We don’t get many wins with the Federal government these days. But we had one last week. USDA had been allowing the use of prohibited substances for hydroponic producers just days before certification. We stopped them from allowing glyphosate and insecticides for hydro berry operations. That means there will be a little less Roundup sprayed in America next year.

colorado windmills surrounded by fruit trees against backdrop of snow covered mountains

It is a small victory, but we must celebrate our wins. The bigger problems of integrity in the National Organic Program continue. Hydroponics, CAFO eggs and milk, and fraudulent imports all continue. Real Organic Project was not created as an advocacy group to reform the USDA. Perhaps that is why we were successful in this organizing effort. We were formed to create a viable add-on label that would represent real organic food to the eaters of America. Still, when we learned about the glyphosate spraying, we couldn’t ignore it.

owl in flight

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.'”

This was written by Anne Lamott, in her book, Bird By Bird. It is a good story to remember when we face overwhelming tasks.


The News Starts To Come Out

I started to raise this issue of spraying prohibited chemicals in a session at EcoFarm last January. It was a panel on add-on labels that was facilitated by CCOF Executive Director, Kelly Damewood. It included Laura Batcha, Executive Director of the Organic Trade Association (OTA), Elizabeth Whitlow, Executive Director of Regenerative Organic Certification, and Paul Muller representing Real Organic Project. At the end of the panel, Laura made a statement that the NOP would NEVER permit the use of herbicides in certification. I stood up at the microphone and told her that I had reports that glyphosate WAS being permitted just weeks before receiving certification in hydroponic berries.

Her brief reply was, “If you have proof, file a complaint.” I have since gotten to hear that line a lot.

I can’t think of many examples where filing a USDA complaint led to a positive outcome. The complaint against Aurora Dairy following a front-page expose in the Washington Post led to a perfunctory USDA investigation. The sole visit to the Colorado CAFO was announced ahead of time. Unsurprisingly, the cows were on pasture THAT day.

More to the point, where was the outrage of these organic leaders at my report?

aerial shot of concentrated animal feeding operation dairy where animals cannot possibly make it out to graze grass

Finally, Public Outrage

The outrage came months later, after I put out a very public letter. I wrote about meeting with Jenny Tucker (Head of NOP) and asking if such practices were being permitted by the USDA. She said yes they were permitted. The public outrage following that was so extreme that some even accused me of making the whole thing up. Some insisted that this could not be happening. In an interview with Civil Eats, Jenny Tucker claimed that she had investigated these reports with the named farms and certifiers, and that they were not following these practices. It was another failed “investigation.” Then at the Seattle NOSB meeting, Jenny stopped answering all questions relating to the issue, claiming these were all “hypothetical.” Apparently, she thought she didn’t need to answer because the certification of hydroponics was “a settled issue.”

farmers rally to protest the usda at a national organic standards board meeting in the fall of 2017 in Jacksonville Florida

The Americert Letter

Recently I was able to send out compelling evidence that this spraying was, in fact, happening. A letter from the accredited certifier Americert clearly laid out that prohibited pesticides such as glyphosate had been used just prior to gaining certification in hydroponics operations, and that the USDA knew about it.

farm worker sprays chemicals on crops while wearing protective gear

USDA Response

The USDA responded to my last letter by immediately issuing a memo to certifiers imposing new standards on transition time for hydroponic producers. They are now requiring that hydroponic producers follow the same three year transition time required of real organic farmers. Of course, the memo simply applies the laws codified in the Organic Food Production Act. It doesn’t contain new rules. It just insists that the old rules be applied.

One of those rules (6504) states that organic crops shall “not be produced on land to which any prohibited substances, including synthetic chemicals, have been applied during the 3 years immediately preceding the harvest of the agricultural products”. So that seems clear. The only question is how they thought that this would not apply to hydroponic producers? Is that because they aren’t really organic? USDA Certified Sort Of Organic?

They also state that:

“The OFPA, Section 6502 defines a certified organic farm as ‘a farm, or portion of a farm, or site where agricultural products or livestock are produced.’”

So that would mean that greenhouses are included in this “decision”. They might not have any “land” but they are certainly sites where agricultural products are produced. Unless we can’t even call hydroponics “agriculture”.

But wait a minute. They go on to say:

“This memo clarifies that the legal requirements related to the three-year transition period
apply to all container systems built and maintained on land.

“Certifiers must consider two questions when certifying container systems:

• Eligibility: Is the land eligible for organic production?”

I’m just wondering if USDA considers greenhouse and enclosed factory production to be “land”?

greens being grown hydroponically in an artificial indoor environment

Is It Clear Now?

So amazingly, even the clarification isn’t entirely clear. This is not a minor question, with the prospect of hundreds of acres of conventional hydroponic greenhouse vegetables transitioning overnight to become “organic.” That is coming quickly. So please, Dr. Tucker, answer this question. Does your clarification include ALL certified organic production, or only that outside, in the fields?

The memo goes on:

“Certifiers must evaluate the compliance of the overall system, including maintaining or improving natural resources, supporting nutrient cycling, promoting ecological balance, and conserving biodiversity.

“This memo applies to all new container systems that have not yet been certified under the organic program. It is not retroactive to already certified operations and sites. All currently certified container system operations retain their certification as long as they maintain compliance with the regulations.”

Well, that first paragraph is a whopper. How is it possible for a hydroponic system to support nutrient cycling and promote ecological diversity? Is the USDA going to honestly evaluate that?

The second paragraph is a whopper as well. They have earlier said that none of this is happening. Now they are saying that yes, it has happened, and yes, it was against the law, but we are letting them keep their certification. We are giving them a mulligan. Because…???

Beautiful winding field of organic kale

Call To Action

I ask that the USDA reverse this position. Make these producers go through the 3-year transition period like all other organic growers. Failing that I ask that they tell us which farms have sprayed prohibited chemicals. Don’t we, as customers, have the right to know? And which certifiers approved them in the first place?

Having written about all the problems, let us take a moment to enjoy that we won something. This is our first win of any significance since they passed the 2010 NOSB recommendation to prohibit hydroponics. It has been a long dry spell.

Organic farmer Mike Brownback is all smiles in his Protect Organic t shirt in Jacksonville where he testified to the National Organic Standards Board

What Did We Win?

I believe that the most important victory here isn’t the shift in USDA policy. It is still an immensely flawed policy that permits hydroponics, CAFOs and fraudulent imports. We don’t need to change the laws to fix all this. We “merely” need to enforce the laws we already have. As it turns out, that is not easy.

A respected certifier recently wrote to me:

“We always caution container folks that they are going to be required to meet ALL requirements. We certified a hydroponic grower back around 2010. I took that app because “everyone else” was doing it, so we thought we would jump in. It lasted about a year and a half and when that grower surrendered we notified NOP and the world that we would no longer certify hydroponics. When we did an audit in 2012, (a coworker) asked me why. I slid the copy of the regulations that were on the desk over towards him and said: “If NOP tells me which regulations to ignore, and which to apply when certifying hydroponic, we’ll consider it”. He quickly closed the regs, slid them back, and said we didn’t have to if we didn’t want to.

“We’ve never seen an application from anyone who even approached CAFO status – but know this – there is nothing in the new OLPP that we did not already require/look at. To us, all of the livestock requirements were already in plain view and still are.”

It really isn’t better laws that we need. It is enforcement of the good laws that already exist. Hydroponics are already forbidden. CAFOS are already forbidden. Fraudulent grain imports are already forbidden.

But who will police the police?

The important victory we won last week is the coming together of the organic community. As we wake up from our trance of helplessness against the power of the government/corporate alliance, we remember that the government only functions with our permission, and the corporations only thrive with our support. We do have choices that we can make. This conversation has been going on all of our lives, and it will continue much longer than we will. Unless we fail so badly that there are no people, corporations, or governments left.

The Real Organic Project is thriving with your support. Our certification program for our add-on label is growing splendidly. Linley inspected 12 farms last week. Applications are coming in a steady stream now. And so are donations. Our thanks to all of you who are being so generous. Our special thanks to the two large donors in the last two weeks. One angel donor made such a large and generous anonymous donation two weeks ago. But to all of you, large or small, your donations make our work possible. We are building a new system, and we don’t want the foundation of this movement to be the backs of the farmers. They are already carrying enough weight.

Please share this letter with your friends. I apologize for the lawyerly details, but such is government policy. To help create the change, please sign our petition to take back organic.


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