Organic Broadcaster

Real Organic Project add-on label helps farmers show organic values

By Dave Chapman, Real Organic Project

There has been growing dismay in recent years over erosion of the integrity of the National Organic Program. The Real Organic Project was created in 2018 to address this crisis. We see a widening gap between the traditional meaning of “organic” and the USDA’s reinvention. Most of the farms certified by the USDA are really organic, but much of the certified food now sold in stores is not.

Organic farming began as a movement in Europe in the 1940s. Albert Howard had a belief that farming should be based on soil health, and that all good things would come from that. J.I. Rodale brought Howard’s ideas to the U.S., and our organic movement was born. As these ideas slowly caught on with farmers and eaters, demand grew. American certification began in Maine with the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) in 1972, and in California with CCOF in 1973. MOFGA started out certifying 27 farms. CCOF began with 54 grower members. The first MOSES Organic Farming Conference in 1990 drew 90 farmers.

An international movement has grown out of these humble beginnings. Annual U.S. retail sales of organic products reached $52.5 billion in 2018 and sales in the European Union exceeded $41 billion. Organic food is grown all over the world, and much of it is sent to America.

Organic in America began as a movement of family farms. At first scorned by the USDA, many innovative farmers had a vision of a different kind of farming from the reigning chemical model. At the time Secretary of Ag Earl Butz was saying, “Get big or get out,” some farmers were turning to organic to get smaller. Everything about chemical farming seemed to encourage farms to get bigger and bigger. Everything about organic seemed to reward smaller farms that treated their soil with care. Consumers responded to the lack of pesticides and superior taste as well as the ideal of food grown by people instead of by corporations. As people became more uneasy about what they were having for dinner, they turned to organic.

In 1990, Congress passed the Organic Food Production Act. At that time organic was still small business, and a real effort was made to protect the integrity and transparency of an organic label. After 10 years of thrashing around, the National Organic Program (NOP) was created in 2001, and with it, organic certification became the business of the USDA.

“Getting the feds and organic farmers together in 1990 wasn’t easy,” said Roger Blobaum in the keynote speech at the 1993 MOSES Conference. “It certainly wasn’t love at first sight. It had many of the characteristics of a shotgun wedding and when it was over, there was no honeymoon. Although these two have tried to work things out, they have been on the verge of a breakup ever since.”

Fast forward from those prophetic words and where are we today? The integrity of the National Organic Program seems to be crumbling, even as business is booming. Large corporations have become the power brokers of the National Organic Program. Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are the norm in poultry, making up over 80% of the certified eggs in America. Much of this malfeasance would have been stopped with the passage of the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices (OLPP) animal welfare reform, but that ruling was rejected by the Trump USDA the first day they took office. The weight of these huge CAFOs is dragging the organic brand down into the mud. There are several lawsuits against the USDA for its rejection of the OLPP.

Jesse LaFlamme, owner of Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs, has written, “What consumers want, and what should be enshrined in our market economy, is a choice. Consumers should be free to choose the product in accordance with their values, and pay for the associated cost of its production accordingly. Consumers expect to pay more for an organic tomato than a conventionally grown one because they know that it costs more to produce it. It’s the same with eggs.”

Dairy CAFOs are rapidly driving organic family farms that pasture their animals out of business. The milk markets are flooded with cheap CAFO milk grown in the desert. USA Today published a story that six Texas CAFOs outproduced ALL of the 453 certified organic dairy farms in Wisconsin combined. It is a mystery how the NOP allows these confinement operations to violate the Pasture Rule. And now we struggle to pass the Origin of Livestock rule. Again. But even if we pass it, will it be enforced or will it languish beside the Pasture Rule as a good idea that is often ignored?

Hydroponic production is now embraced by the NOP, despite the 2010 recommendation from the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) that hydroponic should not be allowed. Hydroponic production is dominating the organic tomato and berry markets. There is a pending lawsuit from the Center for Food Safety claiming that certifying hydroponic violates the Organic Food Production Act. With stronger standards, the EU continues to prohibit hydroponic as organic. Virtually all of the U.S. “organic” hydroponic production was started after the NOSB recommended banishing hydroponic from organic.

The NOP has ignored the last 20 recommendations from the NOSB. When asked about this by Congressman Rodney Davis in Congressional hearings, Undersecretary Gregg Ibach’s final response was that the USDA was looking forward to picking different members for the NOSB. And they will certainly get that opportunity, with five seats just filled and another five seats coming up for change in the next year.

About Real Organic Project
Out of these many failures in the National Organic Program, the Real Organic Project (ROP) was born. From the very beginning it has been farmer-led. Twelve of the 15 ROP Standards Board members are farmers. Four of five Executive Board members are farmers. Fourteen of the 25 Advisory board members are farmers. We are farmer-led and will remain that way.

Our goal is to make sure that eaters are getting honest choices in the marketplace. We want to reconnect organic farmers with the people who care.

Certification is simple. We are an add-on label to the USDA organic program, so NOP certification is a requirement. Such add-on labels are common in the EU, where farmers want to offer their customers more choices. ROP is as much of a movement as it is a brand. Remember when organic wasn’t just a marketing scheme? We are so much more than a label, but we also want to provide consumers with a label that means what they think it means.

In the tradition of organic in Denmark, ROP certification is free. In Denmark, the organic program is entirely paid for by the government, which is committed to transforming the food system. They believe that organic farming is something that benefits everybody, regardless of what food choices they make when shopping. Real Organic Project is supported by many generous people and foundations who care deeply about our food system, and are unhappy with USDA’s oversight of the program. ROP certification is strong in the Midwest. With only a year and a half since getting started, we already have over 250 farms across the country, and over 60 of those are in the Midwest. Our goal is to reach 2,000 ROP-certified farms in the next three years.

The ROP standards are quite simple. They address the failures of the USDA program. CAFOs and hydroponics are prohibited. Parallel production (organic and non-organic of the same crop) is prohibited. A soil-building program is required. Basic animal welfare is required. Regular access to the outdoors and pasture is required.

We are not here to replace the organic program. We are here to save it. As farmers look to new terms for the same concepts, such as regenerative and agroecological, we think it is worth saying, “No” to the theft of the original term we all spent years building.

It is remarkably easy to sit back and shake our heads. Instead, let’s take action and protect organic. Get certified. Sign up for email updates at There is a wealth of information on the website. Tell your friends about ROP. Make a donation. Sign the petition. We can do this. Please join us. In the words of one of ROP’s farmers, “If not us, who? If not now, when?”

Dave Chapman runs Long Wind Farm in Vermont and is the Executive Director of the Real Organic Project.


From the January | February 2020 Issue


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