Cornucopia’s Take: Organic soil-based farmer Dave Chapman of Long Wind Farm offers this update on keeping the soil in organic. Public comments to the USDA are due by 11:59PM (ET) this Thursday, March 30.

The Battle for Soil in Organic Agriculture
Long Wind Farm
by Dave Chapman

Dave Chapman testifies
at the spring 2016
NOSB meeting

This letter is to catch up on efforts to keep the soil in organic farming. The fall NOSB meeting was a disappointment, as we had hoped that the recommendation crafted by the Crops Subcommittee would be permitted a vote, and we would finally make some progress in returning the organic standards to their original meaning. But the proposal was sent back to committee for further review. Apparently the 3 months since then still wasn’t enough time to come up with a more detailed recommendation. The Crops subcommittee has been swamped when all five of the new NOSB members were assigned to it.  So instead of a vote, there will be a discussion document at the Denver meeting in April. Delay is the hydro lobby’s best strategy, and it is succeeding. Hopefully there will be a vote on a final recommendation prohibiting hydro in the fall meeting.

The question that so plagues the NOSB is whether hydroponic production should qualify for organic certification. Although this sounds like an obscure question, one NOSB member has described it as the most significant issue the NOSB has ever faced. It goes to the very heart of defining organic. Most of the time the NOSB debates fairly obscure questions like whether carrageenan can be part of the processing for prepared organic foods like ice cream. But the impact on the organic movement of allowing hydroponics will be profound. I am told by a friend that he can no longer buy soil grown organic tomatoes from the wholesaler for his store in California. Real organic tomatoes used to be available from California and Mexico, but those soil grown tomatoes have disappeared from the market. Wholesum Harvest  hydro now dominates the market. You can still buy soil grown organic tomatoes at some farm stands, farmers markets, and CSAs, but not in many supermarkets.  And of course, this is even more true in the rest of the country. In New England supermarkets, soil grown peppers and tomatoes have disappeared (except for Long Wind Farm tomatoes), replaced by hydro. No one knows they are hydroponic, as there is no way of identifying them as such unless you know the farm names.

And in “organic” berries, we have no idea which are soil grown. We do know from the USDA Hydroponic Task Force that Driscoll’s has over 1000 acres of hydro berries sold as organic. The enormous lobbying power of Driscoll’s has turned this into an uphill battle we are not likely to win. The whole purpose of the organic seal has now been undermined. Eaters can no longer trust the USDA seal if they want to choose organic food grown in healthy soil.

This winter there has been a growing wave of opposition to this corporate takeover of organic.

Eliot Coleman gave a powerful keynote address at the Mid-American Organic Alliance (MOA) winter conference. He looked back on the things that drew him and so many others into the organic movement. One attendee described Eliot’s talk as “a love letter to organic agriculture”.  Eliot went on to challenge the attempts by the USDA to redefine organic, thus making the National Organic Program more obedient to corporate concerns.

Eliot said, “Long time supporters of organic farming need to realize that the ground has shifted under their feet. Ever since the USDA (and by association the industrial food lobbyists) was given control of the word, the integrity of the ‘USDA Certified Organic’ label has been on a predictable descent.”

Eliot went on to say, “There isn’t any soil in hydroponic production. How can it be organic? One of the appeals of organically grown food is based on the high nutrient status of plants grown in a biologically active fertile soil, with all its known and yet to be discovered benefits. Well, that is what most people THINK organic production is all about because the original government definition of ‘organic’ stressed ‘soil biological activity’ as one of the vital processes enhanced by organic practices. Dismayingly, the USDA rewrote that definition in 2002 to remove any reference to the word “soil.” And the trend is straight downhill from that point on. Big money is presently being invested in ‘vegetable factories’ and ‘vertical farms’ where production is hermetically sealed in huge warehouses filled with LED lights and nutrient pumps. That frightening picture is the future of ‘organic’ as defined by the USDA.”

As Eliot called for people to wake up to what is happening to the organic label, he received a standing ovation. To read all of Eliot’s excellent talk: Eliot Coleman’s talk in Missouri

Another powerful talk this winter was Vandana Shiva’s keynote address at the NOFA VT winter conference. Vandana is world famous for her opposition to Monsanto and Big Ag. She is widely respected for her defense of small farmers and healthy soils around the world. Her talk was fierce and funny. In the middle of it, she held up a “Keep The Soil In Organic” t-shirt, and said, “ I think it is in the soil that our future lies. As Ayurveda says, ‘In this handful of soil is your future. Take care of it.’ This is 4000 years ago wisdom…Soil will sustain you and provide you with food, and clothing, and shelter, and beauty. Beauty is very much a part of it. Destroy it and it will destroy you. Now, ALL of chemical farming has been an escape from the soil, and an arrogance that you can replace it…Every step of so called innovation in agriculture is running away from the soil. It stops being agriculture, because ‘agriculture’ means ‘taking care of the land’.”

To hear her keynote: Vandana Shiva at NOFA VT

At the same NOFA conference, they showed a remote presentation by Congressman Peter Welch, who spoke about the importance of the Keep The Soil movement. Davey Miskell and I then led a roundtable discussion on the question, “Can We Trust the USDA to Protect Organic?” It was a lively conversation with standing room only. We started off with a short slide show, which I include here: I Fought The Law, And The Law Won

Then at Ecofarm in California, Kate Duesterberg, Will Allen, and Jake Guest lead a roundtable to discuss the hydro invasion. Strong Soil supporters Steve Sprinkel, Amigo Bob, Tom Willey, and Lisa Bunin also participated in that discussion.

A 5 minute video of the Rally In The Valley was shown to the thousand or so people at the plenary session of the NOFA VT Winter Conference.  The Rally In The Valley was a protest sponsored by NOFA and Vermont farmers last October in Thetford, VT. Hundreds of people marched with a 26 tractor cavalcade, and ended up at Cedar Circle Farm, where Senator Patrick Leahy, Congressman Peter Welch, Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, and farmers such as Eliot Coleman and Will Allen spoke about the importance of returning to real organic. The Rally was a pivotal point in the effort to reclaim real organic. Gregg Stevens put together an excellent five-minute video of the Rally for the conference. The various Rally videos have gotten over 40,000 views so far! People are paying attention.

(Note: This video contains brief language which may be objectionable to some viewers)

There were informational tables about the Farmers’ Rally In The Valley at the winter conferences for NOFA VT, NOFA NY, NOFA MA, and NOFA NJ. Hundreds of signatures were gathered at these meetings on a new petition calling on the USDA to Keep the Soil in Organic.

I was invited to speak on the struggle to keep organic in the soil at the Growers’ Organic Alliance conference in Birmingham, England. Europe struggles with these same issues, although they have been much more successful so far in keeping real standards in place. Here is a link to the filmed presentation: Dave Chapman address to Organic Growers Alliance in England

The question of hydroponics in organic goes to the core meaning of the word. If organic isn’t about healthy soil, then what is it about? As one soil scientist said, “The answer is soil. The question is irrelevant.” And if USDA organic isn’t about healthy soil, then why are we supporting it? It appears that the pirates have taken over the ship, and it is time for the crew to get organized and take it back.

There will be a discussion on hydroponics at the Spring NOSB meeting. Hopefully there will be a new recommendation at the fall meeting.  But we can see by the agonizingly slow progress of the compromised animal welfare reform how difficult it will be to get a new rule on hydroponics, even if we get a strong NOSB recommendation. The 2010 recommendation is clear that hydroponics have no place in organic. And yet, the NOP took the opposite position in 2014, and affirmed that hydroponics CAN be certified. This is the first time that the NOP has ever gone against an NOSB recommendation. The NOP contend that the 2010 recommendation was unclear about where to draw the line on soil growing in containers. But that certainly doesn’t justify allowing all hydroponics. And yet that is what the NOP has done. The large amount of money involved is the only possible explanation.

The whole world is struggling to resist the corporate takeover of organic. Please help by watching the short video, visiting our Facebook and website, and especially by sending in a written comment to the NOSB in the next few weeks. It is quite easy to submit a comment. Just follow the link below, click on “comment now” in the top right corner, enter your name, etc and write a short comment about your feelings concerning hydroponics in organic. For the last meeting, there were many hundreds of comments supporting the notion that healthy soil is the foundation of organic farming. There were also petitions with over 15,000 names on them calling for an end to the hydro invasion. Please help us to be heard in the USDA. If we fail there, our only option will be a new label.

Submit a comment to the National Organic Standards Board

Many thanks,

Dave Chapman and Davey Miskell

To sign a petition to keep the soil in organic, click here:

P.S. This has already been a very long letter, but I am adding one last part for those of you with a lot of staying power. 

The term Regenerative Agriculture is entering our vocabulary. Very recently, the Carbon Underground and others put out a working definition for Regenerative Agriculture.

Regenerative Agriculture is a worldwide movement to promote healthy soils and reverse climate change through better farming practices. The basic principles of Regenerative Agriculture are minimal tillage and continuous diverse plant cover. The Regenerative movement is attempting to shift the world’s agriculture, focusing on increasing the carbon stored in the soil, thus pulling down CO2 from the atmosphere. Even more significantly, they are positively affecting the water cycle, cooling the planet.  Thus a virtuous circle of plant growth and soil health is reestablished. All of this is based on increasing the carbon sponge in the soil and enlisting a diverse community of plants, microbes, and animals.

Carbon Underground definition of Regenerative Agriculture

The stated principles of Regenerative Agriculture are the same as the original principles of Organic Agriculture. Albert Howard could have written them. They have a greater understanding of the effect of agriculture on climate, and a greater emphasis on the drawbacks of excessive tillage. So why is it necessary to create a new movement, when “organic” appears to be so successful? We are told that organic demand is so high that American farmers can’t meet it. Why aren’t they just promoting organic?

I had a conversation with Tom Newmark of Carbon Underground about this. He felt that it was important that a very broad movement to build up soil carbon is launched immediately. There is no time for gradual steps or political infighting. The definition of Regenerative Agriculture is not trying to insist on particular practices, but is rather focused on the outcome of steadily building the organic matter in the soil. All good things should flow from that outcome. Soil health, human health, planetary health.

Why isn’t the organic movement leading the way on this? In fact, many in the organic movement ARE leading. IFOAM, OCA, Rodale, and NOFA have all been active in promoting regenerative agriculture. But the sad truth is that the organic movement AS DEFINED BY THE USDA is rapidly losing its original meaning of stewarding the soil. It is also losing some of the trust of the people who have always supported it. As the organic label is continually being compromised by corporate interests, people are starting to turn elsewhere to find a way of growing that they can support. They want food grown in healthy soil without pesticides. They want Real Organic. They want Regenerative Organic.

The effects of this painful shift in USDA organic away from soil health is reflected in an online dialogue that I have had with Regenerative Agriculture pioneer Gail Fuller. As Gail wrote,We need to take this conversation one step further as, in my humble opinion, organic is not the answer, just the next step. Yes, organic is lower in pesticide residue, and yes, that is important. However, the downfall of organic (besides the industrialization of the industry), is the degradation of soil. We are on pace to run out of soil in the next 100 years (some say much sooner). What good is organic without soil? Add to that, very few want to discuss nutrient density of food. When you compare nutrients in organic and industrial, there is little difference. It is my belief that this is as big, or bigger than pesticide residue. We have to regenerate our soil, promote the soil micro biome, which will bring the nutrient density much higher in our food.”

I would suggest that Gail is not speaking of Real Organic when he says that it degrades the soil, or that its crops lacks nutrient density. These things are the foundation of real organic. In a later comment, Gail wrote, “No-till and organic have been on a collision course for years, and it can’t get here soon enough. No-till farmers have to learn how to do without chemicals and organic without tillage. Both are systems designed to kill.”

Gail and I come from different worlds, but we are meeting in the middle. Gail started from conventional agriculture, and he is helping to lead the way to a different kind of farming. He now hosts an excellent annual workshop in Kansas. They bring in some of the best agricultural thinkers in the world to discuss Regenerative Agriculture with a group of innovative farmers. We both have a lot of agreement on what good farming means, and we agree that it is critical to the world that we change how we farm on a global scale. It is still my hope that we can save “certified organic” from the clutches of Industrial Ag. Gail thinks that ship has sailed, and we need to find a new term for the old meaning.

Regenerative Agriculture is likely to have many of the same challenges that Certified Organic now faces. Things will get complicated as they move towards some kind of certification program so that consumers can trust that they are supporting the kind of agriculture they want, and not just some greenwashed version where the right words are said. In the end, we ALL want to support farming systems that build healthy soil without the use of pesticides. AS such, I strongly support the Regenerative Agriculture movement. It is my hope that the organic movement will lead the way to that transformation. There are still MANY legitimate and skilled real organic farmers certified by the organic label. And there is also tremendous consumer enthusiasm for the organic label. People are looking for healthy food grown in healthy soil by farmers who care. “Organic” is still the best word that we have for now, and I think it is worth fighting for. But many believe we will need to create a new label to represent Real Organic or Regenerative Organic.

One last thing.

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Our Twitter account is @keepsoilinorganic

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