Inside Organics

Organic label means more than just farming with approved inputs

By Harriet Behar, MOSES

Many of the most contentious issues in organic can be tracked to how farmers, processors, regulators, and consumers view agricultural production and its impact. Viewing organic mostly by inputs used versus overall method of production results in two different definitions of organic integrity. Inputs might define what is allowed or not, but the system distinguishes organic from non-organic.

Focusing on materials might be easier for people to understand, but the activities that work in concert with our ecosystems are what make organic a resilient and regenerative practice. The integrity of the organic label is based upon farmers following specific standards and production methods—the organic regulation. It is important that the organic label maintains its full meaning in the marketplace to keep trust in our “brand.”

As organic continues to grow, there is a push to reduce the perception of organic to just the materials being used, and lessen the importance of the organic management system. Two areas in the organic community where this is happening currently are hydroponics and outdoor/pasture access for various species of livestock. As we discuss these topics, I think it’s important to look again at what our organic regulation states—the definition of organic production does not even mention inputs.

Organic production. A production system that is managed in accordance with the Act and regulations in this part to respond to site-specific conditions by integrating cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.

Organic certification of hydroponic operations is based solely on the substitution of non-approved liquid fertility inputs for ones that would be allowed under our law. The rest of the Organic System Plan is ignored. There is no crop rotation, and no maintenance or improvement of biodiversity or promotion of ecological balance. Where are the homes for migrating pollinators or birds on these greenhouse or warehouse operations? How are these operations improving the soil?

All of the management systems that distinguish organic from non-organic are absent from these intensively managed systems, most importantly stewardship of the soil. In addition, these systems rely heavily on petroleum-based plastics for their troughs, fertility lines, and other structures. Water pumps, lights and other environmental controls to replace sunlight and rain require electricity, creating a significant carbon footprint for these operations.
It is true that hydroponic water use is much lower than in a field operation. However, water is never really lost on our farms—it soaks into the ground or evaporates into the air where it contributes to the important cycling of water around our planet.

I understand there are aspects of hydroponic that can be useful in providing local food to inner cities, or providing aspiring farmers a fairly easy business model to jump into food production. However, does this truly meet the letter of the organic law? How about the expectations of consumers that organic improves the environment for now and into the future? To date, I have not been convinced the hydroponic systems I have seen embody ecosystem stewardship as expected or required by our rule and the marketplace.

Currently, the “animal welfare” final rule is in regulatory review. The many farmers, consumers, agricultural professionals and others who were the majority in wanting this to be part of organic regulation, hope to see this implemented with no changes. The National Organic Program did an excellent job of thoughtfully incorporating suggestions and meeting the vast majority of the concerns in the proposed rule.

Feeding organic animals organic feed but keeping them confined is not an organic system. Outdoor access, pasture and more are what distinguishes organic from many non-organic operations. Farmers have learned that animal welfare is an important tool to disease prevention as well as lowering many types of problems. Consumers expect “happy” animals on organic farms—it should be very obvious when they drive by farms which ones are not organic.

I have seen numerous consumer surveys where they state by a great majority that the main reason they purchase organic products is to avoid toxic pesticides. This is a good reason, but typically these surveys do not ask anything about the environmental benefits of organic, and buyer expectations. To assume that consumers are focused solely on their own self-interest, health and safety is not the full story. There are many areas where consumers make environmentally focused choices such as purchasing recycled paper and plastic products, electric hybrid cars, buying into renewable energy options with their utility company, even concern over littering along our streets and highways.

A survey could ask consumers if they prefer food grown where the soil, water, wildlife and biodiversity were maintained, improved, or degraded. How do you think they would answer? If a survey asked if food buyers believe that organic farms protect these natural resources and actually offer a way to take a degraded ecosystem and bring it back to health, how would they answer? It is true that the use of materials that negatively affect our environment would be in their thoughts as they answer this question, but they would also have thoughts of livestock being outdoors, cows grazing in the sunshine on lush pastures and crops growing on fertile soils on biodiverse farms that provide pollinator habitat and more.

Non-organic farmers and others in agriculture also view organic versus non-organic mostly through the lens of what can be used on the land and livestock and what cannot. I recently attended a training for veterinarians who wanted to learn more about working with organic livestock. Dr. Guy Jodarski and Dr. Hue Karreman not only shared possible natural treatments that can be used in place of synthetics, but described the foundation of organic agriculture—prevention of problems by understanding and working with natural systems. Providing healthy rations, high quality living conditions, exercise, allowing for natural behavior and lessening stress for livestock was taught as the first area where livestock health should be addressed.

In my experience as an organic inspector visiting many organic livestock farms, I consistently received the same answer when I asked farmers about the difference on their farms after their second year of certification. That answer was, “I hardly ever see the vet, especially compared to before I went organic.” This is not the result of substituting approved inputs for those not approved for land and animals. It is a reflection of an integrated system of production focused on building healthy soil biological life, healthy nutritious crops, and a health-promoting environment for their animals.

For those transitioning their crops to organic, herbicides and fertilizers—the inputs—must be replaced by more than just approved organic inputs. Instead, farmers tweak their crop rotation, use cover crops, and pay attention to correcting soil nutrient imbalances. It is the development of a functioning and elegant organic system that brings long-term success. Understanding the life cycles of weeds, pests and plant diseases gives the producer powerful tools to develop site-specific management plans.

It can be stimulating and fun to learn about and partner with nature on our farms, rather than trying to fight the existing ecosystem with toxic materials that throw everything out of balance and cause many negative consequences. Organic must stay focused on promoting a healthy and integrated management of the farm, rather than reducing organic certification solely to a review of the materials used.

Harriet Behar is the senior organic specialist at MOSES, and serves on the National Organic Standards Board.


From the May | June 2017 Issue

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