A Time To Stand Our Ground

photo courtesy Dave Chapman Protesting Farmers March for Keeping Soil in Organics

photo courtesy Dave Chapman
Protesting Farmers March for Keeping Soil in Organics

The USDA organic label is being transformed. It is coming to represent an agriculture separated from the soil (if such a thing can be called agriculture). Tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, and berries grown without the plants ever touching the soil are being certified “organic” and are now dominating the market. Chickens and cows who have spent their lives on concrete now produce certified “organic” milk and eggs.

I do not exaggerate. Under the National Organic Program, these practices are being regularly certified as organic on a massive scale. These are not small fringe players that don’t affect the fabric of the garment. According to research compiled by the Nielsen Co, “organic” hydroponic tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers represent over 30% of US sales in each category. I would suggest that in fresh tomatoes the number is actually much higher.

In berries the percentage is uncertain, but based on information presented to the USDA Hydroponic Task Force, we know for sure there are over 1000 acres of “organic” hydroponic berry production.

Driscoll’s President, Soren Bjorn, told Fresh Fruit Portal in November of 2017. “It’s happening. In Europe it (containerized substrate production) is a big part of production, and in Australia we are 100% already; in Tasmania on strawberries it’s 100% tabletop strawberry production…And Driscoll’s claims to sell half of the “organic” berries in America.

In several interviews, Lee Frankel, chief spokesperson for the hydro-organic lobby (the Coalition For Sustainable Organics) has proudly claimed $1 billion in annual sales of hydroponic organic, and growing rapidly.

In dairy, we see enormous certified “organic” CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) operating in Texas, California, Idaho, Colorado and other arid Western states, while family dairy farms in California, the Midwest and the Northeast are going out of business. The price of dairy is crashing as the CAFOs flood the market with their cheap milk.

It is difficult to know exactly how much CAFO milk is now on the market. Most experts I have asked have deferred to Cornucopia’s Mark Kastel. He estimates that over half of the milk on the organic market is coming from CAFOs.

If CAFOs account for half of organic sales in dairy, that represents $3 billion in annual fauxganic sales. USA Today famously quoted the USDA) that 6 Texas “organic” CAFOs produce 1.3 times the volume of milk as compared to the 450 organic dairy farms in Wisconsin. With the rejection of the animal welfare reform known as the OLPP by the USDA this year, the attempt to rein in the poultry CAFOs being certified as organic was defeated. The OLPP reforms were supported by the entire organic community.Even Laura Batcha, Executive Director of the Organic Trade Association, spoke out after the USDA rejected the reforms. “In USDA’s attempt to kill this fully vetted final regulation, they’ve taken a radical departure from conclusions reached over more than 20 years of rule makings regarding organic livestock care, and have assumed an aberrant view that has no historical basis or legal justification…But despite the clear evidence of the public sentiment, USDA is acting against the will of the public, and the will of the organic sector.”

photo courtesy Dave Chapman Wholesum Harvest tomatoes, grown hydroponically, can be produced indoors with artificial lights 24/7 all year long.

photo courtesy Dave Chapman
Wholesum Harvest tomatoes, grown hydroponically, can be produced indoors with artificial lights 24/7 all year long.

In eggs and poultry, CAFOs now account for over 80% of certified “organic” sales, according to former NOP head Miles McEvoy. That would account for $2.3 billion in annual sales.

Annual fraudulent grain imports are estimated to be over $250 million by John Bobbe of Ofarm. Bobbe has been instrumental in alerting the USDA about ships bearing fraudulent shipments. Apparently they are unable to stop any shipments on their own.

I estimate $6 billion in annual “organic” sales that aren’t organic!

This flood of fake organic in the marketplace is having profound consequences on real organic farmers. Because these large fauxganic producers are playing by different rules, they are able to produce food much cheaper. That means that real organic farmers are being pushed out of the marketplace. Eaters’ choices in the stores are shrinking rather than expanding.

Real organic farmers are an endangered species. There is still some real organic food in the stores, but which food is it?

In dairy, organic farmers are going out of business in droves. This year, according to Mark MacAfee, 10% of the California organic farms have gone out of business at the same time that Aurora, the largest “organic” CAFO operator in the world is expanding. The same thing is happening in berries. Reports from Florida describe new mega-operations that laser level the fields, spray with Roundup, cover the ground with weed fabric, load up 7-gallon to 25-gallon pots with coco coir or pine bark, and grow blueberries for 3 years. The berries are immediately certifiable because the coco coir in the pots was never itself treated with Roundup (but only the soil under the pots).This is being certified by USDA as organic. Extension is even offering free workshops in Florida explaining how to do it!

And of course, it is not only organic farmers who are suffering from all this fraud. Eaters, spending money for organic food, are being misled on a regular basis. They are paying more for produce they think was grown in nutrient-rich soil. They are paying more for milk and eggs they think came from animals living a good life outdoors. And what happens when they find out they have been cheated?

The organic community faces the same challenge that other groups face when they kept quiet about corruption. No group or cause wants to go public with its failures — for fear that they will turn people away and undermine support for all the good that they do. So they hide the news and allow bad actors to get away with their deeds. This ends up doing much worse damage than simple honesty in the first place.

Now the organic community faces the same dilemma with the fauxganic producers. If we speak the truth, we will undermine the public trust in the organic label. If we are silent, then we become complicit in the fraud that will eventually destroy the credibility of the organic label.

And when our customers find out, they are going to be pissed off.

Many of us have spent years trying to reform the National Organic Program. We failed, and the standards and enforcement have continually gotten worse. The USDA is currently led by Sonny Perdue, who has made clear in interviews that he neither understands nor supports organic farming. And yet HE is in charge of approving the standards and selecting the members of the NOSB to advise on those standards.

It seems crazy to trust the USDA to define organic.

That is why people are confused. They should be confused. We need to create our own labels to represent how we farm. The vast majority of certified farms are real organic, but not the majority of certified food products. A relative handful of agribusinesses and industrial producers have taken over the federal label, and they aren’t giving it back to us.

The Real Organic Project is one of a number of groups trying to reach consumers with a label they can trust. It is not true that eaters don’t care about these things. If it were true, then the hydroponic producers would proudly label their products as hydroponic instead of denying it and hiding it as they consistently do. The CAFO producers would proudly show on their milk and egg cartons pictures of animals in confinement instead of fake images of animals on pasture.

In a stream of interviews and statements, Driscoll’s and Wholesum Harvest insist to their customers that they are NOT producing anything hydroponically. They have been supported in this whopper by their lobbyists at the Organic Trade Association. Aurora Dairy, the largest organic CAFO in the world, insists at every opportunity that they are in full compliance with the NOP Pasture Rule, and that their animals live outside on grass. Unbelievably, they are supported in this story by the USDA.

We are dealing with fraud on a massive scale.

hydroponic blueberries

photo courtesy Dave Coleman
Driscoll’s hydroponic blueberries

The Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) community is the very heart of the organic movement. Many in the rest of the country look to us for guidance. What can they trust? How long can we support a broken USDA label whose main strategy for survival is the hope that nobody notices the truth? Instead of protecting the BRAND, let us protect real organic.

Some will say that we should abandon all labels. Know Your Farmer. And that is the best of all paths. But we must acknowledge that most people buy most of their food in a store. And even for those of us fortunate enough to have access to incredible local farms that provide most of our food, what about our friends and family who live in large cities? How will they find good food? Or the many people we don’t know who can’t find access to a farm or a farmer?

We believe that real organic farms provide superior nutrition and critically important climate benefits. We are all affected by poor agricultural practices, even if we never eat the inferior food produced. As urban food activist LaDonna Redmond has said, there is only ONE food system. And we are all a part of it.

At a meeting in Vermont following the Jacksonville disaster, thirty organic farmers came together to decide whether to accept the degeneration of the organic label, or to act. They were unanimous in their decision to act to create some other way of identifying real organic.

The Real Organic Project grew out of that meeting. We have created a pilot program for an add-on label to the USDA organic seal. This label requires growing in the soil and insists on legitimate access to the outdoors for all animals. There are over 50 farms participating from all over the country. Our standards embrace the basic foundational organic standards first created (and then slowly set aside) by the NOP. In 2019 we will take the program to the next phase, offering certification to many real organic farms now participating in the USDA program.

Our standards are set and reviewed by a fifteen member standards board. All board members are highly qualified. They understand organic. Included on boards are 5 current members of the NOSB and 9 former members. We represent the core of the organic movement. Some of our members helped create the National Organic Program, and some have been the protesters, but all have been deeply committed to organic. This is a stark contrast to the current NOSB, where many members seem to have little idea what organic means. Nor does the Secretary of Agriculture who appoints them.

This Fall we are meeting with European organic leaders to build a united defense against the corporate invasion of our movement. It is one food system, and one movement. As we face global corporations who are actively trying to dominate the world market, we must work together to protect ourselves and our planet.

At a phone meeting of over 30 organic advocates sponsored by the National Organic Coalition, former NOSB member Colehour Bondera applauded the effort of the Real Organic Project. Then he asked the group, “Does anyone on this call have a better idea of how to deal with these serious problems?”

There was total silence for a very long time.

So I ask the same question to the readers of the Natural Farmer. What better idea do you have? How can we better act to preserve the principles of real organic? How can we better act to build an alternative to the conventional model of quick profit at the expense of our future? It is easy to sit back. It is hard to take action. But if you have no better idea, please join us so we can reclaim the organic movement. Together.

For details, and to sign up to receive ongoing news, please go to realorganicproject.org.

Published in Winter 2018-19 issue.