Dear Friends of Organic,
I just wanted to let you know that the Real Organic Project has been born. I’d like to review the past and take a look at the future of certified organic farming. If you care about organic, please forward this letter to your friends.
It has not been a good year for the National Organic Program. Since the November NOSB (National Organic Standards Board) meeting in Jacksonville failed to prohibit HYDRO, the organic community has gone through a period of questioning and searching. We are wrestling with the basic question, “Can we trust the USDA to protect organic integrity?”
Following a series of devastating articles about the NOP (National Organic Program) in the Washington Post last year, all the news from the USDA has been bad. In September, the USDA exonerated the enormous Aurora Dairy CAFO (Confinement Animal Feeding Operation) of any wrongdoing at their Colorado “farm.” This dairy operation was described in detail in one WaPo article, along with compelling test results to prove the cattle weren’t on pasture. The government approval set the stage for Aurora to build several new CAFOs that will dwarf the current 15,000-cow operation.
For the supporters of CAFO Organic: Mission Accomplished.
Then the USDA abandoned the animal welfare reforms (called OLPP) which had finally been approved under Obama. This rejection by the USDA was the result of intense lobbying from such groups as the Coalition For Sustainable Organics (in their Senate testimony), American Farm Bureau, and the National Pork Producers Council. They were championed by the ranking members of the Senate Agriculture Committee, protecting enormous “organic” egg CAFOs in their home states. The USDA thus cleared the way for CAFOs to continue receiving “organic” certification.
Once again, for CAFO meat, milk, and egg operations: Mission Accomplished.
Then in January, the USDA announced that “Certification of hydroponic, aquaponic and aeroponic operations is allowed under the USDA organic regulations, and has been since the National Organic Program began.” This was an interesting rewriting of history, but who cares about the facts?
For the soilless HYDRO growers: Mission Accomplished.
Finally, the USDA recently told the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) that, going forward, they will be severely limited in the scope of their work. They will not address big questions about organic integrity. They will not set their own agenda. They will limit their focus to defining what substances will be permitted in organic certification.
These outcomes (allowing hydro, setting aside animal welfare, and reducing the role of the NOSB) are exactly what Theo Crisantes of the Coalition For Sustainable Organics called for when he testified before the Senate Ag Committee last year.
It would appear that the USDA is no longer even bothering to woo the organic community with sweet talk. They are bluntly speaking their truth, which is that “Certified Organic” means whatever they want it to mean, and to hell with the organic community. And apparently, to hell with OFPA as well. Organic is all about marketing, isn’t it?
For the many people who have spent years working hard to build the integrity of the NOP, this is a dismal moment. We have lost the helm, and the New Organic will not have much to do with the ideals of such pioneers as Albert Howard and Eve Balfour. It will have to do with money. Money will decide what is called “certified organic” and what isn’t.
And so, if we still care about those ideals, we must move on. The National Organic Program will continue to flourish. Many people will still turn to it to find safer food. Many good people will still work hard to make the NOP as honest and positive as possible. But the NOP will be controlled by politicians and lobbyists who have no belief in the mission of the organic farming movement.
Two amazing cartoons by Gary Larson show the evolution of the corporate takeover of the NOP. The first cartoon shows the beginning of seeing that it is easier to win if you look like the sheep.
So ten years ago, some CAFO farms started to “talk organic.” They discovered that a lucrative market could be exploited while still embracing the conventional model of confinement feeding of livestock.
The second Larson cartoon shows where the National Organic Program is headed in another ten years. What happens when the organic market is mostly filled with CAFO and HYDRO production? Will eaters still trust the USDA Organic Seal?
Last Fall we saw an unprecedented turnout from the organic community trying to reclaim the NOP. This culminated in the final Rally at Jacksonville and two days of farmer testimony.
The sad outcome was that the farmers were ignored. It turned out that many members of the NOSB really didn’t understand what organic meant. We failed to win even a simple majority in the NOSB vote to prohibit HYDRO. We faced an enormous and successful lobbying effort by the protectors of HYDRO such as OTA, CCOF, and the Coalition For Sustainable Organics. These seem to be the Champions of New Organic.
What happens now?
This winter, a growing group of farmers and eaters have formed the Real Organic Project. The Real Organic Project will work to support real organic farming.
This will involve a number of efforts, starting with the creation of a new “Add-On” label to represent the organic farming that we have always cared about. It will use USDA certification as a base, but it will have a small number of critical additional requirements. These will differentiate it from the CAFOs, HYDROs, and import cheaters that are currently USDA certified.
This group grew out of several meetings of Vermont farmers who believed that the USDA label was no longer something that could represent us. Starting a new label is not a small task, but we can no longer find an alternative. That small group of Vermonters has grown quickly into a national group. This amazing group of organic advocates has gathered to build something new. Scroll below to see who we are.
Standards Board // We now have a 15-member Standards Board (listed below), based on the model of the NOSB, but with much greater representation from the organic community. The 15 volunteers have a wealth of experience in both farming and regulation. There are 9 farmer members, as well as representatives from NGOs, stores, consumers, scientists, and certifiers.
The group includes 5 former NOSB members, as well as leading farmers and advocates from across the country. They will meet in March to set the first standards. They will continue to meet once a year after that to review and update. This first year there will be a pilot project with a small number of farms to test the certifying process and work out the details.
Advisory Board // There is also a distinguished Advisory Board that currently has 18 members, including 4 former NOSB members and 3 current NOSB members. It also includes many well known organic pioneers such as Eliot Coleman and Fred Kirschenmann.
Executive Board // And finally, there is an Executive Board of 5 people that includes one current NOSB member.
These boards will work together to reconnect and unite our community. Our intent is transformational. We will create a label that we can trust again.
Please Join Us
We can only succeed with your support. Go to realorganicproject.org to become a member. Make a donation to help make this new label into a reality. We are only supported by our sweat and your generosity. We can reclaim the meaning of the organic label together.
This weekend, Feb 17 and 18, there will be a roundtable discussion both days at the NOFA VT Winter Conference. We will meet after lunch (1 to 2 PM).
- On Saturday we will be discussing “National Organic Program: Where Are We?”
- On Sunday at the same time we will be discussing “National Organic Program: Where Are We Going?”
- NOFA will be showing the Many Rallies video at the lunchtime Plenary Session.
For anyone interested, I will be giving the keynote address at the NOFA CT Winter Conference on March 10. I will be discussing these issues and be giving an update on the Real Organic Project.