Cornucopia’s Take: Organic Insider’s Max Goldberg interviewed USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue regarding the agency’s decision to allow hydroponic growers to label their produce “organic.” Perdue began by saying, “It shouldn’t be competitive,” and wound up with a quote about feeding people “more efficiently and more effectfully [sic] … around the world.” The organic label exists to ensure standards in organic agriculture for consumers and international trade. The label has, in the past, provided assurance to consumers about the methods and materials used in organic food production. Perdue continues to signal that the USDA is seeking quantity over quality in all agriculture, including organic.

Video Interview: USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue is Asked About the Legality of Hydroponics in Organic
Organic Insider
by Max Goldberg

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Last week in New York City, I had the rare opportunity to speak with USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue and was able to ask him about a variety of organic subjects, most of which Organic Insider has extensively covered over the past few years. As he discussed in the video above, these include:

– Hydroponics in organic  According to Section 6513 b-1 of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, it says that:

An organic plan shall contain provisions designed to foster soil fertility, primarily through the management of the organic content of the soil through proper tillage, crop rotation, and manuring.

Despite this very clear language, which would appear to make hydroponics illegal in organic, the USDA announced on January 25th that “hydroponics is allowed under the USDA organic regulations and has been since the National Organic Program began.”

– Fraudulent organic grains from abroad  Countries such as Turkey and Ukraine have sent millions of pounds of fraudulent organic grains into the U.S., both ripping off American consumers and severely damaging the livelihoods of American organic farmers.

– The timing of the federal GMO-labeling bill  Congress mandated that the USDA establish GMO-labeling standards by July 29, 2018, but it did not do so. As a result, the Center for Food Safety sued the USDA for its failure to enact this law.

– Status of important organic programs, given that we have no farm bill  Since many important organic initiatives do not have permanent funding, such as the organic certification cost-share program for farmers, the lack of a farm bill puts these programs in limbo — something that the organic industry cannot afford. (Note: This interview was conducted last week, and the farm bill was not finalized by September 30th, which was Sunday night.)

I asked a handful of key industry players, all of whom know these topics well, to give me their feedback about what Secretary Sonny Perdue shared in the video above. Here is what they had to say:

“If ‘feeding the U.S. and the world’ is really Perdue’s top priority, then how is it that he continues to promote GE corn and soy, which take up more than half of U.S. cropland and directly feed almost nobody. It seems he is more interested in feeding the bottom line of Bayer/Monsanto and the other chemical companies than feeding people.”  — Andrew Kimbrell, Executive Director of the Center for Food Safety

“In terms of the legality of ‘organic’ hydroponics, their stealthy approval in the past — without any statutory or regulatory authorization — continues to be either stonewalled or ‘spun’ by the USDA, the hydroponic industry and lobbyists at the Organic Trade Association. The Secretary refused to answer the question, which is backed up by language in the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 and clearly illustrates the ‘will of Congress’ that soil stewardship is a prerequisite of organic farm certification.  — Mark Kastel, Co-Founder of The Cornucopia Institute

“Your interview with Sonny Perdue mirrors what others who have met with him have expressed during the farm bill meetings and discussions. In a previous meeting with some of those people, he only made a few remarks and walked out without answering any questions, leaving USDA Under Secretary Greg Ibach to put out the party line.” — John Bobbe, Executive Director of OFARM

“Secretary Perdue has not been well-served by his political advisors. They have failed to explain to him that organic farming is a 125-year-old alternative production system centered on protecting and enriching the soil. The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (OFPA) requires that organic farmers must ‘foster soil fertility’ and that’s what we real organic farmers do. It is absolutely impossible for soil-less, hydroponic operations to meet OFPA’s legal requirement because they don’t use soil. For USDA to continue to fail to enforce the OFPA law is illegal, and for soil-less hydroponic factory farms to use the organic label is fraudulent.” — Jim Gerritsen, Maine Certified Organic seed farmer and President of Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association.

“Your interview revealed Sonny’s confusion about the most basic organic ideals. His praise for organic was totally focused on the $50 billion in annual sales, without a single mention of soil or health. In fact, he suggested that organic should be ‘just like the meat industry,’ adopting new technologies to make more money and to ‘help feed others.’ It would seem that his only criteria for what should be ‘certified organic’ is whether a new technology makes money. For me, the obvious punchline is that this man should NOT be ‘in charge’ of organic farming in America.” — Dave Chapman, certified organic tomato farmer and lead spokesperson for the Real Organic Project.

To read the full newsletter or to subscribe, please visit Organic Insider. 

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