It is a simple question.

Is a three-year transition required for all operations in USDA organic?

We finally have proof of the answer.

Zero transition time means that glyphosate, malathion, and other egregious materials can be permitted the day before organic certification. With no transition time, what is there to stop some cynical hydroponic producers from transitioning in and out, taking a week between crops to “bomb” their greenhouses with an insecticide or “clean up” their fields with an herbicide? Then the next week they could bring in new “containers” and get recertified as organic.

And what if people find out?

They will say, “Surely this isn’t allowed!”

a big tractor rolls through a farm field

But when the National Organic Program (NOP) has been asked, they have given very confusing answers. NOP head Jenny Tucker told the National Organic Coalition on several occasions that NO transition time is required for hydroponic to be certified. When I asked Jenny if a producer who sprayed glyphosate a week before certification would be disqualified, she said no, confirming her earlier statement to NOC. Then, in an interview with Civil Eats on April 23, Jenny seemed to be giving confused and contradictory answers. And in repeated questioning at the Seattle meeting of the NOSB, she simply refused to answer at all, saying that the questions were hypothetical. And she said she wouldn’t answer hypothetical questions.

An old time comic scratches his head, baffled.

This is not a hypothetical question. What is the policy of the USDA?

Another simple question is whether this is actually happening? Have some hydroponic producers already been certified immediately after using prohibited substances?

We finally have a clear answer to that question.

I am including a copy of an April statement by an accredited certifier from Florida named Americert. You should read it! It is pretty interesting. Here is one paragraph. Skip it if this is too technical:

“The USDA NOP organic rules in section 205.202(b) requires that “any field or farm parcel from which harvested crops are intended to be sold, labeled, or represented as “organic,” must: . . . Have had no prohibited substances, as listed in §205.105, applied to it for a period of 3 years immediately preceding harvest of the crop”. Previously, Americert had not applied this requirement to container based operations, including systems of raising perennial crops in containers where the onsite soil was not a component of the production (i.e. the soil onsite was not used in the container based production and the containers did not have direct contact with the ground), as it was determined, consistent with 2010 National Organic Standards Board guidance on container based systems, that the requirements of this rule did not apply to container based systems. However, there has been recent controversy generally about container based production and specifically about field based container systems. As a result of that controversy, Americert reached out to the USDA National Organic Program for clarification of whether or not Americert was interpreting this aspect of the rule correctly and in line with the NOP’s current thinking on this issue. On the one hand there has been widespread (but not universal) adoption of the approach taken by Americert, and there has been comments and discussion with NOP officials which appeared to suggest that such an approach was in line with the NOP standards and the NOP’s approach to this issue. There is also the NOSB 2010 proposed criteria for container based production which is consistent with Americert’s approach on this issue. On the other hand, there have been some few but vocal critics of this approach. Not all certifying agents use this approach. On this basis, we asked for confirmation from the NOP that the approach used by Americert was a proper interpretation of the NOP rules. We have not been able to obtain a clear statement from the NOP one way or another on this issue. It may be that the NOP itself, having not previously considered this issue deeply enough, does not know where it stands on this issue. To date it has not publicly and specifically approved of the practice, but neither has it specifically and publicly disapproved of this practice. While the NOP is aware that many certifying agents, including Americert has interpreted the rules in this manner, it has not issued a Notice of Noncompliance to Americert on this basis, and has not issued specific guidance or a specific statement approving or condemning the practice. It appears that on this issue, we are left on our own to determine how to proceed.”

The highlights of the letter are:

  1. Certification immediately after the use of prohibited substances has been “widespread.”
  2. The National Organic Program has made comments implying support of this policy.
  3. Americert has asked the National Organic Program for clarification on this practice and has gotten no answer, forcing Americert to make up their own standard.
  4. In a burst of caution and based on their own judgment, Americert has changed their own “best guess” standard for ongoing certification, limiting approval of prohibited substances on the ground where containerized plants are at least 6” above the ground.
  5. Which means that Americert is still allowing the use of glyphosate (or any other prohibited substance) immediately prior to certification if the pot is sitting on a 6” base or bench.
hydroponic tomatoes being grown in an indoor facility

Because these plants are more than 6″ off the ground, it is being permitted to spray any prohibited insecticide or herbicide in a greenhouse or field just days before planting.

Hypothetical? It is happening. According to Americert, it is “widespread.” Why did the NOP state in Seattle that they wouldn’t speak about hypotheticals? According to the Americert letter dated April 26, the USDA knows it is happening. And the USDA has not stopped it.

It appears that the USDA has a very warped idea of what organic means. One starts to wonder if the USDA WANTS to destroy the organic seal, or if they are simply very bad at their job. To serve and protect? Integrity and transparency?

The reason the USDA is thrashing around so helplessly is that they no longer have a North Star to guide them in their decisions. Earlier, the NOP was guided by the law. The Organic Food Production Act (OFPA) is clear that soil is the foundation of organic agriculture. In fact, OFPA Insists that the maintenance and improvement of soil fertility is the basis for all organic farming. Organic farming is a process, not just a thing. Not just a list of approved ingredients. The law is clear. It is a good law. But who will enforce it?

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!”

Hydroponics has no place in organic farming. Nor do CAFOs and animal detention centers. We mustn’t get sidetracked on trying to “reform” organic hydroponic or organic CAFOs. Better standards on how many years a producer is allowed to cover the soil with black plastic and pots before “responsibly” disposing of them are not the answer. Better porches on detention centers are not the answer.

Nor do we need to protect hydroponics or CAFOs.

They are already flourishing as the epitome of conventional agriculture. They are doing fine without allowing the USDA to redefine organic. Organic farming is meant to be something different. Americans are hungry for real food. They are desperate to find food grown differently. And they are turning to organic as a hopeful solution.

We must not allow them to be cheated. There MUST be a genuine alternative to all that.

The Real Organic Project is our attempt to return to the original organic. Return to a pioneering way of farming that was imagined as a genuine alternative to the industrial-agricultural complex.

That phrase can sound hackneyed, but it describes a reality that is only intensifying in its damage to us all. Let us turn away from “Certified Sort Of Organic” and build a movement that can feed everybody real food.

Please sign this short petition calling for the USDA to return to the basic premise of organic farming: Feed the soil, not the plant.

Please join us by signing to up to receive our updates by sharing your email address with us. Please make a donation if you can afford it so that family farmers don’t have to carry this weight alone. Please share this letter with all of your friends. Truly, we can do this, but we can only do this together.

Have you ever heard a young child say something over and over, hoping by repetition they can make it true? That is what the USDA has done this winter, saying over and over that hydroponics in organic is “a settled issue.” It is not. Clearly, the USDA doesn’t know what they are doing, They are staggering around making up new regulations by whim. The USDA has the arrogance and clumsiness of power. They don’t have the right to tell us what organic means. It was their task to protect organic, not to redefine it. And without our permission, they don’t have the power either.

Many thanks,