatedly states that organic is based on maintaining and improving the fertility of the soil. So certifying soilless production as organic should not be allowed.
Our position was in agreement with world standards (EU, England, Mexico, Canada). It was in agreement with the NOSB (National Organic Standards Board) recommendation made in 2010. It was in agreement with the historical meaning of the term “organic farming (see Albert Howard's quotation above).
Despite this massive consensus, the USDA has chosen to certify over a billion dollars of hydroponic production as organic. They have chosen to certify over 5000 acres of hydroponic production as organic. That is a pretty big “whoopsy-daisy.” That is changing the “certified organic” landscape in America!
“Soil fertility has always been the fundamental building block of any organic farming system. That's why at Full Belly, we work hard to build soil fertility through active soil management and amendment, diversified crop planting, cover cropping, and other farming practices that promote soil health and biodiversity.
“But after the court's ruling, in-the-ground certified organic farms like Full Belly will have to continue to compete in the same marketplace with hydroponic producers who do not need to lift a finger to build soil.
“While hydroponic systems may have their own benefits, the connection between soil health, human health, and planetary stewardship is missing in these soil-less systems. They simply should not be called ‘Organic.”
– Paul Muller, co-plaintiff and co-owner of Full Belly Farm in Guinda, CA, a producer of Certified Organic crops in California since 1984.
The lawsuit was a group effort. It reflected a growing awareness among the organic community that something is going very wrong.
The case was initiated by the Center For Food Safety (CFS). This was definitely not their first rodeo. They have made it their mission to challenge the government for failing to follow its own rules. CFS was joined by six farmers, the organic certifier OneCert, and MOFGA (Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association). I was one of those six farmers. It would have been a simple thing to get 500 farmers and many nonprofits to join the suit, but CFS wanted to keep a lean team.
Last Friday the court issued its decision. They decided that certifying hydro was legal because hydroponics weren’t explicitly prohibited in the language of the Organic Food Production Act.
I got a letter from Jim Riddle this week. Jim is a long-time organic farmer, certified with Real Organic Project. He is a former chair of the National Organic Standards Board, a co-founder of the Organic Farmers Association, and a pioneer of rigorous organic certification, serving as founding President of the International Organic Inspectors Association.
“As for the USDA’s rationale for allowing hydro, basically their only argument is that it is not prohibited under OFPA and therefore it’s allowed. Animal torture is not prohibited by OFPA – does that mean it’s allowed? Genetic engineering is not prohibited by OFPA, only by the Final Rule. Does that mean it could be allowed, if challenged in court?
“Is it time to expose the companies and brands that sell hydro as organic, and call for a boycott? Is it time to ask Congress, thru Senators Leahy and Tester, to explicitly prohibit hydro from being certified organic? Is it time to call for a mandatory “hydroganic” label to distinguish these products?
“Unless appealed and overturned, the judge’s ruling undermines USDA’s organic research agenda and the value of USDA organic in addressing climate change.”
– Jim Riddle on the lawsuit outcome.
For me, the judge's decision doesn't change the issue. The organic movement has been battling the USDA since the National Organic Program first took over responsibility for protecting organic. Sometimes the battles were over the rules, and sometimes the battles were over enforcement of the rules.
Being a good citizen doesn’t mean checking our moral compass or our sound judgment at the door. Quite the opposite. Government is only as good as its citizens are vigilant and involved. If we cede the authority to define “organic” to some judge, then organic will mean whatever that judge (chosen at random) decides. We know that different judges would make different decisions. That doesn’t make them evil or crazy, just uninformed. That is pretty much how confinement chicken factories became legally accepted as “organic.” A bad decision by a random judge. And It was perfectly legal for Congress and Trump’s USDA to throw out the Animal Welfare reform. Click here to learn more.
In the past, the American constitution has defined a black person as 3/5 of a person. That was the law. It was legal to own and abuse another human being. Other laws said that women could not vote, that gay people should be imprisoned. The laws were wrong.
The law still says that the electoral college rather than the voters should choose our president. We need to distinguish between what we believe in and what is legal. It is by opposing unjust laws (sometimes with great upheaval) that they are changed.
Agriculture, wherever you are, should be built upon the premise that the soil brings us life. The soil is not dead. It's a living creature. A major part of the sanctity of organic agriculture is discovering and honoring the mystery of soil.”
– Jim Durst, Co-owner of Durst Organic Growers and a co-plaintiff in the lawsuit.
The government doesn't have the right to redefine “organic.” Real organic is a movement, not a law. Not even a brand. And it is certainly not the property of the corporations that seek to profit by changing it. We have to move beyond brands if we are going to change the world.
The “Industrial Organic” forces are celebrating the defeat of the lawsuit. Lee Frankel, executive director and lobbyist of the Coalition for Sustainable Organics, stated, “Our membership believes that everyone deserves organic. The decision is a major victory for producers and consumers working together to make organics more accessible and the supply more resilient.”
Well, not much of a victory for consumers. 100,000 people signed a petition asking the USDA to prohibit hydroponics in 2017. “Everyone Deserves Organic.” These are the code words for Industrial Organic. I have written an earlier letter taking apart these false marketing claims of Industrial “certified organic.” But I can sum it up by saying, “Yes, everyone deserves organic.” That is very different from saying “Everyone deserves food that is LABELED as organic.”
Help us to make that call to action a reality. Let's grow the Real Organic movement together.
“Beyond the obvious benefit of raising public awareness to the critical role soils play in our lives and our society and inspiring a cadre of young people with an inspiring vision, there remains the gnawing wound with USDA’s “ownership” of the now soulless organic. I humbly suggest there needs to be continued patient persistence from the inside to get the train back on the track if for nothing else, to prevent it from becoming more of a train wreck than it has already become with the certification of CAFOs, and the abandonment of a focus on soil stewardship.
“The challenge is the dominating influence of money from those who don’t share or understand the importance of soil and health. If we all abandon the NOP and OTA, the organic label will drift towards permitting other practices, like GMOs, that are ultimately damaging to us all. AND without a legally defined label that represents the food we grow, I’m concerned that others will usurp the words we use to define what we do, as was happening before the NOP.”
Larry Jacobs – organic pioneer, and co-plaintiff in the hydroponic lawsuit. Co-Owner of Jacobs Del Cabo.
“While I welcome the work that my friends in the hydroponic industry are doing, hydroponic production does not conform to the soil-building precepts of organic farming.
“I would be perfectly happy to have my strawberries compete with properly distinguished hydroponically-grown strawberries, without the latter piggybacking on an Organic label that has taken more than 30 years to develop and establish in the minds of consumers.
“Certifying hydroponically-grown crops as organic devalues that label.”
– Jim Cochran, owner of plaintiff Swanton Berry Farm
“The USDA's claim that hydroponics can be certified as organic is disingenuous and false. Until the USDA started telling certifiers that they could ignore the parts of the law and rules that required fertility to come from organic matter in soil, no one was certifying hydroponic systems as organic.”
–Sam Welsch, co-plaintiff and president of organic certifier OneCert, Inc. (far left in the picture of USDA Hydroponic Organic Task Force).
Our community continues to build. Real organic farming is the alternative to industrial agriculture. Please join 1000 Real Fans and help to build the wave. Together.
Dave and Linley
“One of my favorite musicians, Joni Mitchell, wrote a song with the refrain ‘You don’t know what you got, till it's gone.'
“We cannot let the promise of organic get lost in confusing and ineffective regulatory oversight.”
– Harriet Behar upon leaving the National Organic Standards Board
Updated: You can still watch recordings from our January symposium by clicking here.