Inside Organics

Organic farmers form ‘Real Organic Project’ to ensure strong standards

By Francis Thicke, Real Organic Standards Board

Many organic farmers are becoming increasingly concerned about the growing erosion of standards in the USDA National Organic Program (NOP). We have seen the rising influence of big business in the NOP which has resulted in a weakening of some key aspects of the standards.

Organic farmers, and our supporting organizations, have been working hard to try to stop this weakening of the standards and to restore organic to the level of integrity envisioned by the early pioneers. Unfortunately, we have been unable to match the influence of big business within USDA and Congress. We are not being heard.

Now that organic food has become a $50 billion industry, it should be no surprise that big food corporations want to carve out as large a chunk of that market as they can and make it as easy to meet the standards as possible.

Weakened Organic Standards
In January of this year, the new administration rejected the proposed animal welfare standards referred to as the OLPP (Organic Livestock and Poultry Production) that the NOSB and the organic community had worked on for a decade. A few industrial poultry operations with hundreds of thousands of chickens didn’t want to change their operations to allow chickens access to the outdoors. They exerted their considerable political might and defeated the OLPP standards, against the wishes of tens of thousands of organic farmers and consumers who had sent USDA written comments urging implementation of the standards.

However, it isn’t just the Trump Administration that is responsible for weakening of the standards. Much of it happened during the Obama Administration. For example, USDA has for years refused to implement a rule on the origin of livestock, which would close loopholes that allow continuous conversion of conventional dairy cows to organic.

Enforcement of the pasture rule of the organic standards has been inconsistent and lax for large CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation) dairies. Between lax enforcement of the pasture rule and loopholes in the origin of livestock regulations, a large and growing percentage of organic milk is coming from CAFO factory dairies. Statistics show that in 2016, six certified organic CAFO dairies in Texas produced 23% more milk than all 453 of Wisconsin’s organic dairies combined. This is a mind-boggling reality that reveals the new face of organic milk in America. Even with organic milk surpluses today, some of the large certified CAFO dairies are continuing to expand, flooding the market with cheap milk. At the same time, organic family dairy farms that raise their cows on pasture are losing their markets and being forced out of business.

USDA never implemented the 2010 NOSB recommendation to prohibit hydroponic production. Instead, USDA quietly opened a back door to allow organic certification of hydroponic fruit and vegetable production. Recently, USDA officially gave a full green light to certification of hydroponic production, even though no NOP standards for hydroponic production exist. Estimates are that already about half of the certified organic tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers in grocery stores are hydroponically grown, and those numbers are likely to grow rapidly now that USDA has officially sanctioned hydroponic production. Organic farmers overwhelmingly believe that organic farming should be done in soil, not in buckets of water or coconut husks. The many public comments by organic farmers at the fall 2017 NOSB meeting in Jacksonville, Florida reinforced that.

USDA has been eroding the authority of the NOSB to fulfill the responsibilities assigned to it by the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA). USDA has taken away the authority of the NOSB to set its own work agenda and has weakened the process the NOSB uses to review synthetic materials.

For the past couple of years, the U.S. grain market has been flooded with grain imports of questionable integrity. Independent organizations have identified whole shiploads of grains coming into the U.S. that were fraudulently labeled and sold as organic. Those fraudulent shiploads of grain have resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue for U.S. organic grain growers. USDA has seemed unwilling or helpless to stop these fraudulent grain imports.

A further problem in past years has been that USDA has sometimes appointed agribusiness employees to positions on the NOSB that OFPA specifically designated to be reserved for certified organic farmers.

Agribusiness has gotten Congress involved, too. Last summer an industrial-scale hydroponic grower was permitted to testify before the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee. Somehow this outlier with no acceptance by the organic community was designated to represent us to Congress. Of course, he recommended that hydroponics be accepted as organic. But he continued by saying that the animal welfare standards be scrapped, being of no importance to organic. And then he requested that the role of the NOSB be further weakened, and that the board makeup be changed to favor industry and large chain grocery stores.

It is sobering that the stated agenda of hydroponic and CAFO producers has been so successful with the recent allowance of hydroponics and the rejection of animal welfare standards. The transformation of the National Organic Program is happening at a fast pace. Now their final demand is being fulfilled as Pat Roberts, chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, is calling for the transformation of the NOSB into a more “industry friendly” body in the upcoming Farm Bill.

Add-On Label
Because of these many weakening influences on the USDA National Organic Standards, a group of organic farmers and leaders have created The Real Organic Project (ROP). A list of the eminent members of the ROP Executive Board, Standards Board, and Advisory Board can be found on the ROP website at

The Real Organic Project is an add-on organic certification. Farmers certified ROP will also be required to be certified by the NOP. The goal of the project is to restore the integrity that was the inspiration for the Organic Foods Production Act.

In April 2018, the Real Organic Standards Board met to draft the ROP standards. These are add-on organic standards that participating organic farmers will follow, in addition to the NOP standards. The standards approved in April will be provisional standards that will be used in a pilot program this summer. This fall, the organic community will be invited to comment on the standards for further refinement. The provisional standards can be found on the ROP website.

The Real Organic Project website has the following description of its purpose and goals:

The Real Organic Project has been created to help educate and connect those who care about organic farming as practiced around the world. Our mission is to grow people’s understanding of traditional organic values and practices. One of our goals is to create an add-on label to USDA certified organic to provide more transparency on these farming practices. USDA organic certification is a prerequisite to participate in the add-on program.

The Real Organic Project is family farmer-driven and embraces centuries-old organic farming practices along with new scientific knowledge of ecological farming. We believe that crops grown in soil and livestock raised on pasture-based systems are fundamental to organic farming. Healthy soils equal healthy crops and livestock, which equal healthy people and a healthy climate.

Many farmers now feel the USDA organic label no longer adequately reflects how we farm, and many in the organic community feel a loss of identity within the label. Our community worked for years to build an organic label that people can trust.

Much about the National Organic Program is a success, and most of the farms being certified deserve to be called real organic. But the farm products from a tiny minority of factory farms now being certified are at odds with the original intent of organic farming. Unfortunately, these few factories produce a large, and growing, proportion of the food labeled organic on the market today.

With this add-on, farmers are creating a new way of communicating our practices to consumers who care. Our simple goal is transparency in the marketplace. Through this effort, we have brought together farmers, scientists, eaters, and advocates whose common interest is to support real organic farming.

The Real Organic Project standards are provisional standards that will be used in a pilot implementation of ROP certification in the summer of 2018. In fall of 2018, the Real Organic Project will publish these provisional standards more widely within the organic community and will ask for comments on refinements of the standards.

The farmers involved in the Real Organic Project wish it would never have come to this. We would much prefer that USDA would uphold the integrity of the NOP seal. However, we feel that at this point we have lost too much ground with the USDA organic program. There appears to be no end in sight for the erosion of the USDA organic standards. Our hopes are that sometime in the future the organic community will be able to bring the National Organic Program back to serve and protect the original vision, which would make the Real Organic Project unneeded.

Francis Thicke is an organic farmer from Iowa. He recently completed a five-year term on the NOSB and is currently serving on the Real Organic Standards Board.


From the May | June  2018 Issue

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