NOSB Split 8:7 Favoring Industry Lobbyists over Farmers

[This article was previously published in the winter issue of The Cultivator, Cornucopia’s quarterly newsletter.]

by Linley Dixon, PhD
Senior Scientist at The Cornucopia Institute

USDA Secretary Perdue tours the Lēf Hydroponic Farm in NH
Source: Lance Cheung, USDA

Can conventional, GMO, glyphosate-sprayed soybeans be certified USDA Organic? Of course not.

Can a farming system that relies on conventional, GMO, glyphosate-sprayed soybeans for fertility be certified USDA organic? Yes, according to the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) and some organic certifiers, including the nation’s largest, California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF).

If you think that’s absurd, hypocritical, or even illegal under the Organic Food Production Act (OFPA), you are not alone.

Thousands of organic farmers, many of whom showed up to protest these hydroponic practices at the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) meeting last November, agree.

Organic, by law, depicts a way of ecological farming that fosters biodiversity to control pests, cycle nutrients, attract natural insect pollinators and predators, protect animal welfare, and build fertility by capturing carbon and incorporating organic matter into the soil.

The law clearly requires fostering careful soil stewardship as a prerequisite for organic certification. How do you improve soil fertility…without soil?

But massive industrial hydroponic operations like Driscoll’s (berries), Wholesum Harvest (tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers), NatureSweet’s Brighthouse line (tomatoes), and other agribusinesses have been gaining organic status without meeting these legal biodiversity and soil fertility requirements.

While not all hydroponic operations rely on conventional, GMO, glyphosate-sprayed soybeans for fertility, the largest operations do.

They also rely on hundreds of acres of plastic—plastic weed barriers, plastic pots, plastic tubing, and plastic ceilings. Plastic everything, and plastic everywhere.

Despite the clear intent of the law, hydroponic “container” growing was given the green light in a corrupt decision by the former director of the USDA National Organic Program without consulting the NOSB as the law requires.

Many organic farmers testified at the NOSB meeting that the organic standards require “in-the-soil, in-the-ground” growing to be compliant, given requirements for cover cropping, soil fertility, and biodiversity. Many were the pioneering, family-scale farmers who have toiled, in the soil, for as many as 40 years helping build the organic industry.

The grassroots growers were joined by larger organic soil-based farmers, including Gerald Davis, a former NOSB member himself.

Davis, representing Grimmway Farms, the largest grower of organic produce in the United States, whose brands include Bunny-Luv and Cal-Organic, testified that plants in containers require constant liquid feed, causing plants to be vulnerable to insects and disease.

Tom Beddard of Lady Moon Farms testified that hydroponic systems will be ripe for cheating; systemic pesticides and fungicides could be easily delivered through the feeding tubes.

Despite voluminous compelling testimony, the system was rigged against the organic farmers from the beginning. The NOP, having already illegally allowed certification of these hydroponic “container” operations without NOSB approval, forced the NOSB to vote on a “ban” of organic hydroponics, rather than voting on a proposal to “allow” certification.

Since a supermajority (at least ten out of 15 board members) is required for a decisive vote, a proposal to “allow” hydroponics would have failed eight-to-seven, and the organic farmers would have gone home victorious. Instead, as it was worded, the proposal to “ban” hydroponics failed, seven-to-eight, and the hydroponic industry won.

Between the illegal allowance of hydroponic certification, without NOSB approval or standards, and the stacking of the board with agribusiness representatives, USDA leadership was able to successfully ensure the hydroponic industry would prevail in organics.

Veteran industry observers noted that convincing the NOSB to take a stand against illegal hydroponic production was an exercise in futility and would ultimately have to be arbitrated in federal court.

In an additional note of irony, the NOSB voted unanimously to prohibit aeroponic production (i.e., feeding with liquid fertilizer through a fine mist).

The difference between aeroponic and hydroponic systems essentially comes down to the droplet size used to deliver liquid fertility.

This contradiction, allowing hydroponics but not aeroponics, is likely due to the fact that there is no aeroponic industry lobby in the organic sector—yet.

Cornucopia members will be interested to hear how the eight NOSB members that voted in favor of hydroponic production can simultaneously justify the exclusion of aeroponic production, given both systems depend on the same fertility inputs.

So where do authentic organic farmers go from here? Some are calling for the abandonment of the USDA’s National Organic Program altogether. Others are calling for certification using only high-integrity certifiers, while dropping the green USDA organic logo in protest of NOP’s failure to enforce the law.

In the midst of fraudulent imports and the illegal organic certification of giant factory-farm poultry and dairy operations (CAFOs), the failure of the container proposal was the tipping point for many farmers.

In strongly worded closing remarks to his fellow NOSB members, completing his five-year term on the board, Dr. Francis Thicke (a certified organic dairy farmer with a background in soil science) called for the creation of an add-on label, stating that USDA Organic is no longer the gold standard.

Thicke began, “I learned, over time, that industry has an outsized and growing influence on USDA—and on the NOSB (including through NOSB appointments)—compared to the influence of organic farmers, who started this organic farming movement.”

For now, ethical farm operations, which are truly innovative in developing systems that comply with OFPA, will continue to be competitively injured as more industrial-scale hydroponic operations shift to organic certification.

Stay tuned. Cornucopia will come up with additional web-based tools so you can make careful decisions in the supermarket, providing your family with the most flavorful and nutritious organic food while simultaneously protecting farmers who follow the spirit and letter of the law.

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