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What Does USDA Organic Mean Today?

Fertile soil has always been the foundation of organic farming. In 1995, organic was defined by the National Organic Standards Board, the USDA’s expert advisory panel, as “an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles, and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain, and enhance ecological harmony.”

But in recent years, the USDA has changed their definition by allowing large-scale certification of vegetables and berries grown hydroponically without any soil at all. They have allowed industrial confinement operations, that provide animals zero access to soil, to become certified organic.

Organic farmers have long known that healthy soil creates nutritious food, healthy people, and a healthy environment. This leaves us to wonder, what does USDA Organic mean now? How can we protect the movement that organic family farmers have built?

Organic farmers rallied across the country to protest USDA’s failure to enforce organic laws requiring proper soil stewardship. The largest rallies were in Vermont and Jacksonville, Florida, with hundreds of farmers and eaters calling on the USDA to keep organic farming based in the soil. The failure of the USDA to uphold the legislation governing soil health and animal welfare has resulted in the formation of the Real Organic Project.

Big Ag Enters USDA Organic to Bend the Rules

Representative Chellie Pingree, Maine: “In case you don’t know, there are 1,200 lobbyists on the hill that work for the agriculture and food processing industry. They spend about $350 million a year on forming opinions in Washington. And that’s more than the defense industry, so don’t underestimate their power.”

Representative Peter Welch, Vermont: “You’ve got folks out there, including in Big Ag, who want a free ride and to get the benefit of the hard work that organic farmers do, and take some of that market share with a label that wasn’t earned.”

Senator Patrick Leahy, Vermont: “I know the fight I had to go through to get the original organic farm legislation through. I want organic to mean organic to mean organic. Would you agree with that?”

Eliot Coleman, Four Season Farm: “We the creators refuse to see the promise of organic farming compromised by profiteers. We won before and we will win again.”

Jake Guest, Killdeer Farm: “You know we have a right to this term ‘organic’ – we have a right. I have a right. I’ve been doing this all my life, you know? And I have a right to that continuity. This hydroponic growing is a perversion.”

Davey Miskell, Miskell’s Premium Organics: “The 40 years that I’ve been involved in organic farming, I’m not willing to let this group of people take that away.”

Real Organic Farmers Are Fighting to Protect Organic

As organic standards have eroded and been ignored, the movement to protect organic has grown. In 2017 there were 15 rallies to promote Real Organic practices all across North America.

The rallies were a call to action to reclaim strong standards based on traditional organic farming. Ignoring earlier recommendations and world standards, the USDA has sided with industry and embraced soil-less production as organic. Hundreds of millions of dollars of hydro berries and vegetables grown without any soil, or any means of identification, are currently being certified and sold as organic each year.

Jeff Moyer, Rodale Institute: “Without soil, it’s not organic.”

Onika Abraham, Farm School NYC: “As an urban ag. grower myself and a person that works very closely and advocates for people who grow in the city, I am staunchly in support of anyone who’s stewarding soil.”

Maddie Kempner, NOFAVT: “Soil has always been the foundation of organic growing. So I think in a lot of important ways soil represents the history of organic. But I think it’s also important to remember that healthy soil as one of the keys to reversing climate change should be the future, of organic as well.”

Connor Crickmore, Neversink Farm: “Regardless of what’s going on with big business, we have to own that word and keep the spirit of it.”

USDA Organic Now Means Input Substitution

Jim Riddle, Blue Fruit Farm: “We’ve always said that organic is not based on input substitution. Well, hydroponic is totally input dependency!”

Pat Kerrigan, Organic Consumers Association: “You’re getting a watered down crop and you have no idea.”

Jack Algiere, Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture: “Our relationship to the soil and our relationship to place is the key to this whole thing.”

Dave Zuckerman, Full Moon Farm and Lt. Governor, Vermont: “Organic without soil and without all the microorganisms in the soil is like democracy without people. It just doesn’t work.”

Tom Beddard, Lady Moon Farms: “Well, here we are, and we’re not going to stop until everybody in this world knows that organic farmers farm in soil. It’s the only way you can be an organic farmer.”

USDA Organic Now Means Poor Animal Welfare

The rallies were also protesting confinement animal feeding operations (CAFOs) for meat, milk, and eggs. These CAFOs are now being passed off as organic farms to unsuspecting eaters.

Lisa Stokke, Next 7: “As a mom, I’ve always really counted on that organic label so that I know what I’m feeding my children.”

Dave Chapman, Long Wind Farm: “If the new animal welfare standards were implemented, 3/4 of the certified organic eggs in America would be decertified.”

Jesse Laflamme, Pete & Gerry’s Organic Eggs: “Small farms cannot compete with ‘organic egg farms’ housing two million hens in ten industrial-sized warehouses with only the most cynical description of outdoor access to offer.”

Farmers Testify to the National Organic Standards Board to no Avail

At the rallies, over 50 organic leaders spoke out calling on the USDA to protect Real Organic. They pointed to the widespread loss of integrity of the USDA organic program, which permits hydroponics, factory farming of animals, and massive imports of fraudulently certified grain.

John Bobbe, OFARM: “66% of the imported grains since May of 2016 has been total fraud, and the NOP seems to have a problem finding these ships.”

In November of 2017, farmers and eaters from all over the country testified to the National Organic Standards Board in Jacksonville, Florida. They called on them to keep the soil in organic and implement animal welfare regulations.

Michael Besancon, Advisor to Patagonia: “When the consumer loses confidence in the brand, the sales go down.”

Gerald Davis, Grimmway Farms: “We say let the hydroponics production method develop its own marketing label, based on the merits of their system – not ride the coattails of a successful label that doesn’t match their methods or goals.”

Despite the amazing farmer turnout, the National Organic Standards Board failed to prohibit hydroponics in the organic standards. This historic failure strengthened the growing split between the USDA and the organic community. What happens next is up to us. As the USDA attempts to redefine organic, we won’t back down.

Michael Brownback, Spiral Path Farm: “I don’t see anybody in this room opposed to hydroponics in organic that’s going away. Are any of you going away? I didn’t think so. So we’re here for long haul.”