The Real Organic Project update 2023

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.

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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.

Photo from the Cornucopia Institute. This image of Aurora Dairy in Dublin, Texas, from Cornucopia’s Flyover Galleries, vividly shows how Aurora “pastures” their dairy cows. Photo from 2014.

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 berries to be grown in fertile soil. The USDA allows hydroponic berries 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.

Cornucopia photo of Green Meadow “Organic” eggs come from chickens living like this: The scale of this operation in Saranac, Michigan, can be appreciated by looking at the semi-trailers in the foreground. These two-story houses likely contain over 100,000 birds. The farm itself is licensed for over 1 million. Screen porches on the side of the buildings (qualifying as outdoor access for the birds) are visible. 2014 photo.

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.

Click to access 2022UpdatedROPStandardsVer.Final_.pdf

To sum up briefly, the standards are:

  1. Origin of Livestock. In NOP rules, producers can continuously transition dairy animals into organic over time. This standard ends that loophole.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

    Fauxganic hydroponic tomatoes. Photo from Keep the Soil in Organic KSIO
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. Split Farms. This standard limits the circumstances in which an organic farm can produce non-certified crops.

 

 

 

Keep the Soil in Organic, Mother Earth News, winter reading

Photo from Dave Chapman, Organic Soil Movement
Photo from Dave Chapman, Keep the Soil in Organic

Did you know that nearly all the supermarket “organic” tomatoes are not grown in soil drawing the nutrients they need from the complex array in the soil, but in an inert material (rockwool, coir or plastic pipes with holes in), receiving as nutrients only what the growers provide in a solution that passes by the roots?

Did you know that your understanding of “organic” might be different from USDA’s? Driscoll’s Berries has over a thousand acres of “organic” hydroponic production in hoophouses in California and Mexico. They are the biggest hydroponic “organic” producer in the world.

Did you know that hydroponics is large-scale? Melody Meyers of UNFI testified at the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) that her company’s hydroponic “organic” sales exceeded $50,000,000. (Wholesale value – double it to get the retail value.)

Dave Chapman said

One of the challenges of the USDA takeover of organic certification has been the loss of involvement on the part of the organic farmers. As we have all struggled to make a living in a tough arena, it has been easy to give into a sense of helplessness around maintaining strong standards. At the same time that organic farmers have retreated from the process, the USDA has been profoundly influenced by large corporate farming interests.

Three quarters of US hydroponics sales go to only three or four farms – this is a huge concentration of money, power, and influence in a very few hands. And the industry is engaging in heavy lobbying, not just at NOSB, but throughout the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

How did this happen? How did “organic farming” change so drastically in six years? My report is based on Dave Chapman’s in his blog Keep the Soil in Organic.

In 2010, the NOSB recommended saying no to hydroponics receiving Organic Certification by a 14:1 vote, in keeping with international standards, the federal law (the Organic Foods Production Act, OFPA) that created the National Organic Program (NOP), and the traditional practices of organic farmers.

At the NOSB meeting in fall 2016, despite hydroponics industry lobbying, there was not enough support to vote to overturn the 2010 recommendation and allow hydroponics, aquaponics and bioponics. (This would have needed a 2/3 majority). Also, the proposal (from the Crops Subcommittee) that would have eliminated hydroponics in organic was sent back for reconsideration. The stalemate means that the NOP will continue to certify “organic” hydroponic operations.

Dave Chapman reported that

Food Democracy Now! presented a petition with over 12,000 signatures to reject hydroponics. Cornucopia Institute presented 1400 proxy letters from farmers and eaters demanding that soil stewardship be a requirement for organic certification. Clearly, the people numbers were on the side of the soil.

National Organic Program (NOP)  director Miles McEvoy stated at the meeting that even if the recommendation allowing hydroponics was defeated, it would not affect NOP policy. The NOP continues to support certifying hydroponics as USDA Organic even though the OFPA law requires Organic farming be based on maintaining and improving soil fertility. The NOP support of hydroponics is also in direct opposition to the 2010 NOSB recommendation, as well as standards in most other countries. Across the world, hydroponic operations are being USDA Organic certified.

A resolution  passed 12 to 0 reading, “It is the consensus of the NOSB to prohibit hydroponic systems that have an entirely water-based substrate.” (This refers to “plastic pipe” hydroponics as opposed to rockwool and coir which are imagined to provide something more than physical support.) This resolution does show consensus in rejecting the idea that hydroponic growing can become organic simply by “adding biology” to plain water, and provides a small glimmer of sanity and common sense. NOSB refused to acknowledge that actual hydroponic farming is not limited to plants that grow in water, but includes those propped up by rockwool and coir. The current hydroponics industry move is to avoid the “H word” and talk about “containerized ” plants – ones held in a small amount of material, but still being fertilized by solutions flowing by.

What makes a system hydroponic is how the fertility is delivered to the plant, not the material that the roots sit in. In a hydroponic system, the fertility is supplied to the plant in the irrigation water. There are so-called “organic” fertilizers that are extremely processed organic materials. For example, the 16-0-0 hydrolyzed soy protein being used in hydroponics acts like a synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. It has little similarity to unprocessed soy meal. In a genuinely organic system, the fertility results from the  complex soil food web interacting with organic materials we growers supply.

The companies speaking in support of hydroponics to the NOSB include Miracle Gro (chemical fertilizer company), Nature Gro (major supplier of substrates for conventional growers), the Organic Trade Association (lobbyists for the big hydroponic “organic” growers), Nature Sweet tomatoes (1400 acres of conventional greenhouses), Houweling’s Tomatoes (250 acres of conventional greenhouse tomatoes), and Driscoll’s (already mentioned).

These companies all want  to get in on the “Organic” market without doing the honest hard work. The food industry spends more money lobbying Capitol Hill each year than the defense industry does!

Know your farmer! Buy local, from trusted growers. Do what you can to speak up for real food, grown in the soil.

Weeding overwintered spinach in March Wren
Weeding over-wintered spinach. Photo Wren Vile

I wrote about our winter lettuce (a summary of blog posts here) for Mother Earth News Organic Gardening blog. You can read it here.

peerj-04-1582-g005Margaret Roach at A Way to Garden has had some interesting blog posts recently. One is about a recent study called “Arthropods of the Great Indoors: Characterizing Diversity Inside Urban and Suburban Homes,” and its lead author is Dr. Matthew Bertone. We are hosting an average of over 90 different arthropod types per home! I’ve noticed that we’ve accidentally brought camel crickets from our root cellar into our bathroom! I’ve been reducing their numbers. . .  They don’t appear to be in top 12 found in most people’s homes according to this article.

This post on Do Home Remedies for Weeds or Garden Pests Work? is a careful look at the options often recommended by others, with cautions about pouring lots of Epsom salts, vinegar, clove oil on your plants and soil.

Her Special Weed Issue has links to a lot of useful weed topics, as well as info on a  Baby Birds book with delightful-looking watercolors.

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