The National Organic Program and Its Discontents
based on work by Jessica Ellsworth, Cornucopia Institute, Civil Eats, the National Geographic Society, Organic Consumers Association, Fooddive.com, and Allgov.com
From its beginnings on individual unregulated farms to its growth through local and regional networks and to the establishment of a national standard, organic food has traveled an amazing path over the last fifty years. The growth has been continuous, driven both by increasing ecological concerns and heightened consumer demand.
Domestic sales of organic foods have increased every year since 1990, with the accessibility of organic products rapidly expanding in all sectors of the market. The U. S. organic food market was worth $1 billion in 1990, $43.7 billion in 2017 and is expected to reach $70.4 billion by 2025. As this growth occurred, large conventional food companies like General Mills, Heinz, Smucker, Coca Cola, ConAgra, Kellogg, White Wave and Hain have bought up most of the original smaller stand-alone organic companies.
The Early Organic Marketplace
In 1973, Oregon passed the first state law regulating organic food. In doing so, it provided the impetus for other states to subsequently en-act legislation relating to organic food products. From then through the 1980s the organic industry waged an internal struggle to define organically grown food, to standardize permissible production methods, and to establish record-keeping requirements, labeling procedures and enforcement methods. Substantial differences arose across the country in state organic farming regulation, however, as to the permissible materials for use in production, the length of time required for a transition to organic acreage, and the allowable production practices. As an example, Colorado required organic products to be certified and organic producers to obtain a license under one set of state guidelines; Maryland required organic producers, processors, distributors, and retailers to obtain a permit under another set of guidelines, and Iowa merely required organic producers to provide vendors with a sworn statement of compliance.
By 1990, there were 22 states with organic food regulations falling into three broad categories: three states chose to operate their own organic certification programs, four states opted to contract with an independent certification organization, and fifteen states defined organic food and production techniques but did not provide any government oversight of certification. Because certification was not mandatory, organic producers, handlers, processors, and distributors in these 15 states had to affiliate themselves with an independent certification association in order to be able to claim or advertise any organic certification status.
Organic farmers and food processors faced both the burden of labeling food to meet conflicting standards and the possibility that food deemed organic in their home state would not qualify as organic across the state border. Food retailers and distributors were concerned about the authenticity of organic items under the varied state laws; consequently, they were reluctant to purchase organic foods, and fewer organics made it to the grocers’ shelves. Even when organic foods did make it to the supermarket, consumers were left to decipher a confusing array of private and State labels. Food that was labeled “organic” could have contained anywhere from twenty to 100% organically-grown ingredients, making it difficult for even the most sophisticated consumer to know what the term “organic” really meant. False and deliberately misleading labels exacerbated consumer uncertainty and created a sea of counterfeit and pseudo-organic products. As a result, some consumers and food merchandisers doubted the veracity of legitimate organic producers’ claims and hesitated to buy their products.
In 1989, the infamous Alar pesticide scare appeared in the national press. As the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned the chemical in the wake of public outrage over the exposure of children to pesticides, organic producers experienced a welcome and renewed consumer preference for “grown without” foods. Consumers wanted organic foods, and few analysts doubted that the market would continue to grow.
As the organic food industry continued to struggle in its effort to self-regulate and develop a consensus across the states for production and certification standards, industry leaders in the late 1980s petitioned the United States Congress asking Congress to draft legislation that would conclusively define organic. When Congress looked into the issue it found that the current system of organic food regulation engendered confusion among consumers, and played havoc with interstate commerce in organics.
Congress’ concern with false and misleading labeling in the organic food market was further magnified by concern that the higher prices charged for organic food products provided an incentive for companies to make questionable organic claims in order to increase profits. Federal regulation of organic labeling could serve two important functions that state government regulation alone could not. First, national standards could ease consumer confusion and ensure consumers received consistent and uniform information about foods, and second, it could promote fair trade practices in organic food marketing that would serve to protect interstate commerce.
The Organic Food Protection Act of 1990
In 1990 Congress passed the Organic Food Protection Act (OFPA). OFPA itself, however, did not define the term “organic.” Instead, the actual meaning of “organic” under the OFPA was left open for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to establish in a future regulation. In order to accomplish its goals, however, the OFPA provided three specific guidelines for the USDA to follow in writing the regulation.
First, to be organic, foods must be produced and handled without the use of synthetic chemicals. Second, the foods must not be produced on land that had had any prohibited substances, including synthetic chemicals, applied during the immediately preceding three years. Third, the foods must be produced and handled in compliance with an organic plan agreed to by the producer and a certifying agent.
In order to assist the USDA in developing the regulation, OFPA provided that a 15-person National Organic Standard Board (NOSB) would be assembled to serve as an advisory board comprised of organic farmers, organic handlers, retailers of organic products, environmentalists, consumer advocates, scientists and certifying agents. The board’s major function would be to provide recommendations to USDA on what substances, such as pesticides and fertilizers, should be permitted for use in organic operations. In making determinations of what the acceptable substance list should include, the act requires the NOSB to consider possible adverse human and environmental effects.
Like all of the prior state regulations, the OFPA standards themselves are formulated in terms of processing and production methods used, rather than end product quality. The OFPA requires all products labeled organic to be produced on certified organic farms and handled solely by certified organic operations, with the determination of certifier accreditation to be made by the USDA. The OFPA left room for the certifier to be either a private certifying agent or a state certification program. In addition, the OFPA exempted small farmers with less than $5000 in annual gross organic sales from having to comply with the national regulations.
The goal of Congress in enacting the OFPA was not total federal preemption of state regulations. Congress wanted the OFPA to provide a uniform federal certification law which would partially pre-empt current state law but leave enough flexibility to allow individual states to continue achieving their own interests. In reality, OFPA reflects Congressional ambivalence about the extent of desirable federal regulation. On one side, Congress realized most organic production expertise is at the grass-roots level and that states need to address specific local and regional needs, thus counseling against federal intrusion, but on the other side, continuing to allow differing state standards would disrupt the interstate commerce and uniformity goals the act was designed to serve. The result is that OFPA prohibits the use of “organic” on any label not meeting the federal standard, but it allows states to have their own label approved by USDA, which can then accompany the federal label. The state standard must be as strict or stricter than the federal standard.
OFPA does not exempt organic food from other existing federal food safety statutes, but it does grant the USDA, instead of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), primary federal authority for regulation and enforcement of organic food certification and labeling. Even though Congress granted the USDA complete authority over organic food labeling, the FDA retains jurisdiction over all other labeling aspects of these foods because many organic foods fall within the definition of food in the Food Drug and Cosmetic Act (FDCA). In addition, OFPA does not supersede the USDA’s authority over meat and poultry or the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) authority over insecticides and pesticides. Although the OFPA established national standards for the marketing of organic foods, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) would continue to exercise authority over food advertising. As a result, the OFPA is but another layer of law with which the organic producer, processor, and handler must comply.
Because of the crucial leadership of Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont in passage of the OFPA, the northeast had enjoyed an important role in shaping this act. The $5000 exemption and some of the novel aspects of the NOSB as a non-governmental advisory board with official legal power (over the National List) were efforts by our growers to keep the program from becoming simply another federal agency.
The First USDA Organic Rule, December 1997
Under OFPA, the NOSB spent considerable time and resources developing its recommendations, as per Congress’ specific charge that the NOSB play an advisory role to USDA. Cooperation between NOSB and USDA staff was reportedly high, with some recommendations even being co-authored by USDA employees and NOSB members. Once the NOSB finished its recommendations, USDA proposed a rule in the Federal Register for comment from the industry.
But there was an intense and staggering public opposition to this first attempt at a proposed regulation in December, 1997. The standard for “organic” under this proposal endorsed such controversial production techniques as irradiation, genetic modification, and fertilization with sewer sludge. Organic farmers and consumer advocacy groups howled at the USDA’s proposal, finding the proposed rules wholly inconsistent with current organic practices. The industry complained about every facet of the rule, from the fact that it permitted synthetic pesticides and irradiation to be used to kill bacteria on food to the fact that beef fed up to twenty percent non-organic food could carry the certified organic label. In large part complaints centered on the fact that the Secretary of Agriculture had ignored many of the NOSB proposals. Overall, USDA received 275,603 comments during the public comment period – more than one comment for every minute of the period! In the face of such public outrage, the USDA had no choice but to withdraw the proposal.
The Final Rule, December 2000
After considerable redrafting, USDA issued a revised proposal in March 2000. This proposal still inspired controversy, but after reviewing public comments USDA made substantial changes and issued its Final Rule on December 21, 2000, to go into effect 18 months later.
When USDA announced the final rule, the organic industry generally celebrated. The Organic Trade Association (OTA), a national organization representing organic growers, processors, certifiers, distributors, retailers and others in the organic products industry in North America, championed USDA’s efforts as strengthening consumer confidence in U.S. organic products and achieving consistent standard and labeling requirements. The chief executive of a leading organic food company reported that the final federal rule: “…is acceptable to our industry and is consistent with what we have been doing.” Farmers and consumers were also largely pleased with the final rule. The California Certified Organic Farmers reported: “[t]he new federal standards are a good working definition of organic production and are true to the organic philosophy and approach that has gained the confidence of many consumers.”
The small northeastern organic farming groups like MOFGA and the NOFAs, which had been reluctant participants in the drive for federal regulation, swallowed hard and hoped that becoming an industry would not destroy the best aspects of what had been the organic movement.
Tensions About Standards
From the beginning the new National Organic Program (NOP) rules created conflicts for Northeastern organic farmers.
While the states of New Hampshire and Rhode Island had set up public certification programs, (which still continue) where these did not exist many NOFA chapters and MOFGA had set up their own organizational certification agencies. Board members of these programs were often leading farmers active in the chapters. But the NOP prohibited such self-certification as conflicts of interest and would not accredit such programs. In order to get these programs accredited by the NOP, chapters had either to spin off their certification bodies as independent agencies or establish them as LLCs with internal chapter walls preventing NOP-prohibited conflicts.
More stressful than such organizational adaptations were early demonstrations of “muscle-flexing” by corporations involved in producing organic food. The clearest example was that of The Country Hen, an egg producer in Hubbardston, Massachusetts. In 2002 the firm applied for organic certification from the NOFA/Mass certification program (which had just been ‘spun-off’ by the chapter and was now independent) but were denied because they kept their hens inside large warehouse-like buildings and couldn’t meet the rule requiring “outdoor access” for organically raised animals.
Rather than discuss ways to meet the program rules, when denied certification Country Hen CEO George Bass immediately hopped onto a plane and flew to Washington, DC. He met with NOP administrator Richard Matthews and received verbal approval for a plan to create “porches” on his buildings as a way to qualify for outdoor access. The NOFA/Mass program was not willing to accept porches as valid outdoor access and still refused to certify The Country Hen. Mathews then directed the program to certify the company. They refused and filed suit to determine whether or not accredited certifiers had the authority to decide when a farm meets the organic standards. After a legal fight of several years the certification program exhausted their appeals and lost. The decision effectively told certifiers they are arms of the USDA. If the NOP works out exemptions for corporate farms, the certifiers must allow those exemptions and have no independence to use their own judgment.
This pattern was to repeat itself many times. The reality that certifiers had little room to exercise any integrity — and also that businesses seeking certification could choose whichever certifier they wanted — soon led to a group of ‘lenient’ certifiers being selected to get the preferred, high fee work and more rigorous certifiers ending up with the smaller farms that could not afford to pay much but strictly adhered to the rules.
Violations Spur Emergence of Watchdogs
As rule violations, as seen from the point of view of organic advocates, increased, organizations dedicated to the strict standards of the organic movement began to find support among the public. Several non-profits have developed a dedicated following for their perseverance in investigative, journalistic, and legal efforts to prevent corruption of the organic program.
Cornucopia Institute, a Midwestern organic advocacy organization, has been particularly active in calling attention to the failures of the NOP to address questionable activities. These include:
• A serious lack of enforcement activities on major fraud and alleged violations of organic regulations occurring with “factory farm” livestock activities — all cloaked in secrecy
• Turning a blind eye towards the questionable authenticity of the flood of organic imports coming into this country from China, India, a number of former Soviet Bloc states and Central America that have effectively shut American organic grain farmers out of the U.S. market.
• Allowing, in violation of the law, giant industrial-scale soilless production of organic produce (hydroponic and other management systems), along with ignoring NOSB prohibitions on nanotechnology, using conventional livestock on organic dairies and other issues.
• Usurpation of NOSB governance and authority by USDA/NOP staff and other violations of the Organic Foods Production Act (Cornucopia has a federal lawsuit being adjudicated that charges the USDA with appointing agribusiness executives to the NOSB in seats Congress had specifically earmarked for stakeholders who “own or operate an organic farm”).
• Unilateral changes to the Sunset review process for synthetic and non-organic materials, making it difficult for unnecessary or harmful substances to be removed from organics when agribusinesses lobby for them (the USDA is currently involved in litigation with Cornucopia and other stakeholders on this Sunset issue).
“We want organics to live up to the true meaning envisioned by the founders of this movement,” co-founder Mark Kastel says. “For both organic farmers and organic consumers, that means sound environmental stewardship, humane animal husbandry, wholesome and nutritious food derived from excellent soil fertility, and economic justice for those who produce our food. The USDA needs to act to preserve consumer trust in the organic label.”
One example of the kind of collusion between NOP officials and corporate entities non-profits were concerned about was the rule change (NOP 5016) allowing composts to contain the synthetic insecticide bifenthrin. NOP regulations banned synthetic substances in compost unless the substances were on an approved list. Bifenthrin was not on the list. So the California Department of Food and Agriculture, which administered the organic program in California, barred organic farmers from using composts with bifenthrin in them.
But according to federal judge Jacqueline Scott Corley, who examined a complaint about bifenthrin, Nortech Waste, which produces one of the banned composts containing the insecticide, complained to an official at the NOP that “saying the contaminated compost cannot be used in organic agriculture is not the answer.” The USDA responded a few months later with the ruling, which allowed the toxin in compost to be used in organic farming.
In 2016 the Center for Food Safety sued the NOP, and after hearing the case Judge Corley rejected the government’s position that they were merely “clarifying” the standards. Saying she was unconvinced it hadn’t improperly changed them, she vacated NOP 5016 and ordered the USDA to issue a revised guidance that complied with the law.
Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) are industrial agriculture’s way to produce cheap meat and other animal products. Confined in tight spaces, the animal’s costs per head for land and structures are minimized. Mechanized systems perform much of the work involved in feeding and removing wastes, reducing the labor bill as well. But organic animal raising does not tolerate CAFOs. Animals must have access to the out-of-doors and ruminants must graze when seasonally possible. How are these concerns dealt with in organic animal operations?
Cornucopia Institute has been one of the primary watchdogs of the organic industry. Of particular interest to them, since they are in Wisconsin and surrounded by small dairy operations, are the giant dairy CAFOs which masquerade as organic. In 2008 Cornucopia filed a formal complaint against Sham-rock Dairy, in Arizona. The Institute alleged that shamrock was involved in organic law violations by milking conventional and organic cows in the desert with a modicum of required pasture land.
In an effort to get answers to its questions about USDA enforcement efforts in the Shamrock case, Cornucopia filed numerous Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. Even though the government is legally bound to reply within 20 days, Cornucopia sometimes had to wait over a year, and even file new legal action, to get a reply. Even then, the documents were heavily redacted (blacked out).
“In a democracy, private citizens and public interest groups should not have to invest their money hiring lawyers to enforce their rights to documents that, by law, they are entitled to,” stated Cornucopia cofounder Will Fantle.
While the USDA ultimately confirmed that Shamrock Dairy was milking thousands of cows in violation of the organic standards and proposed sanctions against the operation and its certifier, Quality Assurance International (QAI), both organizations remain in the organic business today.
In 2008 the Organic Consumers Association, another organic watchdog organization, called for a boycott of Aurora and Horizon dairy products.
Based in Boulder, Colorado, Aurora Organic Dairy boasts a $50 million state-of-the-art milk plant about 30 miles northeast of its headquarters, on its Platteville farm. Milk from over 20,000 cows on four other farms – two near Kersey, Colo., and two in Texas – arrives daily in 5,000-gallon insulated tanks. After pasteurizing and homogenizing, two computerized machines squirt the milk at a rate of 300 half-gallons per minute into private-label cartons that eventually make their way to Costco, Target, Safeway, Wal-Mart and roughly a dozen other retailers in all 50 states.
In April of 2007 the USDA issued Aurora Organic a “notice of proposed revocation” of its organic certification for “willful” violations of federal organic standards. The USDA listed 14 violations, among them that Aurora Organic had entered conventional cows into milk production before the required one-year period of continuous organic management, and had failed to establish and maintain cows’ access to pasture at its Platteville facility.
Aurora Organic settled with the USDA in August 2007, agreeing among other things to reduce the size of its herd at the Platteville farm from 4,200 to 1,000 cows and increase its grazing pastures by 75 acres. Even though the USDA concluded that Aurora “willfully” sold milk labeled as organic, the dairy got away with a one-year probation after getting Jay Friedman, the powerful Washington lawyer, to advocate for them.
For many organic farmers, one of the most deeply disturbing directions in which the NOP has recently been moving is its acceptance of hydroponics as an approved method. In a controversial decision in November, 2017 the NOSB, after years of debate, finally voted 8-7 against banning hydroponic methods from organic production. Nonetheless, many organic advocates believe that hydroponic production is contrary to the OFPA.
They cite a requirement in the law that farms must be operated under an organic plan “designed to foster soil fertility” through crop rotation, cover crops and the spreading of manure and compost. Other provisions of the law also emphasize soil fertility, health and preservation.
In the Cornucopia Institute’s view this language clearly bars organic certification of hydroponic production which is soilless and in which crops are grown in an inert medium such as coconut husks or perlite and irrigated with nutrient-infused water. “The law requires building soil fertility, but how can that be accomplished without soil?” says Kastel.
Apart from their philosophical objections, of course, critics also see hydroponics as posing an economic threat to traditional organic farmers. There are currently about 100 certified organic hydroponic operations in the U.S. These highly mechanized hydroponic greenhouses are tremendously productive, however, reducing the per-unit cost of production. “They are cornering the market for popular produce crops, such as peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers,” Kastel worries.
But hydroponic operations tend to require a lot of capitalization, so if such production methods are to be scaled up, they’re more than likely to be sustainable only by well-funded corporate interests. Leaving aside the look of food grown with miles of plastic piping inside what amounts to a translucent airplane hanger, the last thing that organic agriculture needs is to continue on the path of corporate domination of the market, which is already well underway.
When you go to grocery stores and shell out a little extra cash for food with the Department of Agriculture’s green-and-white ‘organic’ logo on it, you’re paying a premium in exchange for a promise. The label guarantees, for the most part, that what you’re buying was grown or raised without synthetic pesticides or was fed organically-grown grain. But, despite what many people think, the organic label doesn’t promise that livestock was treated humanely. In fact, the current organic standards say very little about how to raise animals, and what they do say is so vague, critics contend, that they’re exploited by producers who want to cash in on the organic label.
The USDA proposed new standards late in the Obama administration that detailed how livestock producers would have to raise animals, especially poultry, a move meant to bring the organic label in line with what most consumers think they’re getting. The standards would have meant that organic animals have enough space to lie down, stretch and turn around. They would also have banned debeaking of poultry or docking the tails of cattle or sheep. Producers would have to take steps to minimize pain for surgical alterations and for safely transporting animals to slaughter. And, perhaps most importantly for the average consumer, the standards would explicitly say that “outdoor access” for poultry actually means that birds should be able to go outside. Including those at The Country Hen! Of the roughly 12 million organic laying hens in the country, only about six million were actually going outside.
“For a long time we recognized that the definitions and requirements for animal welfare within the regulations have not been clear,” says Nate Lewis of the Organic Trade Association, which represents the ballooning number of organic producers. “There’s definitely a need for clarity because we want ‘organic’ to remain the gold standard, and that includes animal welfare.”
The proposed changes, though, didn’t come without years of debate among government regulators and players in the booming global organic market.
“After the big guys got into organic production using porches, more and more of the organic egg market was coming from birds that never went outside,” says Dena Jones, who directs the farm animal program at the Animal Welfare Institute. “If you ask any organic consumer, nobody would think of a porch as being outdoor access. It just wasn’t what the consumer expects.”
The new rules said that “outdoor access” meant there’s no solid roof overhead and that half of the ground surface should be dirt that chickens can scratch and “bathe” in. Those requirements were more in line with the organic standards of the US’s biggest agricultural trading partners, including Canada and the European Union.
But giving the birds access to the outdoors means producers have to find more space and spend more money, so some had pushed against any clarification or change in the current law. Conventional and organic egg producers who didn’t provide outdoor access said that allowing birds outside invites disease and higher death rates. They also said it would cost millions to retrofit barns to accommodate the new standards, which would drive up egg prices.
With the change of administrations in 2017, the proposed animal welfare standards were first postponed, then permanently shelved. Most observers interpreted it as a victory for the “big guys” who didn’t want to shell out what it would cost to make the changes. Even the OTA, which normally represents the larger corporate organic companies, opposed shelving the animal welfare rule, knowing it would leave a bad taste with consumers. They have filed suit over the NOP’s failure to implement the new rules, and been joined in it as co-plaintiffs by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI).
Challenges to the NOSB in the 2018 Farm Bill
There have been a rough few recent years for the organic label. From scandals over fraudulent organic grain imports and the revelation of several factory-scale farms producing certified organic milk and eggs, to controversy around the inclusion of hydroponic or “soilless” farming and the reversal of comprehensive animal welfare rules, one thing is clear: The organic industry’s rapid growth may also turn out to be its downfall.
Organic is the fastest-growing retail food segment, valued at $50 billion per year, and an increasing number of multinational corporations want a piece of the pie, leaving the integrity of the USDA’s certified organic seal in question. Now, however, in the new Farm Bill, organic certification faces an attack from Congress, which has proposed reshaping the NOSB. By allowing more corporate entities to question the organic label and suggest which farm chemicals and other inputs farmers are allowed to use on their organic fields, industry insiders worry the proposed changes could further erode the strict standards of organic production that distinguished it from conventional agriculture and built a thriving market.
Congress is proposing two big changes to the NOSB: Allowing employees of organic farmers or producers to be permitted to occupy board positions, and allowing politicians to sidestep the NOSB’s authority to approve substances such as the fertilizers and pesticides used in organic production—changes that raise alarms for some in the organic industry.
Certainly, the legal clarification for NOSB roles may seem like the least momentous issue in the 2018 Farm Bill, which also proposes major overhauls to SNAP food assistance programs and farmland conservation funds. But for organic insiders, it represents a significant erosion of the board’s authority on matters of organic law.
Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides, sat on the NOSB as the environmental representative from 2010 to 2015. He’s concerned about the change. “There are so many large companies getting involved with organic that do not have the history with organic, and that makes them less than optimal members of the NOSB,” he said. “They don’t have the insight into organic practices.”
While Congress has never tinkered with the structure of the NOSB before, the greatest concern stems from the proposed “expedited process” for approving substances for the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances. Until now, the OFPA has granted NOSB the exclusive authority to approve agricultural inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides for certified organic crop and livestock production. It also expressly prohibits the Secretary of Agriculture from adding any synthetic materials (generally prohibited) such as pesticides and herbicides, and non-synthetic or natural materials (generally allowed), such as essential oils and copper sulfate, to the National List without the specific recommendation of the NOSB.
But the House’s proposed farm bill would change the status quo. Under it, the NOSB would be required to consult with the FDA and EPA when considering non-organic substances approved by those agencies. Also, the Secretary of Agriculture could force the NOSB to “expedite” review of a petition from industry for non-organic substances “related to food safety”.
These provisions trouble organic advocates because the NOSB currently uses a much higher set of standards than those agencies or the Secretary do.
“Many of the critics of organics are really steeped in the pesticide side of the input regulation and not familiar with the degree to which organic farmers are monitored by the compliance process,” said Feldman. He cited the use of copper sulfate as a fungicide that includes strict compliance standards and oversight.
The goal of organic agriculture is to incentivize alternative products and practices in the market. What happens to the process, critics like Feldman won-der, when an NOSB member from a multinational corporation questions why the company cannot use a substance that’s been approved by the EPA or FDA? The ultimate danger is that the Secretary or a petitioner backed up by the EPA or FDA could override the NOSB. If passed, these statutory changes could ultimately eliminate the difference between conventional and organic foods.
“My biggest fear, bottom line, is that if we allow the chipping away of this statute we will destroy the integrity of this label and the public will no longer pay the premium in the marketplace,” said Feldman.
The consumer and small farmer erosion of confidence in the integrity of the USDA organic label has escalated in the last few years. Commercial pressures and federal officials have chipped away at the independence of the NOSB and the rigor of the standards, as documented above. Now at least two significant efforts have emerged to create alternative labels that include but go beyond the NOP.
Most recently, the Regenerative Organic Alliance has come together to launch Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC) in the spring of 2018. Led by the Rodale Institute, the ROC emerged in reaction to concern that the USDA definition of organic is broad and subject to debate and lobbying pressure. The entire National Organic Program is part of the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service and the explicit objective of the service is to create domestic and international marketing opportunities for farmers. As a result there is a legitimate argument that health and environmental concerns are beyond the scope of its jurisdiction.
The Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC) aims to encompass the organic label but include several others. The baseline for entry into the ROC process is a USDA Organic or equivalent certification. Additionally, producers must meet animal welfare and social fairness requirements for one of several certifications, such as Certified Humane, Animal Welfare Approved, Fairtrade and Fair for Life. The ROC also focuses on soil health as a means of regenerating the soil, improving ecosystem function, and mitigating climate change. The program will be facilitated by NSF International. The alliance set out a four-year timeline for transitioning to its organic certification. It also established three levels of certification at the producer level depending on the operation.
The cost structure of the ROC is as yet undetermined. It is unclear how much certification will cost, the cost of maintaining certification and who will pay for it. This could be a substantial hurdle for the movement. If producers are expected to pay the certification and maintenance costs, it will need to translate to higher value market access.
The other new label has grown out of opposition to the NOP’s certification of hydroponic and CAFO operations.
“I think that a lot of farmers, especially young farmers, feel that the organic label no longer describes the way they farm, and we’re trying to recapture that. We are taking matters into our own hands because we know it is what the consumer wants and expects when they choose organic.” said Linley Dixon, a vegetable farmer in Durango, Colo. She is a senior scientist for Cornucopia Institute, and is also on the standards board of the Real Organic Project, a new certification program that is creating an “add-on” label to the USDA organic certification.
The group said its proposed add-on label, which requires adherence to standards above and beyond USDA organic certification, would only be available to agricultural products that have already been certified organic by the USDA. The program aims to implement new standards that will provide consumer transparency by “distinguishing organic farms that grow their crops in the ground, foster soil fertility and adequately pasture livestock according to foundational organic standards and principles.”
The Real Organic Project add-on label to USDA organic certification, expected by spring 2019, will increase transparency under the organic seal by allowing consumers to trace retail products back to the farm, according to the release. The inspection process includes a video interview of the farmers on their land explaining their organic production practices, the group said.
Published in Winter 2018-19 issue.