Keep the Soil in Organic

October 9th, 2015

by Dave Chapman

MilesHydro USDAcaptionThis is my effort to keep you up to date on what has been happening. Our efforts to keep hydroponic produce out of organic certification continues. There are now several lawsuits against the NOP (National Organic Program), brought by a number of national organizations that fear we are losing the integrity of the national standards. As the USDA continues to water down the organic standards, customers continue to lose confidence in the organic label.

In September the USDA created a Hydroponic and Aquaponic Task Force. I was selected to serve on this task force. The stated intention is to “explore hydroponic and aquaponic production practices and their alignment with USDA organic regulations.” Miles McEvoy, head of the NOP, has said several times that he hopes that the task force will be able to clarify the language of the 2010 NOSB recommendation banning hydroponic, which he said was too unclear for him to make a rule on.

The task force was originally limited to people with at least 3 years of experience in “hydroponic organic” growing.  Later the NOP responded to a public uproar, and opened it to all interested people. A number of highly qualified volunteers with lots of experience in organic farming were not selected for the task force, including organic greenhouse growers David Miskell from Vermont and Ken Kimes from California. I am one of the five members of the task force selected who I know represents the values of traditional organic farming. These five include Dr. Eric Sideman from MOFGA, Dr. John Bierenbaum from Michigan State, Theresa Lam from NJ NOFA, and Sam Welch from OneCert organic certifiers. About two-thirds of the task force members are experienced in hydroponic production, and have little experience with real organic farming.

I don’t see the creation of the task force as a victory. The NOP is still embracing hydroponic growing as fully certifiable. Hydroponic “organic” sales now easily exceed $50,000,000 a year in the US. Perhaps the number is much higher, but there is no way to know for sure. It is almost impossible to go into a supermarket in the US that offers organic produce, and not find  “organic” hydroponic tomatoes on the shelf in the place of soil grown real organic.  It might be different in California, but in my travels throughout the East coast, and into the South and Southwest, this is what I have seen. In almost all cases, the cheaper hydroponic produce has pushed off most of the soil grown organic produce. It has gotten to the point where most real organic growers are forced to market their organic tomatoes and peppers in farmers markets, road side stands, and CSAs. The supermarkets have been taken over by the hydroponic growers from Mexico, Canada, and Holland. They are selling produce to us that could not be certified in their own countries.

So we are in the exact situation that the NOP was created to prevent.

The NOP was created to ensure ethical marketing in organic farming. The whole purpose of the National Organic Program was to prevent the kind of misleading labeling that we are now seeing. People are buying “organic” tomatoes and peppers with no idea that the produce is hydroponic. Many people don’t even know what hydroponic means.

The websites of the businesses and organizations that are organic champions celebrate the soil.  Statements are commonly made such as ”Organic Growing…it begins with the soil.”   And “Organic farmers understand that what you put into the soil has a profound impact on what you get out of it.”  But the reality of what is offered in the stores is quite different.  There is not a whisper about hydroponics. It borders on fraud.

There are two kinds of marketing. Ethical marketing is connecting people to a product that they want to buy. Unethical marketing is tricking people into buying a product that they don’t want to buy.

The USDA is now involved in unethical marketing. They are misleading people, who have no idea that the organic produce they are buying is actually hydroponic. As people come to slowly learn about this, there will an inevitable further loss of confidence in the organic label.  “USDA Organic” is coming to mean “USDA Sort Of Organic.” Some customers are already turning away from “Organic,” and turning to “Local” as more trustworthy. They simply don’t trust the USDA certification. And this punishes all the real organic farmers as well as the opportunists and cheaters.

Most of the organic produce grown in this country is real organic. The tragedy is that the honest organic growers, who are producing the food that people really want to buy, are getting mixed in with this fraud in the marketplace.

The hydroponic growers who are truly growing crops that are totally unsprayed and fed only with natural fertilizers should market their produce for what it is! Let them offer their customers the truth, rather than hiding under the coattails of the organic label. Let them call it Bio-hydroponic. Many people will respond positively. Many will not. Not everyone cares that their grown in the soil, but many of those same people do care about buying unsprayed food.

The USDA already has a program to help farmers identify their growing practices to customers. It is called the Process Verified Program (PVP). The USDA will not create a label for a group of growers (or even for a single farm) in which they verify that the claims of the label are truthful.  Examples of this are “USDA Verified Grass Fed,” “USDA Verified Free To Roam,” and “USDA Verified GMO Free.” These are all labels that address parts of the American market that don’t insist on “Certified Organic” but that want some aspects of what the organic label represents. They don’t want GMOs, but they don’t care if it is organic. Or they do want grass fed beef, but they don’t care if it is organic. There is no reason why the Bio-hydroponic growers shouldn’t work with the USDA to create a new label that is verified hydroponically grown AND pesticide and chemical fertilizer free.  Let them market their produce honestly, for what it is.

What can we in the organic community do to take back organic? First, we can be aware of what we are buying. Ask the produce team in the store whether the tomatoes are hydroponic. They mostly won’t know! How could they? There is no labeling. We can no longer trust the “certified organic” label. We have to look further.

Then we can try turning to the system for correcting this. When Senator Leahy and Representative Defazio sponsored the creation of the Organic Foods Production Act  in 1990, they made every effort to protect the organic standards from undue influence of those looking to cynically profit from the organic market. We can appeal to the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), which is meant to guide the USDA in their definition of organic. The independence and authority of the NOSB has been under attack by the NOP in the last year, but they are still our best voice to the NOP.

The NOSB has already done their job of representing us by giving the USDA a formal recommendation in 2010 directing them to ban hydroponic growing from organic certification. This recommendation came as the result of several years of hearings and research. It was in keeping with international standards, and the beliefs of the organic community.

But the NOP has instead continued to ignore the NOSB, and to welcome hydroponic production into the organic label.

So whom else can we turn to?  There is no one else.

To whom is the NOP listening to when they oppose the NOSB? No one that I can find. Apparently this is a personal belief of Miles McEvoy, who leads the NOP.  It appears that he has come up with his own REDEFINITION of organic farming, and is putting that into the rules of the USDA.  Actually I doubt that this is the case. So perhaps he is listening to someone else who speaks for the organic community? Who would that be? What reputable organic group is speaking out demanding that hydroponic be included in organic certification? There is no such group. The only voices calling for hydroponic production in organic are the hydroponic growers and researchers themselves, their certifiers, and of course, Miles MacEvoy.

At this point we have lost control of the process for making organic standards. The task force I am serving on seems to be a stalling tactic to put off writing rules for another five years. We will meet for over a year, and then our results will be sent to the NOSB. After another few years, they will send ANOTHER recommendation to the NOP. And after another few years, the NOP will be ready to make a new rule.

Two thirds of the task force members already disagree with the 2010 recommendation of the NOSB, so it is very unlikely that they will be helpful in “clarifying the language” of that recommendation. Perhaps I am wrong, and I hope that I am. I promise that those of us representing you will try our best, but I am not optimistic.

The most worrisome thing about this stalling tactic is that in the next two years 11 members of the NOSB will be retiring! Another vote on this issue in the NOSB today would end the same as it did in 2010.  But I wonder if the new members of the NOSB will be carefully chosen for their support of the NOP position. After all, the members of the NOSB are entirely selected by the USDA.

We will keep working to take back organic. If, in the end, the USDA is simply unwilling to listen to the organic community, we will have no choice but to move on and find another way of reaching out to the organic eaters of America. We will have to invent a new label to do what the USDA was charged to do, a new label that people can trust. But a new label would be a sad ending to the name “Organic”, that we have all worked so hard to establish.

The NOSB will be meeting in Stowe, Vermont on October 26 through the 30th. There are public comment periods on the 26th and 27th.

Please let the USDA know how you feel.

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