Last fall the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) made the decision not to prohibit hydroponic and container growing methods in organic production. This decision left some members of the organic community infuriated and galvanized. They vowed to dig in and create a label that meant something more than the USDA seal. After a few short months, the Real Organic Project (ROP) was formed by farmers and advocates who say that they are reclaiming the original meaning of organic.
Dave Chapman is a tomato farmer in Vermont with a long history of soil advocacy. He is a member of the newly founded Real Organic Standards Board, and he elaborated on the intent and strategy of the new organization.
Melody Meyer: What precipitated the move to create a new organic standard?
Dave Chapman: There has been growing discontent with the National Organic Program (NOP) in the last few years. Certainly, the recent rapid spread of hydroponics in USDA-certified berry and vegetable production has been a shock. To many of us, this is an abandonment of the basic principle of organic farming. Another alarming development has been the sudden increase of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO) in both dairy and poultry.
The organic community has watched with feelings of helplessness as “certified organic” has been redefined. Perhaps the final straw was the recent USDA decision to throw out the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices (OLPP) animal welfare standards. Those standards were weak, but even so, they would have been strong enough to decertify three-quarters of the currently certified eggs in America. I think that the choice was to give up or create something new to represent food grown with traditional organic practices.
MM: Will the new ROP standard have the USDA organic certification as its base?
DC: Yes, the new standards will require USDA certification as a base. The standards will be very simple. They will exclude CAFO and HYDRO production. The standards board will decide the details in three weeks.
MM: How does the ROP standard work with the new regenerative standard being implemented by Rodale?
DC: The Real Organic label is a natural partner with the Regenerative Organic Certification. ROC is setting a very strong standard that represents where we are headed. This is where we all want to go as quickly as possible. It is an ambitious attempt to reimagine a better organic future, developing minimal tillage techniques and strong labor practices to protect farm workers.
The Real Organic Project will create a label that reflects the real organic practices of today’s farms. At the moment there is considerable consumer and farmer frustration with being unable to identify food grown using traditional organic practices, separate from the industrial systems of CAFOs and HYDROs. That was, after all, the original intent of the NOP. To Protect and Defend.
MM: Are you concerned that yet another label in the market will create confusion for the consumer?
DC: Yes, but I am more concerned that the consumer will be misled by avoiding that confusion. Of course, consumer confusion is a problem. But if you aren’t confused, you aren’t paying attention. The truth is that the meaning of organic under the NOP is becoming more confusing by the day. That isn’t because we are bickering about insignificant issues, but rather because the organic philosophy is getting lost in the rush for the marketplace. Issues such as animal welfare and nutrient density are not “outlier issues” to many of us. They are very close to our hearts, and they are the reason that many choose to spend their money on organic food.
Of course, the way to avoid so much confusion would be for the hydroponic producers to create their own label where they proudly advertise how they grow food without soil, using organic inputs. But that won’t happen because they are pretty certain that people don’t want to buy food with a hydroponic label. So instead they have forced their way into the “certified organic” brand.
The same is true for the CAFO egg producers. Let them advertise that they proudly grow in concentrated feeding operations that only feed organic grain. But they won’t do that because customers would abandon such a label. It is important to remember that the confusion is created by those changing the meaning of “organic.” It is not caused by the creation of new labels to represent these old ideas.
MM: What are you hoping the ROP will accomplish for farmers and consumers?
DC: I hope that it will bring together the organic community. We have been set aside by the powerful players of the New Organic coalition. There are millions of people who want real organic, but who don’t know how to find it. Due to bad labeling, one needs to be an expert to find an egg or a tomato grown with traditional organic practices.
Perhaps we can build a stronger connection between the eaters and the farmers who try so hard to produce that food. Surely we can all agree that we want integrity and choice in our food system. Perhaps the CAFOs and HYDROs are right, and that inexpensive food is what people really want. In which case they will flourish, no matter what we do.
They have nothing to fear. The Real Organic Project is meant as an educational effort, helping both farmers and eaters to learn more about the biological foundation of healthy soil and healthy food. It is created to grow an alternative to what Michael Pollan called the “Organic Industrial Complex.” But our focus will be on the solution rather than the problem.
I ask you, dear reader, do you believe we need another organic label in the market?
“The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions or positions of Melody Meyer or UNFI.”