I wrote about the Real Organic Project here in June 2018. In February 2023 I found their booth at the Pasa conference and chatted with the people there. I picked up a few leaflets, and signed up for their electronic newsletter. They also have a podcast; I also discovered they are in the middle of their 2023 Virtual Symposium on Sunday Feb 26 and Sunday March 5 3-5pm EST. A virtual series of talks with more than 30 prominent organic farmers, scientists, chefs, and climate activists.
Why We Need the Real Organic Project
The Real Organic Project was formed in January 2018 to educate, promote, and advocate for traditional biological farming, which used to be called “Organic Farming.” The USDA National Organic Program (NOP) was a great idea that has gone wrong. Much about the National Organic Program is a success, and most of the farms being certified deserve to be called real organic. But the farm products from a tiny minority of large industrial operations now being certified are at odds with the original intent of organic farming. Unfortunately, these few operations produce a large, and growing, proportion of the food labeled organic on the market today.
The NOP has been increasingly reduced to a marketing brand, focused on the verifiability of inputs: seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, and livestock feed and medications, with little regard to other aspects of sustainable regenerative, biological farming.
As CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) and hydroponics (growing crops in a solution of plant nutrients) became an ever bigger part of the certified organic products, the public has been misled. The real organic farms who still make up the vast majority of certified operations (if not the volume of products) are being lost in the smoke and mirrors. A story written by Cornucopia noted that the remaining 6 “organic” dairy farms in Texas (all large CAFOs) produce one and a half times more milk than the 450 certified family dairy farms in Wisconsin. Organic family dairy farms being driven out of business in Vermont and California by CAFOs every day.
The Cornucopia Institute was founded about ten years ago. One of their first activities was to expose industrial-scale confinement dairies with 4,000-10,000 cows producing organic milk.
The Real Organic Project is intended as a catalyst to reinvigorate the organic farming movement to fill the void left by failures of integrity, transparency, and public process in setting the NOP standards. To support the Real Organic Project, please visit their website to become a member.
The Real Organic Project requires tomatoes to be grown in fertile soil. The USDA allows hydroponic tomatoes to be certified organic.
The Real Organic Project requires cows to be raised on pasture. The USDA allows confinement dairy operations to be certified organic.
The Real Organic Project requires chickens to be raised on pasture. The USDA certifies eggs from chickens who have never been outside.
Real Organic has an add-on label to the USDA Organic label. This wrap-around label prohibits hydroponic and CAFO production, instead requiring practices that maintain and improve the health of the soil. With this add-on label, farmers are creating a new way of communicating their practices to consumers who care. The Real Organic Project’s goal is transparency in the marketplace through “Know Your Farmer” videos. Through this effort, they have brought together farmers, scientists, eaters, and advocates whose common interest is to support real organic farming.
Real Organic Standards
The 22-page Real Organic Project Standards (updated April 2022) are on their website: Real Organic Standards.
To sum up briefly, the standards are:
- Origin of Livestock. In NOP rules, producers can continuously transition dairy animals into organic over time. This standard ends that loophole.
- Grazing Requirement. There is strong evidence that current NOP grazing requirements are not being met. This standard tightens the current standard, and it will be enforced.
- Grown in the Ground. Current NOP decisions permit 100% hydroponic production with no relationship between the soil and plants. This standard mirrors the EU standard that requires crops to be grown in the soil, in contact with the subsoil, in contact with the bedrock.
- Soil Management. Current NOP language requires certified farms to maintain and improve the fertility of the soil, but these standards are often not being met. This standard simply reinforces the language and intention of OFPA (Organic Foods Production Act) and the NOP language.
- Greenhouse Production. NOP standards around greenhouse production have never been set. This standard prohibits the use of 100% artificial lighting and requires an energy plan to show steady progress in reducing the carbon footprint.
- Animal Welfare. Following the recent rejection of the animal welfare standard (known as OLPP, Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices), CAFO production of poultry has become accepted in NOP certification. Our standard requires genuine outdoor access for all animals. It also addresses other animal welfare concerns, such as tail docking and beak trimming, that are needed in farming systems that allow overcrowding of livestock.
- Split Farms. This standard limits the circumstances in which an organic farm can produce non-certified crops.