Alan Guebert column agriculture organic farming USDA
If the top is the top and the bottom is the bottom, it makes sense that organic foods – especially foods that bear the valuable “USDA Organic” label from the United States Department of Agriculture – are organic, doesn’t it. not ?
Not all the time, argues Francis Thicke, an organic dairy farmer from Iowa featured here last month. In fact, Thicke and hundreds of other longtime organic farmers argue that large portions, perhaps even a majority, of USDA-labeled hydroponically-grown milk, eggs, and fruits and vegetables are not. really organic.
At least not organic by USDA standards in place before the powerful influence of Big Ag hit the market ten years ago. After that, farming practices specifically not authorized by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) – like hydroponics of any kind – took hold.
As previously stated, established organic farmers fought the movements every step of the way. Thicke and others fought from within; he served on the NOSB from 2012 to 2017, when hydroponic hawkers succeeded in gaining USDA approval just seven years after the NOSB banned the production of organic “soilless” foods or hydroponics, now often – and, according to him, deceptively – labeled “grown in containers.”
That’s the problem, according to the Iowa dairy farmer: “If you want to change the rules – and, just as importantly, not enforce other rules – to benefit the bigger farms, then the ‘real ones’ organic farmers don’t. have a chance ”in this new game.
To combat the changes, Thicke and nearly 1,000 other organic growers have formed their own “real” organic project called, cleverly, the Real Organic Project, or ROP. It will “certify” that its members follow long-established rules for organic production that do not have – and will not violate – agricultural rules such as grazing requirements for livestock.
Equally important, given that most of ROP’s executives helped write and implement USDA organic standards, he is familiar with USDA bureaucracy. This means that these hardworking and deeply informed leaders are not going quietly.
Indeed, Thicke and his ROP colleague Dave Chapman recently shared a 45-minute conference call with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to discuss the USDA’s weakening organic standards and failure to enforce. the rules required for “mega-producers” of organic milk, eggs, poultry, fruit and vegetable production.
“The secretary was very familiar with the issues,” Thicke said in a telephone interview in early June, “and he knew that many organic farmers had real issues with the way the USDA was administering the program.
Vilsack’s biggest concern, however, was not what could be done about the USDA’s increased reception of “big carriers,” Thicke reports. Instead, it was how the rise of the Real Organic Project would “confuse consumers in the market.”
Vilsack told farmers that organic produce needs “one brand” and the rise of the Real Organic Project and its own label will lead to the rise of the “Real Real Organic Project, then the Real Real Real Organic Project” .
“And he might be right,” Thicke concedes.
“But what is he [Vilsack] is wrong, is that organic is not a “brand” for most farmers. It’s a philosophy, a life, a way of cultivating that hopes that everyone and everything will do better: the soil, our health, the animals, our surrounding communities.
This belief, this vision “… cannot just be a ‘USDA mark’ if much of today’s ‘USDA Organic’ milk, eggs and chicken comes from what are, in essence, CAFOs. Concentrated animal feed operations, Thicke says.
Of course, he points out, changes to USDA’s organic production standards “have allowed us to get more food off certified organic shelves, Big Ag’s big goal. didn’t bring, however, it’s better food on the shelves or more organic farmers putting it there.
Thicke and Chapman are hopeful that ROP can gain enough membership to challenge the USDA as a go-to source of “real” organic food. However, it will be a long and difficult climb.
Yet organic food is not about “brand name” or policy, he says. “It’s about how we grow our food. It is as important as what we eat.