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Organic farmers launch effort for add-on label after disappointing NOSB actions

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Disappointed with the direction in which USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) has been heading and concerned that consumers may be losing faith in USDA’s Organic Seal, a new group of organic farmers and advocates is launching an effort to create a new, “add-on” organic label. 

The label will be reserved for products that already carry USDA’s organic certification, but to earn it, products also would have to meet other “critical additional requirements” related to animal welfare and growing practices, says the group behind the effort, which calls itself the Real Organic Project (ROP).  

Specifically, the new label will show an organic product was grown without the use of hydroponics and that production did not involve a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO), explained Dave Chapman, a Vermont farmer and one of the founders of the group.

And at least in the beginning, the new label will signify that a product originated in the United States, Chapman told IEG Policy on Friday.

“The basic intent is to create a label that will stand for traditional organic farming,” said Chapman, who in the past has served on the USDA Hydroponic Task Force.

“We are not trying to destroy the organic label,” he added. “We are just trying to create transparency.”

However, it may be awhile before organic producers can try to add the label onto their products, as the Real Organic Project is just beginning to draw plans on how the project would work.

Created by farmers who feel that their voice is no longer represented in the NOP, the ROP has established a 15-member standards board, which will meet March 27-28 to set the first standards for the new label.

Though the group has modeled its standards board after the NOSB, the ROP stresses that its board has a much greater representation from the organic community. The board includes nine organic farmers in addition to representatives from non-government organizations, stores, consumers, scientists and certifiers.

Once the board sets the standards for the new label, it will continue to meet once a year to ensure that the standards are being updated and reviewed on regular basis.

After the standard board’s first meeting in March, Chapman said the group will have a better idea of what the new label might look like, when it may be put into use and how the program could evolve in the long term.

For now, however, the group hopes to establish the label as a pilot program, with only a small number of farms testing the label and the certification process over the first year.

“Our intention was to start it fairly regionally, but the response we have received has been overwhelming,” Chapman said.

ROP wants return to traditional organic values

The new add-on organic label will be the flagship project of ROP, which started recently after several meetings with organic farmers in Vermont who felt that the USDA organic label was no longer something that represents their values for organic farming.

But the local group has quickly gained support from farmers in all parts of the nation who share the same sentiment. The group now includes organic farmers from Pennsylvania, Colorado, Florida, Iowa, New York, Minnesota, Georgia, Maine and other states, as well as two members from Australia, Chapman said.

“We also have people who advise us from as far away as Holland,” he said.

The roster of board members for the group now includes a number of highly respected organic farming advocates and leaders, including at least four former members of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), Chapman said.

They include Jim Gerritsen, co-founder of the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association, Jay Feldman co-founder and executive director of Beyond Pesticides, as well as Michael Sligh, director of the Just Foods Program for Rural Advancement Foundation International, who was also the founding chair of the NOSB.

According to Chapman, group members were all brought together by a common concern that USDA might no longer be able, or willing to protect the integrity of its organic seal.

“The organic community has always worked very hard … hoping that this arranged marriage with USDA will work out. But it’s not working out,” Chapman said. “We tried very hard to reform the NOP and we failed. In the last six years, it didn’t get better, it got worse.”

And in the current political climate, the organic farmers behind ROB have felt USDA's position on what “organic” means has become increasingly more aligned with big businesses than their own.

While such concerns have bothered ROP’s advocates of traditional organic farming for awhile, it all came to a head last year after a contentious meeting of the NOSB in November, when the board voted 8-7 to reject a proposal to take away the ability of hydroponic and aquaponic farms to earn organic certification.

In the months leading to the vote, organic farmers who oppose the idea of allowing hydroponic and aquaponic products to carry the organic certification held 15 rallies around the country with signs reading, “Real Farmers Do It in the Dirt” and “Don’t Water Down Organics With Hydroponics.”

Though hydroponic, aeroponic and aquaponic crop systems have been eligible to earn organic certification since the NOP was created, an outspoken segment of the organic community objects to the idea, arguing that the use of healthy soil for growing lays in the very foundation of organic farming.

The ROP also takes issue with USDA’s decision to clear Aurora Organic Dairy’s High Plains operation in Colorado of any wrongdoing, after the Washington Post in May published a report suggesting that dairy cows at the operation had not been allowed sufficient grazing time. Organic dairies are required to allow a certain amount of grazing time for cows throughout the growing season, and after observing the Aurora facility managing over 20,000 cows (milking about 15,000) for eight days last year, using drone imagery as proof, the Post said “at no point was any more than 10% of the herd out.”

The Post’s investigation into the Aurora CAFO – which supplies the house brands of Walmart, Costco and other major retailers – also found anomalies in acid levels in the operation's milk suggesting cows had not spent an adequate amount of time grazing outdoors.

Following the report, the Cornucopia Institute – a farm policy research group based in Wisconsin - filed legal complaints against Aurora Dairy and the Colorado Department of Agriculture, and even asked the Trump administration to remove USDA’s lead organic regulator.

“People want to buy healthy food. They want to buy food that is good for their families and good for their children. The bad news is that large companies have learned how to take advantage of [the organic program].” - Dave Chapman, ROP founder

Despite those complaints, however, the NOP said in September that Aurora’s livestock and pasture management practices comply with existing USDA organic regulations and policies and noted that the newspaper's photographs and observations did not provide sufficient evidence to substantiate allegations that Aurora had violated the organic regulations.

“This dairy operation was described in detail in one WaPo article, along with compelling test results to prove the cattle weren’t on pasture,” the ROP says in an open letter on their website. “The government approval set the stage for Aurora to build several new CAFOs that will dwarf the current 15,000-cow operation.”

The USDA also abandoned the animal welfare reforms that had been approved under the Obama administration – yet another decision that bothers members of ROP.  The controversial Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices (OLPP) final rule, which would have added new provisions for regulating livestock handling, transport for slaughter and avian living conditions for organic products, was delayed several times before USDA ultimately proposed to withdraw it in December. The rule would have expanded and clarified existing requirements covering livestock care and production practices, a move that prompted the Organic Trade Association (OTA) to file a lawsuit against the agency. 

Animal producers, such as the National Pork Producers Council, support the USDA decision, as they believed federal regulators overstepped their authority by issuing animal welfare requirements under the National Organic Program (NOP).

“This rejection by the USDA was the result of intense lobbying from such groups as the Coalition For Sustainable Organics (in their Senate testimony), American Farm Bureau, and the National Pork Producers Council,” the group said in its open letter. “They were championed by the ranking members of the Senate Agriculture Committee, protecting enormous 'organic' egg CAFOs in their home states. The USDA thus cleared the way for CAFOs to continue receiving 'organic' certification.”

And the group is also concerned about other Washington Post reports of shipments of “organic” corn and soybeans from Turkey, which were sold as organic in the United States, even though the products had been grown conventionally. An audit from USDA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) also found weaknesses in USDA’s oversight of imported organic products, which led Cornucopia to ask USDA to address the “documented influx of fraudulent organic grain imports” into the country.

The ROP now hopes to restore the integrity and transparency of organic certification and is planning other projects and initiatives besides the effort surrounding the new label.

As part of the group’s new Just Ask campaign, the group will encourage consumers to inquire at stores about whether their certified organic products were raised with the use of hydroponics or CAFOs, Chapman said. And the group also wants to launch a public education campaign designed to help the general public understand why it is important to let cattle involved in organic production graze, and why growing vegetables in soil matters for organic farming, he said.

“People want to buy healthy food,” Chapman said. “They want to buy food that is good for their families and good for their children. The bad news is that large companies have learned how to take advantage of [the organic program].”


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