Organic Broadcaster

Should we achieve organic integrity through flexibility or consistency?

By Harriet Behar

Organic integrity means something a little different to each individual. For farmers it means building soil, growing crops, and preventing contamination within an organic system of production. For brokers, distributors and stores it means tracking organic certificates and having an audit trail that guarantees organic through the full chain of custody. For consumers, it means food and fiber that was grown without pesticides using tools and practices that improve our natural resources for now and into the future. Underlying all of these beliefs, is the understanding that there will be consistency between all types of operations, and everything carrying the USDA organic seal meets specific standards.

As organic producers know, it takes quite a bit of management and monetary commitment to become organic and maintain organic certification. It is important to our community that everyone is following the same rules.

Allowing some to carry the organic seal without spending the same time or dollars as their fellow organic farmers encourages a race to the bottom. In order to stay competitive in the marketplace, operators are pushed to only meet the minimum requirements. This can result in lessened consumer confidence in the organic label, as organic producers who embrace the spirit as well as the letter of the law advertise they are “better than” others who do not. Witness the confusion in the marketplace about organic eggs—do all organic chickens have a chance to scratch in the soil under the sun?

On a recent National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) webinar on hydroponics, there was concern the National Organic Program (NOP) allows this type of production without having standards addressing this unique system. While all organic certifiers who choose to certify hydroponic operations review the inputs used, various other aspects are not consistently overseen among certifiers. Other organic certification agencies have chosen not to certify hydroponic operations at all.

During the webinar, there was discussion that flexibility of the NOP was useful in the marketplace, allowing a variety of systems to carry the organic label even without consistent standards. Flexibility can allow certifiers to approve unique systems of production by reviewing only a very narrow aspect of what they are doing, and ignoring everything else. There is a belief by some that the organic label is strengthened when there are more organically labeled products in the marketplace.

For those of us who complete 20+ pages of an organic system plan that describes our weed management, crop rotation, natural resource protection, enhancement of biodiversity and much more in great detail, it’s disconcerting to allow a system of production using the same organic application with most of it marked “not applicable.” Many of the “not applicable” sections of a hydroponics operation’s organic system plan are areas covered by organic standards, but many of the methods used within hydroponics are not. In order for organic operators to feel confident their fellow organic operators are equal to their efforts, we must have consistency in what is allowed. The rules should cover all aspects of the organic production, no matter what system is being certified.

At this time, hydroponically produced crops are not the only areas where the organic label is affixed to a product category without a national standard governing that use. Personal care products, mushrooms, pet foods, honey and bee products are examples where there is no national organic standard. For some of these, the NOP has allowed organic certification, even though various certifiers have differing standards. Consumers are not aware that one type of “organic honey” could originate from hives that are managed completely differently than a neighboring jar on the retail shelf of “organic honey.” The NOSB has done its work on many of these areas, providing the NOP proposals for regulatory changes to our organic standard. These proposals have languished within the government for many years, even as the demand for these organic products has increased.

A recent article in the Washington Post exposing the inconsistency of the various production methods of organic milk (some cows must be on pasture, some may be allowed to be confined), chipped away at consumer trust in the organic label. The fraud of imported non-organic grains being sold as organic and fed to organic livestock also put a black mark on the USDA organic seal.

Organic certification is a process-based system, and we must not let producers, buyers and consumers doubt the organic label has meaning. It is critically important that the organic label remain authentic, and not be compromised by certifiers using inconsistent definitions.

Many of us believe in organic because of our commitment to the health of all living things on this planet and the hope organic represents for the future of agriculture. The integrity of the vast majority of organic producers is beyond question. In my work as an organic inspector and for the past 11 years as a MOSES organic educator, I have had the honor of learning from organic crop and livestock producers as well as processors. I know they deserve to have a label that reflects their commitment and passion, and one that should not be watered down or discounted through inconsistency.


I have resigned my position from MOSES, and this is my last Inside Organics column. I have enjoyed sharing my thoughts and thank you for your kind words over the years. I am not retiring and will remain active in the organic community, just with a different business card. Blessings to you all. ~ Harriet Behar

From the September | October 2017 Issue

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