Is the USDA Label Strong Enough for All Organic Growers?

In response to my blog earlier in the week I sat down with the Coalition for Sustainable Organics (CSO) . They’re a group of growers committed to maintaining the USDA’s current high standards for certifying organic produce. They advocate for the continued allowance of containerized growing methods under the National Organic Program while enabling growers to select the most appropriate production system for their specific site and commodity needs.

They believe that everyone deserves organic produce, and growers must continue to find ways within the organic framework to expand supply.

Lee Frankel is the Executive Director of CSO. He recently elaborated on the current state of hydroponic and container growing in the US organic standards and the movements to create additional add-on labels in the organic marketplace.

Melody Meyer: How does last fall’s NOSB decision affect your coalition and what does the future hold?

Lee Frankel: The NOSB voted at their Fall 2017 meeting against making hydroponics and aquaponics prohibited practices and against recommending new restrictions targeting only container systems on how growers manage nutrients and root-zone biology.

The NOSB did present some additional topics at that meeting to establish additional regulations for organic container production methods including the use of light, ground coverings, the mulching of green waste and the recycling of pots used for growing.

The Crops Subcommittee of the NOSB appointed four members, all who voted to prohibit hydroponics, to a working group to develop a specific regulatory standard for crop production systems using containers.

The meeting notes of the Executive Committee of the NOSB shows that while the USDA National Organic Program suggested in November and December that the Crops Subcommittee focus on materials reviews, the members of the Crops Subcommittee responded that there is interest in creating clear definitions for container production systems and how those systems must comply with organic regulations.

The USDA recently published the workplan of the NOSB showing that the topic will not be on the formal agenda of the upcoming Spring 2018 NOSB meeting to be held in Tucson, Arizona from April 25-27 in person and online April 17- 19. No Discussion Document was published to allow the public to review the work of the Crops Subcommittee. The workplan indicated that the topic will be on hold until the National Organic Program has reviewed the production systems recommendations made at the 2017 NOSB meeting. It remains unclear when the topic may return to the formal active agenda.

MM: What is your perspective on the reaction from some members of the organic community on the decision?

LF: The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) clearly reaffirmed its position on the inclusion of hydroponic, aquaponic, and aeroponic within the organic program in the recent edition of the Organic Insider newsletter. USDA stated, “Certification of hydroponic, aquaponic, and aeroponic operations is allowed under the USDA organic regulations and has been since the National Organic Program began.”

Individuals and groups upset with the policy and their inability to convince enough members of the NOSB to recommend overturning existing USDA policy have not accepted the current situation.

Nearly all of the members of the NOSB who voted to make hydroponics and aquaponics prohibited have taken leadership positions with the new group named the Real Organic Project. They are proposing to create standards for an add-on label to distinguish growers who would follow an additional set of rules in addition to the current USDA regulations and requirements.

Likewise, the Rodale Institute recently released a standards document that establishes a Regenerative Organic Certification. The idea is to create a different add-on label that establishes more specific soil practices, animal welfare rules and social justice standards.

In addition, the Cornucopia Institute requested that the Office of the Inspector General of the USDA to open a formal legal investigation against the National Organic Program questioning the legal authority of USDA to certify organic producers using containers. In addition, they requested a special investigation into Miles McEvoy, the previous Deputy Administrator for the National Organic Program.

MM: How does CSO feel about these efforts to create additional add-on labels for organic?

LF:  We support efforts by producers to share information about their farms and production facilities with the consumers of their organic products. In fact, our members proudly tout their ability to reduce the use of natural resources like water and land when communicating with consumers.

The CSO supports organic producers educating their customers on the steps that they take that go beyond the requirements of the USDA organic standards; however, the CSO would not support efforts that may denigrate fellow organic farmers by claiming their various production methods are superior.

Furthermore, the National Organic Seal is one of the most widely recognized and trusted consumer seals in the food industry. Changes to that seal have the potential to dilute this trust and cause significant consumer confusion.

MM: What is their hope for organic farmers and for consumers as we move forward?

LF: The efforts of our growers and other members of the organic community helped to create more regulatory certainty through the most recent vote of the National Organic Standards Board.

However, the work to protect the rights of farmers to select the most appropriate growing methods in their organic operations is ongoing.

Opponents continue to direct complaints and legal actions against the USDA in attempts to find avenues outside of the NOSB and the formal rule-making process to overturn long-standing National Organic Program policy supporting the rights of growers to incorporate containers into their farms. Their efforts to create additional labels could lead to the disparagement of fellow organic growers and their products, threatening consumer trust in the organic label.

We embrace inclusion in organic growing practices and the expansion of sustainable practices, including containerized growing methods.

We want to ensure that everyone who wants organic produce can have it.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions or positions of Melody Meyer or UNFI.

4 thoughts on “Is the USDA Label Strong Enough for All Organic Growers?

  1. LF: As you mention-You want inclusion and you are afraid of diluting the organic standard – well you will have inclusion if you do not dilute the standards – which is what is happening. The rules need to be stricter and then you won’t have so much derision. Yes, this would exclude the hydroponic group-they need to go elsewhere-the rules are not strict enough for them-maybe if they used greenhouses made of wood and glass (no plastic-no hydroponic growing unless you are growing fish). It would exclude mega organic farms too-the ones that are over a certain amount of acreage. It would exclude the ones that did not use environmentally safe practices like rotating crops, using cover crops alternating one-year cover crops to one-year market crops. It would exclude the organic growers that think it is ok to use corrugated plastic to ship their crops in. What is organic about filling up our landfill with corrugated plastic asparagus containers? Are they not making corrugated cardboard anymore. How is it that this is allowed?
    Now I know that you have to draw the line somewhere-maybe we should not have to insist on using horse-drawn plows and cow horn manure, (preparation 500 is basically fermented cow dung. It is the basis for soil fertility, and the renewal of degraded soils-one of the keys to Bio-Dynamic farming-but maybe we should!
    “The work to protect the rights of farmers to select the most appropriate growing methods in their organic operations is ongoing” What about the rights of the true organic movement?
    Let’s make one “ORGANIC” label. Let’s make it USDA-Lets make it truly organic!

    • Thanks Lance, I appreciate your perspective and know it is a widely held view by many important players.

      I think keeping the dialogue open is super important.

      Melody Meyer

      O 831.462.5865

      C 831.566.5069

      Skype melody.meyer

      http://www.organicmattersblog.com

      From: Organic Matters Reply-To: Date: Friday, March 30, 2018 at 3:05 PM To: Huffington new Subject: [Organic Matters] Comment: “Is the USDA Label Strong Enough for All Organic Growers?”

  2. Melody — Thanks for doing this interview, important for the hydroponic folks to have a chance to make their case. I doubt we have heard the last re this debate in the NOP and elsewhere. The underlying issues are too important, and many people are very determined to find a better resolution. I am with them. I agree with several old-schoolers that the time has come for add-on labels, or sub-categories of NOP certification. Two that are ready for prime time are grassfed/grassmilk and dairy; and container, non-soil based production. It makes perfect sense for a certification- and label-based resolution of these issues to occur within the NOP, and for the outcome to be a part of the NOP regs and the future of the USDA seal. This outcome will impose new rules and order on container growers, but leave the majority of organic farmers unaffected. But driving 95% of organic farmers through another certification/verification process, and costs, so they can be distinguished from container production is flat out crazy. Yes yes yes, OFPA and the NOP are hard to move, but it will happen, and it needs to happen asap. Ironically, history shows clearly that the amendments needed in the next farmbill to fix a lot of what ails organic in the political and policy arena will be easier to pass during a Republican admin than a Democratic one. The constraint in the legislative process is not big mean agribiz trying to take over organic, it is the divisions in the community and our collective failure to work something out that 90% of the players will actively support. If we come up with a solution all sides support, it will pass. Let’s stop blaming others for the dysfunction inside our tent.

    • Thanks Chuck! You always bring a thoughtful perspective to the conversation.

      I hope we HAVE a farm bill to pass and we get the chance to fix those ills… Dysfunctions aside!

      Melody Meyer

      O 831.462.5865

      C 831.566.5069

      Skype melody.meyer

      http://www.organicmattersblog.com

      From: Organic Matters Reply-To: Date: Saturday, March 31, 2018 at 7:12 AM To: Huffington new Subject: [Organic Matters] Comment: “Is the USDA Label Strong Enough for All Organic Growers?”

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