“So our number one responsibility needs to be, and should be, protecting the brand, as we see, and based on the recommendations that we get from the board, and based on the recommendations and feedback that we get from organic producers.”
– Secretary Tom Vilsack speaking in his meeting with organic farmers
Dear Real Organic friends,
We met with Tom Vilsack this week. It was a big deal that the Secretary of Agriculture would take the time to discuss the “organic problem” with a bunch of farmers for 45 minutes. He is a very busy man, running the USDA, with an annual budget of $146 billion and nearly 100,000 employees. It is a hefty responsibility, with a budget exceeding that of most countries. So Mr. Vilsack has a lot of things cooking on the stove. Nonetheless, it was clear that he was very well informed about the issues challenging the organic community.
The meeting came as a result of a letter that we helped to write and organize. 43 former members of the NOSB (National Organic Standards Board) signed a call to action addressed to the US Government. They were all chosen by a Secretary of Agriculture to represent us in the complicated process of protecting organic. The NOSB is intended to represent a broad spectrum of interest groups, from farmers to scientists, to consumers, to stores, to processors, to environmentalists. The choices by the USDA are often skewed, with mid-level Agribiz managers oftentimes taking a “farmer” position. The group is the definition of “moderate.”
The majority of the former NOSB members added their voices to a call for action. We stress this because we are facing a true failure of the National Organic Program.
This short letter calls out the most egregious failures of the USDA: Certification of hydroponics, CAFOs, and fraudulently certified grain. All of these failings have been addressed by NOSB recommendations passed since 2010. None of these recommendations have been acted on by the National Organic Program. Or, if they have been acted on, the final rule change has been ultimately rejected or has gone unenforced. So perhaps the worst failing from the point of view of democracy is the failure of the USDA to follow the law that defines organic.
Talking about standards and policies is very dry work, and we all quickly wander off to our happy place. But the workings of government have a huge impact on our lives, often unseen. So when we wonder why Americans eat poorly or put on so much weight, we can look to the government policies that directly build that reality. Even though the answer is clearly there, it is not a simple thing to change. All of those policies are the result of massive lobbying by Big Food and Big Ag. Remember that more money is spent lobbying lawmakers by Big Food than is spent lobbying by the Military-Industrial complex. Maybe we can shorten Big Retail, Big Food, Big Ag, and Big Organic, and just call it Big Money. It is not the elephant in the room. It is bigger than that.
Next week we will try to lay out what Secretary Vilsack said, and our response to that. For this week, we would like to share our opening statements to Secretary Vilsack. There were seven farmers at that meeting. Francis Thicke, Dave Chapman, Jennifer Taylor, Michael Sligh, Harriet Behar, Jim Riddle, and Bob Quinn. All but Dave are former NOSB members. Three of them are former chairpeople. All of them are board members of the Real Organic Project. Together they spent 30 years of their lives discussing and arguing over those “boring” standards in endless soul-deadening meetings. They are highly competent and deeply committed. And they grieve to see so much of their work pushed aside by the USDA.
The farmers who spoke with Secretary Vilsack this week are all connected to the Real Organic Project. They are also all members of the Organic Farmers Association. Some who signed the NOSB letter are not connected to the Real Organic Project, and may not agree with some of our positions.
But we can all agree on the final statement in the letter: “The National Organic Program can only thrive if it is built on public trust. This trust relies on the integrity and transparency of the National Organic Program. We NOSB members and the organic community have invested years in trying to protect the National Organic Program. We urge the USDA to act on these NOSB recommendations aimed at enhancing the foundational goals as spelled out in the Organic Foods Production Act.”
Due to a lack of space, we will only share the comments that the two of us made. The other five spoke eloquently on the issues laid out in the letter. Jennifer Taylor also spoke about the failings of the USDA in serving BIPOC farmers, which was not part of the letter.
– Francis Thicke to Secretary Vilsack:
“Thank you, Secretary Vilsack, for taking time to speak with us. All of us on this call are long-time organic farmers and national leaders in the organic community.
We want to talk to you today because we believe the National Organic Program is in serious trouble because of the failure of the USDA to uphold the integrity of the Organic Standards.
Actually, many of us doubt that it will be possible to restore the integrity of the National Organic Program… But we would love to have you prove us wrong!
Because we are concerned about the erosion of the organic standards, we have already begun taking steps to restore that integrity, independent of USDA. With broad support from the organic community, we have created the Real Organic Project, an add-on certification that restores the integrity of the organic standards.
Now each of us would like to speak briefly about a specific issue. In order to get through all of the issues, we would appreciate it, Secretary Vilsack, if you would allow us to go through our short presentations in a row. Then we would welcome any response or questions you might have. Thanks.
Quite a bit of national attention has been given to the lack of consistent enforcement of the grazing standard—including an expose’ by the Washington Post a few years ago. Some of the large confinement organic dairy farms appear to be meeting the grazing standard only in their record books, and not in their pastures.
This is causing a rapid growth of large confinement organic dairy farms, which is pushing small and medium-sized organic dairy farms—that are following the rule–out of business in record numbers. This has created a crisis for the organic dairy community.
This is a problem that could be easily fixed. We would be happy to work with the NOP to fix it. For example, the Real Organic Project is developing GPS technology to be able to verify in real-time if dairy cows are, or have been, in the pastures at the times the record books indicate.”
– Dave Chapman to Secretary Vilsack:
“The majority of former members of the NOSB still alive signed this letter. 18 signers of this letter were appointed by you.
The letter is a last call for help. The NOP is failing the community it was meant to protect.
It is possible that the invaders have become too big to fail. When I met with Elanor Starmer* and Miles McEvoy* in 2016, Miles told me that he was not afraid of “too big to fail,” because enactment of the OLPP would lead to the decertification of three-quarters of the certified organic eggs in America. But he was committed to passage of the OLPP.
Five years later, Miles is gone, Elanor is gone and the OLPP is gone. The certified organic egg CAFOs remain.
That is why farmers are coming together to create alternatives to the USDA’s organic program such as the Real Organic Project. This year a thousand American farms will be certified with the Real Organic Project. But our dream is to fail because the USDA steps up and does its job. Then there is no reason for an add-on label.
There is literally only one person who can change this. And that is you.”
* Note: Elanor Starmer was the Administrator of USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service. Miles McEvoy was Deputy Administrator (director) for the USDA’s National Organic Program.
We will return next week with a report on Secretary Vilsack’s response, and what that response implies. Where do we go from here?
Many thanks to the thousands of voices behind us. Only together will we be heard.
Dave Chapman and Francis Thicke