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.
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.