Coalition For Sustainable Profits declares war on National Organic Program at US Senate.
Theo Crisantes says it is time to limit the power of the NOSB.
Crisantes testifying to the US Senate last week.
Another blow against Real Organic came last week with the Senate testimony of the misnamed Coalition For Sustainable Organics, which I will henceforth refer to as the Coalition for Sustainable Profits. Only through the extraordinary success of their latest and most expensive lobbyist, Anne MacMillan, was the Coalition able to testify before Congress twice in the last month.
Ms. MacMillan was Deputy Chief of Staff to former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, and she deserves a raise.
Senate Agriculture Chairman Roberts said at the hearing that the federal National Organic Standards Board and organic regulations were rife with "uncertainty and dysfunction," and asked "producers" for recommendations on how to improve the advisory board.
"These problems create an unreliable regulatory environment and prevent farmers that choose organics from utilizing advancements in technology and operating their businesses in an efficient and effective manner," Roberts said in his opening statement during a hearing on local and international markets for organic foods and specialty crops. "Simply put, this hurts producers and economies in rural America."
The Coalition’s message was clear. Organic standards should be molded to enhance the profitability of the large corporate farms that are quickly coming to dominate “certified organic”. Going far beyond defending hydroponics, the Coalition attacked the NOSB. They also dismissed the proposed rules eliminating CAFO (Contained Animal Feeding Operation) chicken operations as being a minor "outlier issue." It seems that Roberts, the large CAFO operators, and the Coalition are birds of a feather. The Big Boys have had enough. We are witnessing an attempted hostile takeover of the National Organic Program.
Melody Meyer, a spokesperson for United Natural Foods and one of the leading hydro lobbyists, has described the hydro battle as a conflict between two parts of the organic community: the Trade and the Movement. This is not an accurate description because the Coalition For Sustainable Profits has never been a part of the organic community. And how will the Trade thrive without the community? Who will they peddle their new “organic” products to? How long will people flock to buy “organic” in Walmart when they hear it is only "sort of organic."
There has been talk of creating a new label within the USDA for “Certified Hydroponic Organic”. I would suggest a better label: “USDA Certified Fauxganic”. The new Fauxganic label could also include the CAFO dairies, the CAFO eggs, CAFO meat, and the magically transformed conventional grain that has flooded the organic market in recent years. At last, there will be a proper label to clarify so much of what is currently confusing and dismaying the eaters of America. Fauxganic producers can be recognized by their common belief that healthy soil is irrelevant.
In his Senate testimony, Coalition for Sustainable Profits spokesperson Theo Crisantes didn’t speak much about hydroponics. Moreover what he said about hydro was misleading. But what he did speak more about was the need to reform the NOP so the NOSB has much less influence. He claimed there was too much public debate. Decisions need to be made behind closed doors by a few power brokers. It was perfect symbolism that his first Congressional testimony to a House subcommittee was also behind closed doors.
Crisantes also called for change in the makeup of the NOSB so that it better represented the Trade. Right now the members of the NOSB are all selected by the Secretary of Agriculture, and those choices sometimes seem quite distant from the intentions of Senator Leahy and the organic supporters who championed the creation of the NOP. Clearly, some “farmer representatives” such as recent NOSB member Carmela Beck (a mid-level administrator from Driscoll’s) would not be called “farmers” by most reasonable people. Nonetheless, there are some wonderful people who care deeply about the organic movement currently serving on the NOSB. The debates and votes are public. All decisions are open to input from all who are interested.
Senator Debbie Stabenow receiving OTA's Public Servant Award in 2014, the same year that the NOP opposed the 2010 NOSB recommendation to prohibit hydroponics.
The lobbyists such as Organic Trade Association have a powerful voice in these deliberations, but real life farmers and eaters are welcome to testify as well. Occasionally we even win! In his testimony, Crisantes complained about the lack of accessibility to the deliberations, but Crisantes and Coalition Executive Director Lee Frankel held the floor for the first half hour of public testimony at the last NOSB meeting. They were well supported by lobbyists from UNFI, OTA, and CCOF. They submitted reams of testimony. Certainly, their voices are well heard.
It seems that the Coalition For Sustainable Profits is scared that we might actually win again. They are dismayed that the organic community turns away from hydroponics over and over. So they are shifting their considerable power towards Congress and the USDA rather than putting all their chips down on a public debate in the NOSB. In line with that, Crisantes called for a new kind of NOSB that would reflect the powerful voices of Fauxganics. He particularly singled out the “Retailer” NOSB seat currently held by Lisa De Lima. He insisted that it was time for the NOSB to replace a representative from a small 17 store chain of supermarkets with someone from a LARGE chain like Walmart or Costco. He also thought it was time to replace the small farmers like Jessie Buie, Steve Ela, and Emily Oakley with “real” organic farmers who are representing corporations producing on a massive scale.
Essentially Crisantes was saying, “You’ve done a very nice job kids, but now it is time for the grown-ups to take over. It is time to get big, or get out.” Does this sound familiar? Perhaps the slogan of Fauxganic will be, “Feed the corporation, not the soil.”
I was stunned that the Coalition would take such a stance publicly, regardless of what they actually believe. Crisantes’ prepared comments are in complete accord with a recent editorial in The Grower, the industry magazine representing conventional vegetable growers.
The Packer editorial not only takes aim at Lisa De Lima for serving on the NOSB, but also attacks Tom Chapman, the board chair who represents Clifbar. They wrote, "In addition, the board is made up of too many niche players, and even includes a representative from Clif Bar Co., which ran a sleazy anti-GMO, anti-conventional agriculture campaign." Wow. Banning someone from the NOSB because they are anti-GMO? Have these folks ever read a single book by Albert Howard? Have they read the rules? Don't they realize that GMOs are not permitted in organic? The Packer editorial and Crisantes testimony are so similar they sound like they might have been written by the same person. Both the Packer and the Coalition call for the reformation of the NOSB with “an active role for industry involvement.” Simply put, they want the NOSB to represent Big Ag and Big Stores. They want CAFO eggs and they want hydroponics. And they want them NOW.
"There are 1200 lobbyists on Capitol Hill who work for the agriculture and food processing industry. They spend about $350 million a year on forming opinions in Washington. And that's more than the defense industry. So don't underestimate their power...They would like to change a lot of things and water down the organic brand, and the consumers will be completely confused. This is critically important." US Representative Chellie Pingree speaking at the Farmers Rally In The Valley.
The Coalition’s comments are in keeping with the written testimony submitted to the NOSB from such corporate farms as Driscoll’s Berries (over 1000 acres of hydroponic “organic “ berries), Nature Sweet (over 1200 acres of conventional greenhouse tomatoes), Houweling Greenhouses (over 250 acres of conventional greenhouse tomatoes), Pura Natura (the umbrella organization for the Dutch greenhouse growers who export their EU conventional hydro produce to the US where it is welcomed as organic), and Scott’s Miracle Gro (what can I say? Welcome to Fauxganics). Perhaps all these corporations are members of the Coalition, but no one knows for sure, as the Coalition’s membership, like the way they grow their produce and the way they spend their money, is a secret. When I served on the USDA Hydroponic Task Force, we were unable to get a single hydroponic member of the task force to share exactly what they used to fertilize their crop. We were told it was a secret.
These are efficiently run organizations that do what they do well, but they have no business selling their products as organic unless they are willing to profoundly change how they farm. And so far they are not willing to do that. They are only interested in using the USDA label for the price premium.
Nate Lewis is one of the chief lobbyists for the OTA, which has worked aggressively to approve hydroponic certification for their clients Driscoll's Berries and Wholesum Harvest. They also worked closely with Senators Roberts and Stabenow on the Congressional action that destroyed States' right to label GMOs. More secrets. More money.
So why would the Coalition publicly call for war on the NOSB? Because they fear losing in the NOSB. They have the lobbying power to get things done their way in Congress. In the spirit of Trump, they are ready to “Just Take It” because they can. The (relatively weak) animal welfare reforms that were worked on for so many years before passage by the USDA were exiled to the oblivion of “further study” by the Trump administration, with the active support of Roberts and Stabenow. So too, the dark forces are not likely to allow us children to deny them their hydroponic profits.
The very fact that Congress was listening to a fringe group like the Coalition for guidance on organics is a clear sign that the organic community is in deep trouble. Senators Pat Roberts and Debbie Stabenow have led the recent Congressional attack on the NOP's proposed animal welfare standards. Roberts, infamous for his disdain of organic, has become a strong champion for the Fauxganic egg producers in his home state of Kansas. Roberts called the reform standards (which took years to gain passage in the NOP) "absolutely ridiculous." He is on record saying, “What is chicken enrichment anyway? It could be yoga, that might be difficult. Video games? They do that for various animals. Sports? A gourmet meal? I think probably music is the best thing we can do to entice the chickens to come out and be happier, you know free range, roaming around. I think probably Ray Price would be the best person. Certainly not Prince. At any rate, something soothing.” Roberts' contempt for the very concept of animal welfare is profoundly disturbing, as he is the powerful Chair of the Senate Ag Committee.
Senators Debbie Stabenow and Pat Roberts.
OTA said that Roberts' “recognition of the importance of organic as a choice for farmers that provides economic stability and increased net profits” was positive. Without public engagement and “strict, clear and enforceable industry-designed standards — you risk losing the opportunity for farmers that organic provides. Transparency and accountability — cornerstones of organic — remain the foundation upon which to improve the organic system.”
Wonderful words. For all their calls for transparency, OTA works very hard to keep the issue of hydroponic production as confusing as possible for the NOSB and the consumers. They continually insist that their clients Driscoll's and Wholesum Harvest are not hydroponic. They claim they are "container growers". OTA knows perfectly well that ALL of the conventional hydroponic tomato, pepper, cucumber and most of the berry growers are "container growers" as well. While it is possible to grow without hydroponics in a container, Driscoll's and Wholesum cannot make such a claim. They are hydroponic by any sane definition.
Fauxganic hydroponic tomato production at Wholesum Harvest. Is this the future of "certified organic?"
So if you aren't upset, you aren't paying attention. The Senate testimony was an amazing coming out for the hydroponic lobby. Why would they attack the NOSB before a crucial vote, even if they believed what they said? Because they are afraid they are going to lose. Again. And they will lose if we keep speaking out.
There are protest rallies coming soon. Tom Beddard from Lady Moon Farms is the keynote speaker at the Pennsylvania Certified Organic Farm Fest next week. This battle will be his subject. There will also be a Rally march at the Farm Fest on Saturday, July 29 to Keep The Soil In Organic. The same thing will happen at the NOFA Summer Conference at Hampshire College on August, 12, where I am leading a roundtable discussion followed by a Rally march. Please show up at one of these if you can. Find connection instead of confusion.
Take back the organic seal.
Farmer Tom Beddard speaking about real organic at the Rally In The Valley last fall.
Contact me if you are interested in organizing a local rally in your area this Fall. People are waking up and coming together. The Fauxganic Takeover is out in the open now. It is the same dreary land grab that has happened over and over. If we believe in real organic, our work is far from finished. Real organic is more important than ever. One thing is for sure. Even if the Fauxganic forces triumph in the regulatory world, they can never win in the end, because Fauxganic is not Organic. It is not what people are looking for, although it might take people a while to figure that out. It will never be organic, no matter what it is called. And there are way too many of us for it to go unnoticed. People are seeking real food. We are seeking an agriculture that will support the planet and nourish us. As we learn about the Fauxganic Takeover, we must not be silent.
Alan Lewis is a longtime organic activist. He has worked long and hard for the GMO labeling movement (which was ultimately destroyed by the actions of OTA working with Stabenow and Roberts. Where is their passion for transparency?). He directs Government Affairs and Food And Agricultural Policy for Natural Markets, an independent chain of grocery stores in Colorado. He has written a very well thought out response to Crisantes attack on the NOSB. Click here to read Crisantes testimony and Alan's rebuttal.