Farewell To Senator Leahy

(See All Our Previous Letters Here)

Senator Patrick Leahy speaking at a Vermont farm rally, where he said "Let Organic be organic be organic!"

Senator Patrick Leahy is the co-sponsor of the Organic Food Production Act. Speaking at the Thetford Rally In The Valley to protect organic, he said “Let organic be organic be organic!”

Patrick Leahy is someone who has served in Congress who represented people before power.

He is ending his long Senate career. After 46 years of service to our country, his seniority makes him the President Pro Tempore of the US Senate. He has guided the passage of many bills.

The one that has most touched me was his sponsorship of the Organic Food Production Act. OFPA was a well-written law that gave a good definition of organic agriculture.

OFPA clearly states: An organic plan shall contain provisions designed to foster soil fertility, primarily through the management of the organic content of the soil through proper tillage, crop rotation, and manuring.

That is pretty clear.

OFPA created a National Organic Program intended to be guided by a 15-member Advisory Board composed of farmers (imagine!) and other organic stakeholders chosen by the Secretary of Agriculture.

It was meant to ensure that the NOP stayed on track, maintaining integrity and transparency. Its goal was never to reinvent organic but to protect it for both farmers and the eaters who cared. It is amazing that such a law ever passed.

It has been a long and difficult road since then.

Enid Wonnacott and Senator Patrick Leahy at a Keep the Soil In Organic rally

Enid Wonnacott and Senator Patrick Leahy at a Keep the Soil In Organic rally

Our thanks to Senator Leahy for his long effort to protect organic. The passage of OFPA was only the beginning.

Leahy has spoken often at the NOFA VT winter conferences. And he spoke at the second Vermont Rally to Keep The Soil In Organic. 26 tractors and many marchers went from Long Wind Farm to Cedar Circle Farm. There we gathered around a funky farm wagon to talk to each other, starting a national movement to defend Real Organic. Speakers included Representatives Chellie Pingree and Peter Welch and many farmers. Senator Leahy joined NOFA VT director Enid Wonnacott on the speakers’ wagon.

That rally was the beginning of an awakening by the organic movement. Things had gone too far. Remaining quiet was no longer possible. The Strategy of Silence was at an end. It was time for action, and Senator Leahy was right there with us.

Reform turned out to be difficult, or even impossible, even with such strong support.

Senator Patrick Leahy speaking at a Vermont farm rally, where he said "Let Organic be organic be organic!"

Senator Leahy speaking at the Thetford Rally In The Valley

In February of 2016, the organic community sent a letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack calling for a moratorium on the certification of hydroponics as organic. It was signed by 41 organizations from around the world and by 80 organic leaders and farmers. It was a true coalition composed of people who often disagreed, but not about these most basic principles of organic farming.

A week later, Senator Leahy wrote a letter to Secretary Vilsack also calling for a moratorium on the certification of hydroponics. His letter was soon followed by yet another signed by Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Peter Welch.

This led to a meeting with the USDA at which we got nothing. It also led to the creation of a hydro lobbying group called the Coalition For Sustainable Organics.

Senator Leahy showing his support at a NOFA conference.

Senator Leahy showing his support at a NOFA conference.

“In addition to restoring and preserving the integrity of the organic seal, we respectfully request that you use any tools at your disposal and work quickly to support the farmers affected by Danone’s decision and work with stakeholders to expand market channels for their products.”

– Letter to Vilsack from  Leahy and other representatives

More recently Senator Leahy joined a bipartisan letter signed by 7 US Senators and 6 US Representatives. The letter was “urging Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to close organic loopholes, strengthen enforcement, and use every tool available to support small- and mid-sized organic dairy farmers.”  The letter followed news that Horizon Organic, a subsidiary of multinational food conglomerate Danone, will terminate contracts with 89 farmers in Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, and New York.

These Congressional leaders KNOW we have lost the integrity of the NOP.

How can we fail with such bipartisan support?

Because we are also opposed by a bipartisan coalition of politicians and lobbyists who want to include CAFOs and hydros in organic. Their support is based on money, not principles. And it reminds us that these are not partisan issues. These are economic issues. These are issues of justice, of integrity, of transparency. This is not a “Big Tent.” It is a Big Takeover.

We thank the Senator for his many years of advocacy. And we mourn the failure of our coalition to create regulatory change despite those years of support by such powerful members of the US government. The loopholes still exist. Enforcement still fails. Real organic farmers are still pushed off the shelves and out of business. Hydroponics and CAFOs and grain fraud are still the norm for the National Organic Program.

Congresswoman Chellie Pingree of Maine addresses a crowd

“There are more than 1200 lobbyists on the Hill that work for the agriculture and food processing industry. They spend about $350 million a year on forming opinions in Washington, and that’s more than the defense industry. Don’t underestimate their power.” – Congresswoman Chellie Pingree

I want to take a moment to reply to many friends who say that the downfall of organic integrity happened when we allowed the USDA to get involved.

I have spoken constantly about the failures of the USDA. I was opposed to the National Organic Program. BUT that is not why organic has been taken over by pirates.

Pirates have taken over because we were succeeding…

Anytime that a movement meets success in the popular culture, anytime that it attracts a large number of supporters, it also attracts corporations that see a huge opportunity for profits. There is money in the water, and that money is like blood to sharks. They can smell it a long way off.

That is true regardless of whether a program is administered by the government or privately.

I look at the “regenerative agriculture” movement, and I see them having the same painful struggles as the organic movement.

“Regenerative farming” was first named by organic champion Bob Rodale. It later became a popular name with a group of midwestern farmers who were uneasy (to say the least) with being associated with “organic.” Organic was perceived by some as a hippy, granola-eating, coastal thing not embraced by “us midwesterners”.  Tribes. So they claimed “regenerative” as a term that they could call their own, and followed the basic principles of organic farming with one critical difference. They supported the use of herbicides to avoid tillage.

“We will advance regenerative agriculture on 1 million acres of farmland by 2030.” – General Mills.

This means 1 million acres of glyphosate.

We can have a long debate about whether glyphosate (Roundup) is better than tillage. Maybe another time. There are smart, informed people on both sides of the discussion. But one thing is certain. The corporations have once again moved in with remarkable speed to claim “regenerative agriculture” as their own. As they did with organic, natural, sustainable, climate smart. They like it even better than organic because there is literally no legal definition.

Regenerative is whatever you say it is.

Thus Bayer/Monsanto, General Mills, McDonald’s, Danone North America, and Cargill are all now calling themselves “regenerative.”

It is so easy to say that.

Two logos side by side: on the left, Fair Trade Certified and on the right, Fairtrade America

Two different labels. Do you know the huge differences?

There is a similar degeneration of the Fair Trade label, which now has knock-offs such as “Fair Trade USA.”

As Michael Sligh has written to me, “It is purposely confusing and yes, there is a big difference between these two. Fair Trade America represents the original, small-farmer, cooperatively-based Global South farmers selling to Northern markets.

“Fair Trade USA is the corporate-based, break-away, market claim that allows the Global South large plantations venturing into US markets to make a “Fair Trade” claim. Fair Trade USA is taking a lot of heat for their poor standards and lack of stakeholder-driven oversight. And yet most people have no idea.”

It is a Campaign of Confusion: ALL terms will be abused if there is a buck to be made.

Cage-Free? Grass-Fed? You need to research a label VERY CAREFULLY.  “Regenerative” and “Fair Trade”  do not have any government involvement, yet they are facing the same challenges. The corporations don’t care. In fact, they love the confusion. Our bewilderment is their profit.

So I genuinely salute Pat Leahy for his hard work helping to grow the organic movement. He has worked for honest government and real organic. He has accomplished more than most.

And that work is far from done.

It is the belief of the Real Organic Project that we will have to do that work ourselves.  No one is coming to save us. When our movement has grown powerful enough, perhaps then we can reform the National Organic Program. In the meantime, we go forward on our own.


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True champion of organic agriculture Senator Patrick Leahy with Real Organic Project Executive Director and farmer, Dave Chapman talking about organic integrity.

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