Inside Organics Blog

State of organics in 2016 looks hopeful

By Harriet Behar, MOSES

As a new year starts, we tend to reflect upon what has happened in the recent past and what we expect for the future. In the world of organic agriculture, we continue to face challenges but have good reason for optimism, too. The general public, government agencies, private companies and nonprofits continue to wake up to the benefits organic agriculture provides. With slow and steady movement, support and growth for organic agriculture continues to expand.

There is recognition internationally, that we must change the amount of carbon we release into our atmosphere. Tactics to meet the carbon target range from reducing the use of fossil fuels to improving agricultural practices. Organic agriculture has much to contribute in this area, since a foundational principle of organic is maintaining or improving the content of organic matter (carbon) in soil to enhance soil fertility as well as crop yield and quality.

It is very gratifying to see the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service’s soil health focus, and the agency’s strong promotion of cover crops. While non-organic farmers are adopting the use of cover crops more and more, they are not making use of the many benefits of cover cropping when they terminate the crop with herbicides. Their soil’s biology and structure do not benefit from the incorporation of the above-ground living biomass, and only a fraction of the possible carbon sequestration has been realized—not to mention the detrimental effects on soil and environmental health from the use of herbicides.

Still, the use of cover crops to prevent soil erosion is a very good thing, and also provides some protection from manure and synthetic fertilizer runoff or leaching. Hopefully, as these non-organic farmers see the limited benefits they currently have with their non-organic management of cover crops, they will be open to the benefits they could gain from using cover crops in an organic system. Cover crops can be the gateway to a farmer’s transition to organic, even if it’s only on some of a farm’s fields.

Aquaponics, Hydroponics
The National Organic Program and the National Organic Standards Board have put an aquaponic and hydroponic task force in place to determine what type of standards, if any, could be developed for organic production under these non-terrestrial systems. It can be viewed that these systems provide a long-term answer to growing food in a nontraditional way (in water or non-soil substrates), in nontraditional places (completely enclosed warehouses in the inner city, or mega-greenhouses with complete climate control). These systems eliminate concerns about extreme weather conditions. By growing in urban warehouses, they also reduce the miles produce needs to travel to reach large numbers of consumers. However, I am not ready to give up on soil-based agriculture, which is not as heavily reliant on outside energy resources and inputs. There are many opportunities for soil-based agriculture within and nearby to an urban environment.

The many nutrients and antioxidants in food crops that are beneficial to human health derive from not only the transfer of nutrients between a biologically active soil and plant roots, but also the stimulation of the plant’s immune system by pressure from wind, weeds, sun and insects. There is a beautiful chaos in nature. Taking short cuts by ignoring the many benefits of growing crops in soil does not seem to be a long-term answer. In the current hydroponic systems approved by some organic certification agencies, prohibited soluble plant nutrients typically used in non-organic hydroponic systems are replaced by inputs approved by the NOP regulations. In both our detailed NOP rules and the Organic Food Production Act, the foundational law for U.S. organic agricultural labeling, it is very clear that organics is much, much more than just substituting allowed inputs for those that are prohibited.

I do want to retain an open mind, and look forward to what the task force presents on hydroponics and aquaponics to see if my concerns are addressed. I am especially interested in learning more about the symbiotic relationships between fish rearing and crop production in aquaponics, because that does include some of the complexity that honors the strengths inherent in natural soil-based systems.

Organic Gains
While organic land in the United States and research dollars spent on organic systems are still a small fraction of what they should be, there have been small gains on many fronts. Farmers continue to transition land and livestock to organic production, both for the better price they receive, but also to be better stewards of their land by using organic, environmentally beneficial practices. Strong language promoted by Senators from the Upper Midwest such as Tammy Baldwin and Debbie Stabenow, has resulted in more government grants dedicated specifically for non-genetically engineered plant and animal breeding. The U.S. Department of the Interior announced it will no longer allow GMO or neonicotinoid-coated seeds to be planted on lands managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service. The EPA has suspended the approval of the Enlist Duo herbicide (Round-Up and 2,4-D blend).

The organic community will need to remain vigilant to make sure these recent gains do not backslide. We face many challenges from the chemical-reliant dominant form of agriculture in the United States. But, with perseverance, we can change the tide.

At the many meetings, farm shows and conferences I attend, I have spoken with numerous non-organic farmers. Many say they know intuitively and logically that using toxins on our land and food is not the best way to farm or protect our natural resources. However, they do not feel that organic agriculture is an option for them, for a wide variety of reasons including lack of knowledge and fear of the unknown marketplace.

If we want to expand organics, and not just through imports, we need to work with our neighbors and our government, to help them understand the whys and hows of organic production. Every organic farmer in the neighborhood is one less non-organic farmer, and an example of the viability of organics. Little by little, we are making progress, guided by the vision for the future we want to build for ourselves and our children.

Board Appointment
I received a New Year’s present from the USDA and the NOP: an appointment to the National Organic Standards Board for a four-year term representing environmental and natural resource interests, starting Jan. 24, 2016. I look forward to working with my fellow NOSB members and the entire organic community to strengthen the integrity of our organic certification system. I will bring the viewpoint of a pragmatic farmer and conservationist to my work on the NOSB. Feel free to get in touch with your comments and thoughts, especially on current NOSB topics. You may email me at harriet@mosesorganic.org.

Harriet Behar, MOSES Senior Organic Specialist and member of the National Organic Standards Board, answers farmers’ questions about certification and organic practices. Email harriet@mosesorganic.org.

From the January | February 2016 Issue

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