Theo Crisantes                                                                                          Alan Lewis

 

 

This is the recent testimony by Theo Crisantes to the Senate Agriculture Committee which showed the danger of letting political lobbyists represent your brand within a specialized industry community. In this case, they got it wrong, on the record, and marginalized their clients in the process. Written testimony from Theo Crisantes is posted verbatim in black; Alan Lewis has given commentary on the testimony. His comments are indented in red. Alan Lewis is the Director of Government Affairs and Food and Agriculture Policy for Natural Markets, an independent chain of grocery stores in Colorado.

 

 

 

Testimony On behalf of the Coalition for Sustainable Organics

Regarding “Opportunities in Global and Local Markets, Specialty Crops, and Organics: Perspectives for the 2018 Farm Bill”

Submitted to the United States Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry

Submitted by

Mr. Theo Crisantes Vice President of Operations, Wholesum Harvest 

Member, Coalition for Sustainable Organics July 13, 2017 Washington, DC

 

Chairman Roberts. Ranking Member Stabenow, members of the Committee. Thank you for the opportunity to provide testimony on the organic industry. My name is Theo Crisantes and I am the Vice President of Operations at Wholesum Harvest. I am a third-generation organic farmer with operations in Arizona and Mexico. I am here today as an organic grower and on behalf of the Coalition for Sustainable Organics (Coalition), which promotes the continued use of containers and hydroponics in the National Organic Program (NOP).

While I am also a member of the Organic Trade Association (OTA), Western Growers Association (WGA), and United Fresh Produce Association (UFPA), my remarks here today reflect the opinions of the Coalition.

 

  • The Coalition for Sustainable Organics is a small group of hydroponic growers who are demanding that soil-free growing systems be certified to use the organic seal in violation of the letter and spirit of the Organic Foods Production Act. Hydroponic systems are not sustainable (they require continued use of outside inputs, some of which are not renewable). Hydroponic systems are not organic, since organic systems require soil within an ecological system. In short, the Coalition for Sustainable Organics is neither a coalition that represents the consensus thought of the organic community, nor sustainable, nor organic: not, not and not.

 

Wholesum Harvest: History and Current Operations

 

I am proud to say that Wholesum Harvest is a family farm and a true success story. My grandfather emigrated to Mexico from Greece in the 1930s and we have been selling into the United States since 1940. In 2012, we saw opportunity to expand our operations significantly in the United States and opened our newest operation in Arizona. While everyone else in agriculture was moving to Mexico for less regulation or cheaper input costs, we were investing in the United States.

 

We currently grow tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant, peppers, and squash on 600 acres in both the United States and Mexico. We have a revenue of approximately 55 million dollars and are the largest producer of organic tomatoes on the vine in North America.

Wholesum is proud to be a longstanding participant in the organic program, receiving our first certification in 1995 and completing our most recent USDA audit just a few weeks ago.

 

We have found that the best way to create a sustainable and thriving organic system is to exclude pests and diseases that cannot be efficiently controlled by other organic methods. This approach has led us to use containers and other indoor growing systems not just for plant propagation, but now for the full life cycle of the plant. For example, for peppers, given the presence of the pepper weevil in our main production zones and the lack of beneficial predatory insects, Wholesum has found that it can minimize the impact on the environment by growing in shade houses. For tomatoes, the disease, pest, and environmental pressures are extremely high in our open field production areas. Rather than using a heavy load of chemicals and other scarce resources to address the problem, Wholesum invested in glass greenhouses where tomatoes are grown in containers. Greenhouses increase the efficiency of the beneficial insect program, reduce water use by 80 percent, and provide year-round employment in regions characterized by seasonal jobs.

 

Greenhouse and container production systems have become an important and growing portion of the supply of organic fresh fruits and vegetables. According to recent data from the Nielsen Perishables Group FreshFacts® L52Weeks Period Ending February, 25, 2017 report, organic tomatoes produced in greenhouses primarily in containers now account for 23 percent of retail sales. The percentage of sales for peppers is 44 percent and 37 percent for cucumbers.

 

“These methods are also endorsed by consumers. Last fall, the Coalition conducted a survey to assess consumer attitudes toward container growing. 91 percent of consumers surveyed supported current USDA policies that allow organic farmers to grow organic produce in containers. I have included our consumer study for the record in addition to this statement.”

 

  • The Coalition for Sustainable Organics presented the findings of its “survey” at the spring 2017 NOSB meeting in Denver. However, members of the NOSB discovered during deliberating that each question on the survey was preceded by a paragraph that described hydroponics in extremely one-sided positive terms, and only discussed a limited set of attributes of hydroponic growing systems. The subsequent question asked if the respondent felt positively toward hydroponics. As NOSB members pointed out, this methodology is not acceptable as evidence of public sentiment or even representative of the opinion that a respondent might express after being fully informed.

  • Please disregard the false conclusions drawn from the contrived CSO survey and remove it from the docket that informs policy making regarding organic systems.

 

Increasing Uncertainty in the Organic Sector

 

Notwithstanding overwhelming consumer support, our plans to expand operations in the United States have slowed because of the considerable uncertainty resulting from recent actions of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), a Federal Advisory Committee to USDA’s NOP.

 

As you well know, the USDA Organic Certified Seal is one of the most recognized and trusted emblems in the global food system. But there has been increasing turmoil behind the scenes to determine what, exactly, it means to be able to receive that designation. Under the Organic Food Production Act of 1990 (OFPA), the NOSB was created to “assist in the development of standards for substances to be used in organic production and to advise the Secretary on any other aspects of the implementation of OFPA.”1

 

  • Perhaps the Coalition for Sustainable Organics (not, not and not) should read the OFPA again without cherry picking quotations. The 15-member National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) was established to assist in the development of standards for substances to be used in organic production (i.e., the National List) and to "provide recommendations to the Secretary regarding implementation of the act. The Act still controls what the NOSB, NOP, AMS and USDA can do. The Act states:

  • CFR Regulatory Text, 7 CFR Part 205, Subpart A — Definitions. § 205.2 Terms defined “Organic production.” A production system that is managed in accordance with the Act and regulations in this part to respond to site-specific conditions by integrating cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.” USDA National Organic Program.http://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?SID=ac13bb030ee7a5c5ded65732f5c8946e&mc=true&node=se7.3.205_12&rgn=div8 (link is external)

  • Congressional intent has been clarified and amplified consistently over 22 years by the USDA as follows, with the concurrence of, and without objection by, Congress:

  • USDA National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) definition, April 1995: 

  • “Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony.”

  • The organic community has now been subjected to more than ten years of torturous twisting of terminology to make soil-free growing fit within the OFPA. Even the original OFPA drafters, sponsors and proponents of the establishing regulation have weighed in: NO, it don’t fit.

 

Over time the NOSB has become the driving force behind specific standards deemed appropriate, or in my case, inappropriate for organic certification. Even if USDA does not act upon a formal recommendation, many organic auditors will incorporate the NOSB’s recommendations into their interpretation of standards to determine if producers meet USDA organic regulations.

 

  • The NOSB was established by law to be the “driving force” for certified organic practices and inputs. That was the intent of Congress when it established the NOP through the Organic Foods Production Act. As with other USDA guidelines, NOP guidelines issued after public comment and recommendations from the NOSB may not be binding, but certainly inform industry practices. The Coalition for Sustainable Organics (not, not and not) appears to be confused about the letter of the law, the purpose and authority of federal advisory boards, and the regulatory weight of final guidelines. 

 

Specifically, over the last few years, the NOSB has drafted and considered proposals to eliminate containerized and hydroponic growing methods from organic certification. These growing methods, which have been certified by USDA since the inception of the organic program, are crucial to meeting the rising consumer demand for organic produce. For me personally containers and greenhouses are necessary to improve the ecology of our farmland. We greatly depend on the organic premium I receive for my produce to pay for those advances.

 

  •                The Coalition for Sustainable Organics (not, not and not) here confuses the reader by conflating greenhouse, container and hydroponic growing systems. The USDA, NOP and NOSB do not consider these systems and terms interchangeable and do not regulate them in the same way. In fact, the organic community and the NOSB have never questioned the need for greenhouses and shade houses to extend the growing season by controlling temperature, humidity, pollination and pests. Similarly, the NOSB acknowledges that container growing is an acceptable organic practice if the containers are primarily filled with organic soil, and that soil is developed on farms using organic practices. Hydroponics (meaning soil-free growing systems using a substrate to anchor roots that draw nutrients from a circulating liquid solution) fail the single most important test of organic compliance: it does not use soil and does not improve the health of soil in the ground. 

  • Hydroponics is an issue apart and aside from greenhouses, shade houses and container growing. The argument being made here is that members of the Coalition for Sustainable Organic (not, not and not) require hydroponics to supply adequate amounts of organic produce to meet consumer demand. However, consumer demand is rising for what consumers believe is organic produce, not for soil-free hydroponic produce. What’s more, there is nothing that prevents members of the Coalition for Sustainable Organics (not, not and not) from selling hydroponic produce to consumers if it is not called organic. The coalition’s argument here is simply not sustainable.

  • Furthermore, the Coalition for Sustainable Organics (not, not and not) seems to seriously misunderstand the NOSB process. The NOSB does not “draft or consider proposals” unless those proposals are submitted by organic stakeholders. This petitioning process is well established and provides a clear and permanent path for concerns to be addressed, improvements to be proposed, and policy questions to be answered. The role of the NOSB is to compile and prioritize theses stakeholder inputs, request technical data on the issue, analyze the issue within the auspices of the OFPA statute and NOSB advisory board rules, and then present a balanced review of the issue back to the community for discussion and debate. The question of soil-less growing systems has undergone this process on multiple occasions. Soil-less growing systems have been questioned, studied, white papered, analyzed, debated, considered and voted down over and over. This consistent process of providing reliable regulatory guidance is probably unequaled in government. Yet, the Coalition for Sustainable Organics (not, not and not) simply refuses to accept the validity and authority provided by this longstanding process. So, the coalition wants the process ended so the USDA can “act independently” of the will of the organic community. Please do not accept the argument that because a democratic institution using democratic processes fails to implement the policies of a small special interest group, that institution is flawed. In fact, the NOSB works extraordinarily well. If only the coalition would accept the basic tenets of democratic debate and decision making, the NOSB could focus its attention on other important issues.

 

I am not alone in this position. The Coalition for Sustainable Organics, of which I am a Board Member, represents growers across the country, all of whom farm in containers or hydroponics or aquaponics and would be severely disadvantaged if their long time organic certification was revoked.

 

While this issue may be the one in the hot seat currently, other issues and topics may be coming down the pipe. I am concerned that—without some change to the status quo—the organic industry will continue to face unnecessary regulatory uncertainties that will prevent it from meeting rising consumer demand.

 

  • What the Coalition for Sustainable Organics (not, not and not) perceives as “regulatory uncertainty” is the inconvenient truth that thousands of organic producers have told them to go away over and over with great consistency and certainty. Time after time when the issue of soil-less agriculture has come up, the organic industry has dismissed it. No, that’s not organic. The debate has been robust, the information wide ranging and deep, and the conclusion has been a consistent no. Far from regulatory uncertainty, the NOSB has provided clear and consistent guidance on soil-less systems: no. The Coalition for Sustainable Organics (not, not and not) simply won’t take no for an answer. This is not uncertainty, it is relentless and unrealistic complaining by the lobbyists for a small set of well-funded growers who refuse to acknowledge the law as set forth in the Organic Foods Production Act.

 

This tiny coalition finds itself unmasked and disgraced like a university professor whose college degrees were purchased off the internet. And like that imposter professor, this tiny coalition doesn’t get to keep its title and tenure just because the ruse worked for a while.

 

  • Coalition for Sustainable Organics (not, not and not) has in fact dragged out this debate unnecessarily for over a decade. A disproportionate amount of time has been burnt up by the NOP and NOSB members digging into testimony and written submissions by this tiny coalition that believes its cause is above the law. Had it accepted the judgement of the organic community ten years ago, it would have moved forward promoting and marketing its soil-less produce effectively – and honestly – as clean, safe, no-soil, year-round, consistently pretty, large scale and (often) local food. Instead, this tiny coalition has depended on undisclosed, unlabeled and surreptitious organic certification by a small number of rogue organic certifiers in an effort to hide its practices behind the organic seal. It’s clear now that the decision to operate rogue organic systems was a bad decision for this tiny coalition. Had it properly taken stock of its practices, it could have marketed the benefits of its soil-free produce to retailers and consumers and developed a strong brand for itself. Instead, this tiny coalition finds itself unmasked and disgraced like a university professor whose college degrees were purchased off the internet. And like that fake professor, this tiny coalition doesn’t get to keep its title and tenure just because the ruse worked for a while.

 

Structural Challenges to Setting Organic Standards

 

When the NOSB was originally envisioned few people really understood organic farming and an even smaller number of them were at USDA. Thus, it made perfect sense to outsource primary regulatory responsibility to an external body now known as the NOSB

But today, after 27 years, the NOSB structure is showing its weaknesses. For one thing, it is nearly impossible to capture and reflect the variety of operations that make up the organic industry with a 15-member board.

 

  • When the NOSB was established, nearly every stakeholder was an active hands-on organic farmer and had been for decades. The NOSB provided a consensus building process for a national movement to facilitate a uniform standard to engender consumer faith and in turn facilitate trade. The NOSB is an internal regulatory board requested by and for true organic farmers.

  • Today, after 27 years, the NOSB structure and process shows its resilience in managing robust public debate and capturing the evolving variety of operations (and countries) that make up the organic industry as defined by the Organic Foods Production Act. The NOSB has been able to remain effective even in the face of massive changes to the size, composition and demands of a global supply chain that includes multinational concerns with global reach, as well as tiny stakeholders serving their neighbors and local communities. The board itself has never stated it needs more members. It has consistently asked for more resources to compile technical reports and undertake primary research and statistical data collection.

 

Of those 15 seats on the NOSB, four of them are filled by small operators who grow on a combined acreage of less than 120 acres. Likewise, the only seat allocated to retailers is currently occupied by a 17-store chain. Stated another way, NOSB’s current composition fails to reflect the breadth and diversity of the industry.

 

  •                The NOSB’s representation of smallholder farmers, who have a day-to-day understanding of farming, marketing, and competitive challenges remains an important key to its relevance to consumers and producers alike. Similarly, the inclusion of one seat for a retailer whose operations are primarily focused on organic products and are thus best suited to understanding consumer preferences and trends, keeps the NOSB debate focused on growth of the industry without damaging the value of the Organic seal. Were only large producers and global retailers represented, the organic standards would surely be watered down to make it easier for large supply chains to find “organic” products. It is imperative that consumer-driven producers, processors and retailers whose primary business involves organic trade remain the protectors of the organic standard, since its value depends on the values of their customers.

 

Finally, NOSB’s procedures do not incorporate sufficient public input – especially considering their influence. The Coalition has participated in every public comment opportunity surrounding the proposal to ban containers and hydroponics but several times, both extensive and complicated drafts composed by the NOSB, were released with only a few days allowed for review. This past spring, important proposed formal recommendations and discussion documents written by the NOSB were published on Friday March 17 with a deadline for comments of March 30.

 

  • In reality, public input provided to the NOSB is of high volume, high quality, and high consistency. Every NOSB board member will confirm this statement. The issues of container growing without soil and hydroponics without soil has been debated for a decade or more. All staff of the NOP and all members of the NOSB are available for discussion, consultations and other meetings throughout the year. Written comments can be submitted to board members and the NOP at any time. If the Coalition for Sustainable Organics (not, not and not) believes that communication with the NOSB can only occur in three-minute testimony during public comment at NOSB meetings, they are gravely misinformed. The Coalition for Sustainable Organics (not, not and not) has itself submitted several detailed policy papers, held multiple meetings with NOSB members, and provided ongoing email and other comments to the NOP and NOSB over just the last few years. The coalition seems to misunderstand that its own copious policy engagement activities are the very communication it states does not take place.

 

The Board meets twice a year for public meetings but, excluding three-minute public comment allotments at these meetings, there are no other methods for a true two-way dialogue with these decision-makers. I have invited NOSB members to visit our operations and learn more about what they are proposing to restrict but, unfortunately, to date, no one has been able to visit. At the very least, NOSB should visit, see, and understand the organic, sustainable, and environmentally-friendly practices it seeks to regulate and, in my case, ban.

 

  • Hydroponic and container growing operations exist throughout the country. All NOSB members have visited similar operations. It is not accurate to draw the conclusion that NOSB members are ill-informed because they have or have not visited a specific operation. There are thousands of certified organic farms in the US. Most of them have never been visited by a NOSB member, and they do not complain that, therefore, their operation is not served by the NOSB.

  • The NOP standard does not reference the concept of “environmentally friendly” except insofar as maintaining soil health within an ecological system by recycling plant and animal inputs is friendly to the environment. The organic standard is a standard. You don’t get to claim its seal because you are kind of like it. Meet the standard or don’t.

 

Next Steps

 

The organic sector is no longer a niche industry. There are approximately 24,000 certified organic operations nationwide supporting tens of thousands of farm sector jobs in a $50 billion per year industry. While other sectors of the American agriculture industry may be suffering due to depressed prices, organics is booming, creating a new safety net for farm families across the United States.

 

  • The organic sector is growing due to the high standards it represents and the robust farm economics taking place within regional food economies. In fact, organic represents the single most important program of the federal government to ensure rural economic vitality, precisely because it emphasizes specialty crops grown by smallholders operating within a regional or local food system. In an era of limited means, the bootstrap character of organic producers is impressive -- and necessary. Participation in the organic program provides a price premium for producers and a ready market to retail, direct, and institutional customers. Many American families have been able to establish farms, expand acreage, accumulate family wealth, and reinforce their local economy. However, as organic foods have been adopted by global retailers, the organic supply chain has been scaled up, standardized, and industrialized significantly. This scaling process was first used to ensure a reliable and consistent supply, but it can also drive down prices paid to other producers and exclude them from larger markets. The economics of scale are simple: a larger operation spreads its overhead over more acres; although it makes less money per acre, it has more acres. Monoculture and simple rotations are reinforced. Adding soil-free hydroponic factory farms to this competitive environment hurts the economics of true organic producers and the food systems they depend on.

  • Rather than helping expand the organic market and reinforce positive consumer perceptions of the organic seal, the Coalition for Sustainable Organics (not, not and not) is putting the seal at risk. Lax enforcement of OFPA standards for the industrial dairy and egg producers using the seal has resulted in an onslaught of negative press coverage about the value of the organic seal. Consumers are now wary. Adding soil-less growing systems will cause the same push-back by watchdog groups, media, policymakers and the public. Growing organic by undermining OFPA standards does not grow organic – it grows distrust. The practice is not sustainable.

 

I believe that to continue the organic industry’s positive trajectory, it will be important for this committee to discuss the current process for developing standards and other policy priorities.

 

  • Small producers must be determined and creative and persistent to ensure they have ready markets for their production. When large producers capture the largest part of the market, and sell product at a noticeable lower price than some small producers, the fundamental benefits of the organic program are undermined. Certified organic producers accept this challenge as an essential part of the free market system. It’s okay that produce grown in soil according to OFPA standards varies in price and availability. Consumers can choose the convenience of the club store or supermarket, or enjoy the local character and economic multiplier benefits of the farmer’s market or corner store. It’s not okay that true organic producers must compete against fake organic products.

 

The Coalition would support efforts to empower USDA and NOP staff to actively participate in the researching, drafting, and analysis of formal recommendations, prioritize the NOSB’s agenda to ensure critical issues receive the attention they need in a timely manner, and create some stability in the regulatory and business environment for organic farmers and producers. We strongly support an active role for industry involvement but there is a need to improve the regulatory process to encourage transparency and legitimacy for organics to continue to grow. We believe that allowing USDA to take more initiative to direct outstanding regulatory issues that have dragged on for years within the NOSB will give organics the necessary business certainty we as farm owners need to invest in the expansion of our businesses.

 

  • “Industry involvement” appears to be a poorly thought out concept here. Industry is and always has been at the core of the NOSB. Indeed, it was the organic industry that came together to create the idea of the National Organic Program and prompt Congress to pass the Organic Foods Production Act. Industry? What better description of an industry is there than tens of thousands of hard working American families who have voluntarily assembled, debated and reached consensus on the methods, practices and inputs they agree will be used collectively to provide vitality to soil, animals, human health and communities? Please watch for uses of the code word “industry” in the context of organic regulation. Here the Coalition for Sustainable Organics (not, not and not) claims that small scale farmers and processors do not count as Industry, and only Industry should control the debate at the NOSB. This is preposterous; it’s patently offensive to dismiss the voice of the very organic community that built the National Organic Program and protects the values behind the organic seal. 

 

There are no shortage of critical issues facing the organic industry. From inequities in research spending to seed availability and certification compliance of imported organic agriculture to technology advancements, organics are at a pivot point. However, it can feel at times that the entire focus of federal engagement on organics is on outlier issues like whether a shade porch for poultry attaches to a roof at three points versus two points for poultry is acceptable. Moving forward, organic agriculture needs to focus on continuous improvement through creative thinking, innovation and technology in order to propel the industry to the next level of success.

 

  • There is no shortage of critical issues facing the organic community. The Coalition for Sustainable Organics (not, not, and not) needs to stop monopolizing the NOP’s time and resources on a question that has already been asked and answered many times. Should soil-less growing be allowed to use the organic seal? No. Asked and answered. Now let’s move on to more important issues.

 

Thank you for the opportunity to present to you today. I look forward to answering any questions that you may have.

 

  • Question: why does the Coalition for Sustainable Organics (not, not and not) not call itself the Group that Wants Soil-less Hydroponics to be Certified Organic in Contradiction to the Law (GWSHCOCL)?