Home » Of The People, By The People, For The People

This is a long letter. I apologize. Please forgive me. It is another important but complicated subject.

Before I begin, let me present our Know Your Farmer video for this week. Appropriately it is an inspiring video of Jesse Buie at Ole Brook Organics in Jackson, Mississippi. I am very happy to share this video, having just seen Jesse two days ago in Pittsburgh. Jesse was doing his civic duty, representing organic farmers on the NOSB (National Organic Standards Board). Jesse was a champion of real organic in Jacksonville two years ago, and his courageous advocacy continues. It can be uncomfortable up there, and Jesse remains strong speaking up for us.

Jesse Buie and Dave Chapman outside the NOSB meeting in Pittsburgh in October 2019
Jesse Buie and Dave at the NOSB meeting in Pittsburgh.

In Pittsburgh, we finally got the long-awaited response from the USDA on the use of prohibited substances in organic. They are still prohibited ….mostly….sort of….we don’t know…

The National Organic Program has always required a three year transition period with no prohibited inputs before granting organic certification. That means no glyphosate or atrazine, no nasty insecticides, no toxic fungicides, for a three year period. This guarantees that people get crops free of these residues, and it also prevents rapid cycling of producers in and out of organic. Without the three year transition period, a farmer might give up certification this week, spray a pesticide to “clean up” a crop, replant, and be ready to be certified again next week.

At the National Organic Standards Board meeting in Pittsburgh, National Organic Program Associate Director Jenny Tucker was again asked the question many have been asking for the last 6 months:

Is a three year transition period required for crops grown in greenhouses, tunnels, shipping containers and other “indoor” spaces?

Emily Oakley and Dave Mortenson at the NOSB meeting in Pittsburgh October 2019
NOSB members Emily Oakley and Dave Mortensen going to work in Pittsburgh. Both are also Real Organic Project Advisory Board members.

Dr. Tucker has been remarkably reluctant to answer this simple question. Half a year ago the NOP went through a similar ordeal of dodging questions when we asked if a three year transition period was required for hydroponic crops? We knew that the three year period was not being enforced for hydroponic production.

I asked Dr. Tucker at a meeting last March if a transition period was required for hydroponic production, and she answered that it was NOT! This meant that a producer could spray the ground with glyphosate one week, and certify the farm as organic the next week, if they were growing hydroponically in containers.

This led to a manure storm of protest from the entire organic community (with the exception of the hydroponic producers, lobbyists, and certifiers who were embracing the use of glyphosate just prior to setting out their containers). After the protests began, the NOP refused to answer our questions for several months. Some people even accused me of fabricating the whole issue, calling this “hypothetical”.

We sent out proof that this was actually happening. I copied a letter from Americert, a USDA approved certifier. They admitted certifying hydroponic operations that had recently used herbicides with no transition time and claimed it was a common practice taking place on a large scale. They also claimed that they had notified the USDA about this practice, asking for guidance. They never got a response.

The National Organic Program responded to my “Americert” letter the very next day with a change of policy. I call this the “Glyphosate Memo.” Dr. Tucker stated that this was no longer an approved practice, but granted a “grandfather” exemption for all the producers who had already sprayed prohibited substances.

It was not great news that a number of producers had sprayed glyphosate and still gotten certified within weeks, but stopping it was definitely a step in the right direction. The forbidden practices were once again…forbidden.

Except…some of us still had a nagging doubt about the language in the “Glyphosate Memo”. The memo kept saying it applied to “container systems” “on land”. Aside from the obvious avoidance of the “H word”, I was bothered by the repeated use of the phrase “on land.” Did the memo signify that “container systems” (meaning hydroponic systems) inside a structure of some sort were not included in this revised standard? They were quoting the language of OFPA, but did they mean to exclude greenhouses and factories in their memo?

We simply couldn’t tell what the memo meant.

Is this organic? It is certified.

So we asked the NOP. I wrote a public letter asking for clarification. It was a simple question. Did the Memo also cover greenhouses, etc? Some thought I was being paranoid. But then, some had thought I was completely off base in my original concern. After all, how could prohibited substances be permitted by the USDA in an organic system???

I got no reply, so I wrote again. And again. And finally, after six months of writing, I asked Dr, Tucker in person during my testimony in Pittsburgh.

One couldn’t accuse us of “springing this” on them.

Please know that I wasn’t alone in my confusion. Dr. Tucker was asked the same question by members of the NOSB, by the Organic Farmers Association, by the National Organic Coalition, and by many certifiers. How were the poor certifiers supposed to enforce a standard that they didn’t understand?

And to all of these questions, Dr. Tucker gave very confusing responses, or no response at all leading up to the meeting.

It is not a complicated question, so when I asked it in person in front of hundreds of people, I expected an answer. But I got none. NOSB members persisted in asking Dr. Tucker during the meeting, and Dr. Tucker promised an answer at the end of the testimony.

On the second day of testimony, Lee Frankel, the lobbyist for The Coalition For Sustainable Organics (aka the Coalition For Hydroponic Organics), testified. When asked, he said that some greenhouse producers were, in fact, not following the three-year transition. So it is no longer a “hypothetical”.

Jenny Tucker finally gave her long-awaited clarification. Which for me, clarified nothing.
Dr. Tucker said: “I state that I would be happy to follow up on comments as taken. Clearly this is a topic of continuing interest. I would say that my comments from yesterday are my comments now. All container systems must meet mandatory requirements related to an abuse of prohibited substances on land. The three year transition period is intimately connected to prohibited substances, and that’s why we talk about an applicant’s(?) history. And so certifiers need to make decisions for each individual operation that they certify based on the regulations. So certifiers are responsible for making those decisions. Any farmer who has questions about how to transition and how the rules apply to their operation need to contact their certifier. We will continue to monitor their certifiers…”

WELL……

We already know that there are certifiers who are not adhering to the cornerstone requirement that all operations follow the three-year transition mandated by law. According to Americert, there have been many such certifiers. Lee Frankel had just testified that some greenhouses are not following the three year transition period. Having heard Lee’s testimony, Dr. Tucker’s statement can only lead me to wonder if such practices ARE allowed by the National Organic Program.

Are there certifiers allowing producers to spray whatever they want in a greenhouse, tunnel, basement, shipping container, or warehouse two weeks before bringing in new substrate for the containers and getting certified?

And if such practices are allowed by some certifiers, what is to stop them from allowing it on an annual basis? If there is guidance from the NOP, shouldn’t it publicly stated so that all can trust what is being certified?

We have seen that rules are constantly being twisted by corporate interests. One of the issues debated at the NOSB meeting was the Origin Of Livestock. That phrase describes the constant selling of calves from an organic operation and the buying-in of older replacement heifers from conventional farms. It is a way to go around the intent of the law. It avoids the expense of raising the calves in an organic system. It is happening on a huge scale now, and it gives a serious competitive advantage to the CAFO producers willing to follow this practice. It is not so different from bombing the greenhouse with a prohibited pesticide this week and then recertifying a few weeks later.

Perhaps more dismaying even than the allowance of prohibited pesticides in the three year transition period for the hydroponic producers is the unwillingness of the NOP to simply answer our questions. How are we to ever trust the USDA to protect the integrity of the organic seal with such a lack of transparency?

What our customers believe organic means. Photo tkaen at ROP-certified farm, UProoted in Chatham, Michigan.

I promised my friend, Phil LaRocca, at the meeting that I would work on ending with a positive message. And I truly have one. Despite the ongoing crisis of the NOP, real organic farming continues to grow in America. That is because farmers want to farm that way and because people want to eat that way. That is tremendously good news. Of course, it would grow dramatically faster if the NOP would do its job with integrity, but it will continue to grow nonetheless. The Real Organic Project has two inspectors on farms as I write this. We are hovering at 200 certified farms. More to come soon.

We are an underfunded, farmer-led, grassroots effort, much like the original organic movement. If we had a couple of million dollars in the bank, we would be going even faster, but we will get there nonetheless. Because of the failures of the USDA we are losing real organic farmers at a tragic rate in dairy. It is an appalling destruction of intellectual capital. Berry and grain farmers are up next on the block. But people are coming to the rescue. We are coming together to insist on learning the truth. Please join us. Protect organic. We need each other.

Many thanks,

Dave