As we all recover from the circus that is the semi-annual NOSB meeting, I am still amazed by the positive reception that we had for our efforts to keep the soil in the organic standards. I spoke last Sunday at the National Organic Coalition (NOC) meeting. They had previously passed a resolution of support for the 2010 NOSB recommendation, which clearly states there is no place in the organic standards for hydroponic. Realizing that the National Organic Program (NOP) has continued to oppose that recommendation, they set aside an hour to discuss the issue.
In the meeting I stressed that more and more hydroponic operations are gaining certification, even though virtually everyone in the room disagreed with the USDA decision to permit hydroponics. And this is only the beginning. Based on reports from friends in the hydroponic industry, I see that there is a tidal wave of hydroponic “organic” vegetables coming quickly that will redefine what an “organic” tomato or pepper is in an American supermarket. If we care about this, we must act now.
After a long period of discussion in which both sides were represented, someone asked for a straw vote, just to get a sense of the meeting. About ¾ of the 56 people present raised their arm to show their support for the 2010 recommendation. Another ¼ felt they were unable to express an opinion (many of them were certifiers, and perhaps they felt it was not their place to express their opinion on these issues).
And there was a single person out of 56 who raised his arm to disagree with the 2010 recommendation.
That was a powerful moment for me, to have the support of such a diverse group of stakeholders. Those supporting the recommendation included the Organic Trade Association, Cornucopia Institute, IFOAM, the Vermont Organic Farmers, the Center for Food Safety, Beyond Pesticides, the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance, MOSES, and the NOSGA. It was a striking affirmation that the organic community is unified on this issue. I also became aware that this group of people works long and hard to defend organic farming, mostly unnoticed by the organic farmers. I think we need to spend more time together!
The next two days citizens were offered the chance to speak directly to the NOSB. Time after time, farmers got up to speak about their concern with the watering down of the organic standards, and the need to keep organic farming in the soil. As Joe Smilie, a long time farmer, inspector, author, cofounder of the Organic Trade Association, and former board member of the NOSB bluntly said, “Hydroponic has no place in organic.”
On the first day of the meeting, a group of Vermont farmers gathered outside at lunchtime for a protest against the weakened organic standards. It started with a procession of marchers and tractors (and one beautiful delivery truck!). We traveled around the block chanting and laughing. There was humor, but the purpose was very serious. As the standards get watered down to become “Certified Sort Of Organic,” we see something precious that we have worked at for a long time being diluted.
Many people from the NOSB meeting came out to join us for short speeches and pizza. Over a hundred people showed up, and 75 of them had yellow t-shirts that read, “Keep the Soil in Organic. Real Organic is NOT Hydroponic.” (For those who missed a chance to get one, we will offer these styling T-shirts soon on the website keepthesoilinorganic.org.)
There were also many signs, saying (among other things) “Take Back Organic,” “Soil Matters,” “Keep Organic Real For Me,” “Dirt Matters,” and “Soil Grown.”
There were short speeches. Speakers stood on a ceremonial pile of compost. I spoke, as well as growers Davey Miskell and Jake Guest, Enid Wonnecott from VT NOFA, VT State Senator and farmer David Zuckerman, and then Pete Johnson from Pete’s Greens. Pete was quite eloquent as he held his young daughter in his arms and spoke of his concern for what organic might look like when she was ready to take over the farm. The NOP is in the process of reinventing organic for profits over principles. We didn’t invent the organic movement. We inherited it, and like the land itself, it is our responsibility to make sure it gets passed on to the next generation in good shape. It’s real meaning is far beyond a list of approved substances.
The final speaker was Eliot Coleman, who came all the way from Maine to join us. Eliot has been a long time teacher and guide to so many of us. There were five members of the Agrarian Elders who testified at the NOSB. Eliot organized this group of organic pioneers to meet at Esalen Institute last summer. They took stock of where they had come from, and where they saw the organic movement going in the future, as a younger generation took the reins. Eliot has written several books, countless articles, and has pioneered four-season farming in the New England climate. Eliot has inspired and taught us for many years now, and he isn’t slowing down yet.
He spoke of his involvement with the first USDA group he took to see the best of the best in European organic farming back in the 70’s. This was followed by the 1980 USDA report called “Report and Recommendations on Organic Farming”. He read the following parts of the report, which it called some of the “basic tenets” of organic agriculture:
“Feed the Soil, Not the Plant — Healthy plants, animals, and humans result from balanced, biologically active soil.”
“Soil is the Source of Life — Soil quality and balance (that is, soil with proper levels of organic matter, bacterial and biological activity, trace elements, and other nutrients) are essential to the long-term future of agriculture. Human and animal health are directly related to the health of the soil.”
The rally ended with pizza and cider (a traditional Vermont meal). Then, like any good steward, Pete shoveled up the pile of compost and took it back home for use on his farm.
It should be noted that the Stoweflake Inn folks and the Stowe police were all very welcoming and supportive. And Vermonter Jean Richardson, the board chair for the NOSB, worked to make sure everyone at the meeting knew about the protest.
By the second day of the meetings, I was being approached by many people expressing support for our efforts to move the NOP to action. Some said they had been sitting on the fence, but saw the issue much more clearly after all the farmers gave testimony. It was such a change to have so many farmers coming to testify, as the NOSB meetings are usually taken up with industry folks trying to get some synthetic allowed. In our case, most of the farmers were not talking about the economic impact, but rather about preserving the basic principles of organic farming. A number of organizations expressed a desire to work more closely with us, trying to get a good rule on prohibiting hydroponics passed within the year.
There was a lot of talk about demanding a moratorium on certifying hydroponic operations until a rule could be made. There was also talk about creating a label that better represented real organic farming if we fail to move the USDA.
A few days after the meetings ended, Miles McEvoy came with his wife Ami to visit Long Wind Farm. I had invited him to see what a real organic greenhouse looks like, just to let him know that organic soil growing is a vibrant reality, and not just a nice theory. We had a nice tour, looking at soil, worms, tomatoes, and insects. Miles is trained as an entomologist, so I think he enjoyed the complex dance of beneficial insects, not so friendly insects, farmers, tomato plants, and host plants that are a part of an organic greenhouse. We followed with a little lunch (all organic, of course). We didn’t talk too much about the issue, but Miles did say that he wanted to make a ruling on hydroponics soon. He also said that he hoped that the task force would give clarification of the 2010 recommendation.
Oh yes, the task force. So this week was the first meeting of the USDA Task Force on Hydroponics and Aquaponics in Organic. I would love to serve on a task force of informed people who supported the 2010 recommendation. I would love to serve on a task force with the mission of creating clear and detailed standards in service of the recommendation. Unfortunately, I am not hopeful about that happening.
Two thirds of the task force members were selected for their support of INCLUDING hydroponics and aquaponics in organic certification. It is hard to see how this group is going to clarify a recommendation prohibiting hydroponic organic by a vote of twelve to one. So I expect it to be a futile effort.
I think that a motivated task force that supported the recommendation could come up with fairly complete standards for organic greenhouse growing in about three weeks. I have been working with IFOAM and Bionext in Europe to better understand the standards in Holland, Germany and many other countries. They are all virtually the same, following the IFOAM recommendations. Once we had that report, it would be a quick matter for the NOSB to give their blessing, and for the new recommendation to go to the NOP for rulemaking.
But that is not the path we are on. I will do my best with the task force, but it seems to have been composed with conflict in mind. It appears that the goal is to ignore the existing 2010 recommendation, and push for a new recommendation that supports the inclusion of hydroponics. My guess is that after a year of disagreement, we will be no closer to clear standards. Eventually something will go to the new NOSB. And then only time will tell how a new NOSB will act. Will the new makeup of the NOSB be so changed that the 12 to 1 vote calling for the prohibition of hydroponics will have been totally reversed? I have been told that a vote today would be the same as it was 5 years ago, but 11 of the NOSB members are leaving in the next year. Who knows who will be selected to replace them!
So we have all been enormously successful in bringing attention to this issue. There is no doubt that, without our efforts, hydroponic would now be officially permitted by the NOP as a part of the American organic standards. The organic community is now awake and moving to stop this. I am concerned about the widening gap between the consensus of the community and the actions of the USDA. As one NOSB member said to me in a private conversation, “You must stand strong. You must be true. You must represent.” Powerful words. If they are meant just for me, I do not feel up to the task, but really we were all being addressed. We must all stand strong. We must all be true. We must all represent.
PS. Barbara Damrosch did a tremendous op-ed on the farmers demonstration in the Washington Post this week. Check it out: