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A Farewell Warning to the National Organic Program

We all suffered a terrible defeat for organic farming at the Jacksonville National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) meeting last week when hydroponics was welcomed into organic certification. At the end of the meeting, Francis Thicke gave his farewell address. After 5 years as a member of the NOSB, his despair was evident at the Board’s decision to abandon soil as the foundation of organic farming. This NOSB failure to protect organic standards was a watershed in the National Organic Program. The new recommendation to prohibit hydroponic production was defeated in an 8 to 7 vote, despite a large presence of real organic farmers at the meeting.

It is a rare event to have “farmers” who aren’t wearing suits at an NOSB meeting, let alone such an unprecedented turnout of organic pioneers!  Of over 30 soil farmers testifying, only one spoke in support of hydroponics. After this meeting, farmers will be even rarer in the future.

The 8 to 7 vote was a startling reversal of the 2010 NOSB recommendation banning soil-less growing from organic standards.

The 2010 recommendation passed 12 to 1.

After the vote, Francis Thicke’s short farewell message (below) reminded me of the farewell speech that Dwight Eisenhower gave upon leaving office in 1961. Eisenhower warned of the creation of the “military-industrial complex” that we now take for granted as a terrible part of life. Francis’ warning about the corporate takeover of the National Organic Program is quite similar.

The Closing Comments of Francis Thicke at End of his NOSB Term

Francis Thicke

There are two important things that I have learned during my five years on the NOSB. First, I learned that the NOSB review process for materials petitioned for inclusion on the National List is quite rigorous, with Technical Reviews of petitioned materials and careful scrutiny by both NOSB subcommittees and the full board.

The second thing I learned, over time, is that industry has an outsized and growing influence on USDA—and on the NOSB (including through NOSB appointments)—compared to the influence of organic farmers, who started this organic farming movement. Perhaps that is not surprising, given the growing value of organic sales. As organic is becoming a $50 billion business, the industry not only wants a bigger piece of the pie, they seem to want the whole pie.

We now have “organic” chicken CAFOs with 200,000 birds crammed into a building with no real access to the outdoors, and a chicken industry working behind the scenes to make sure that the animal welfare standards—weak as they were—never see the light of day, just like their chickens. The image consumers have of organic chickens ranging outside has been relegated to pictures on egg cartoons.

We have “organic” dairy CAFOs with 15,000 cows in a feedlot in a desert, with compelling evidence by an investigative reporter that the CAFO is not meeting the grazing rule—by a long shot. But when USDA does its obligatory “investigation,” instead of a surprise visit to the facility, USDA gives them a heads up by making an appointment, so the CAFO can move cows from feedlots to pasture on the day of inspection. This gives a green light to that dairy CAFO owner to move forward with its plans to establish a 30,000-cow facility in the Midwest.

We have large grain shipments coming into the US that are being sold as organic but that lack organic documentation. Some shipments have been proven to be fraudulent. The USDA has been slow to take action to stop this, and organic crop farmers in the US are suffering financially as a result. I spoke with the reporter who broke the story on fraudulent “organic” grain imports. I asked him how he was able to document the fraud of grain shipments when USDA said it was very difficult to do so. He replied “it was easy.”

We have a rapidly growing percentage of the organic fruits and vegetables on grocery store shelves being produced hydroponically, without soil, and mostly in huge industrial-scale facilities. And we have a hydroponics industry that has deceptively renamed “hydroponic” production—even with 100% liquid feeding—as “container” production. With their clever deception they have been able to bamboozle even the majority of NOSB members into complicity with their goal of taking over the organic fruit and vegetable market with their hydroponic products.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to find that big business is taking over the USDA organic program because the influence of money is corroding all levels of our government. At this point, I can see only one way to bring the organic label back in line with the original vision of organic farmers and consumers. We need an add-on organic label for organic farmers who are willing to meet the expectations of discerning consumers who are demanding real organic food.

A year ago I wouldn’t have supported the idea of an add-on organic label because I, like many others, had seen the USDA organic label as the gold standard, and had hoped that through our vision of the process of continuous improvement we could really make it into that gold standard. Now I can see that the influence of big business is not going to let that happen. The USDA is increasingly exerting control over the NOSB, and big business is tightening its grip on the USDA and Congress. Recently industry representatives have publicly called on the US Senate to weaken the NOSB and give industry a stronger role in the National Organic Program. And sympathetic Senators promised to do just that.

I now support the establishment of an add-on organic label that will enable real organic farmers and discerning organic consumers to support one another through a label that represents real organic food. I support the creation of a label, such as the proposed Regenerative Organic Certification, that will ensure organic integrity; for example, that animals have real access to the outdoors to be able to express their natural behaviors, and that food is grown in soil. My hopes are that this add-on certification can be seamlessly integrated with the NOP certification, so that a single farm organic system plan and inspection can serve to verify both NOP and the higher level organic certification, by certifiers that are accredited by both certification systems.

I also am pleased that organic farmers have recently organized themselves into the Organic Farmers Association (OFA), to better represent themselves in the arena of public policy. Too often in the past the interests of big business have overruled the interests of organic farmers—and consumers—when organic policies are being established in Washington. I hope this will allow organic farmers to gain equal footing with industry on issues that affect the organic community.

In summary, organic is at a crossroads. Either we can continue to allow industry interests to bend and dilute the organic rules to their benefit, or organic farmers—working with organic consumers–can step up and take action to ensure organic integrity into the future.

Francis is a pioneering organic farmer operating a 730-acre farm for 30 years with his wife, Susan. He has served as a National Program Leader for soil science for the USDA-Extension Service, as well as serving on many national and state boards. He is a former board member of the Organic Farming Research Foundation and a former advisory board member of the Cornucopia Institute. With a Ph.D. in agronomy, he also has taught at the college level, and has a book published on Food and Agriculture. In 2010 Francis ran as the Democratic candidate for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture. He has received many awards, including the 2009 Spencer Award for Sustainable Agriculture from the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, the Sustainable Agriculture Achievement Award from Practical Farmers of Iowa, Steward of Land Award from the Iowa Sierra Club, and the Friend of Extension Award from the ISU Extension Service. Although he holds an environmentalist seat on the NOSB, he easily qualifies for a farmer or scientist position as well. He is real organic. And as former OFRF director Bob Scowcroft has said of Francis, he is one of the smartest people in the room.



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Dave Chapman
Dave Chapman
Long Wind Farm began in 1984 with Dave Chapman and a team of oxen. For more than three decades, we have provided New England with truly delicious and organic tomatoes. Grown in Vermont soil in glass greenhouses, our tomatoes are available as early as March and as late as December each year.

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