2018 Debate

USDA Organic logo

The National Organic Program – Where Do We Go From Here?

Passed by Congress in 1990, implemented by the USDA in 2002, the National Organic Program (NOP) is today highly controversial across the healthy food and farming movement. In the wake of recent events that have weakened the USDA standards by including hydroponics and eliminating basic animal welfare protections, we wonder what the future of organic labeling should be? Can it be trusted as is? Should it be re-worked? Should it be abandoned?

Panel members:

Lisa Stokke: Executive Director of Next7.org and co-founder of Food Democracy Now!

Elizabeth Henderson: NOFA NY and Peacework Farm

Francis Thicke: Dairy farmer and retired member of the National Organic Standards Board(NOSB)

Eliot Coleman – Author, and founder of Four Season Farm in Harborside, ME

With this panel of industry thought leaders we will explore whether or not the USDA Organic label is:

Fraudulent? Some people feel that it has been taken over by “industrial organic” corporations. Witness the withdrawal of the animal welfare rule, the acceptance of hydroponic growing methods as organic, and the chipping away at the power and independence of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) as examples.  These critics feel the “USDA Organic” label no longer represents the quality that organic consumers expect, is in fact fraudulent, and we should no longer publicly support it.

Inadequate? Others believe that USDA organic standards represent a baseline worth supporting, but organic farms should be able to exceed them in specific areas, and to communicate this fact to consumers. Proposals are now in the air for “add-on” labels promoting agricultural justice, soil-based growing, the origin of livestock, dairy grazing, split farms, animal welfare standards, carbon building, no-till and other practices. Will such add-on labels inform or confuse organic consumers?

Worth Supporting?  Many farmers have invested heavily to meet current standards. Is it fair to them to change the rules in mid-stream? Despite efforts by the existing administration to weaken standards, the NOP represents a unique opportunity for ‘quality’ to be recognized by the federal government. Is it worth throwing out such an innovative program just because of short-term problems that might be corrected with adequate political energy?

What category do you fall into?  Please join us for a discussion by current thought leaders on this topic at the 44th Annual NOFA Summer Conference, August 10-12 2018, at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA. The discussion will take place Saturday, August 11th, 7:30pm.

Debate Panel and their positions:

Lisa Stokke: As a person who has consistently purchased and relied upon organic food to feed my family for 25+ years, it’s been frustrating to witness the watering down of the USDA organic standards. Yet as a leader of a national organization advocating for strong standards and family scale farming have been reluctant to criticize organic for the sake of farmers and in the interest of working to strengthen them.

However, my experience has led me to conclude that the USDA organic standards no longer represents how many organic family farms operate and has left consumers without a means to find them, believing all organic labeled products are at least as good as what they were 20 years ago, which is unfair.

Elizabeth Henderson Family-scale farms like those of NOFA members have benefitted from the legitimacy resulting from the National Organic Program, but ultimately it has not saved them from the farm crisis. Our movement has invested exorbitant resources fighting for organic label integrity. The missing piece from organic standards since the feds took over - is fairness: for farmers - fair prices; for farmworkers - living wages, respect, safe working conditions, decent benefits. Should the NOP fail us, we need Plan B – a system of locally controlled participatory guarantees. To end the farm crisis, organic farmers need to ally with other food workers to create a food system worth sustaining.

Francis Thicke: A year and a half ago I would not have supported the creation of an add-on organic label. However, near the end of my NOSB term it became increasingly clear that the NOP has come under the sway of big businesses that want to weaken the organic standards for the sake of profits—and that is not likely to change.

In addition to nixing OLPP, certification of hydroponics, fraudulent imports, and lack of enforcement of grazing standards, the NOP has weakened the sunset review process for synthetics, usurped the NOSB’s authority to set its own work agenda, and appointed pro-industry representatives to the NOSB.

Eliot Coleman: Four Season Farm is NOT “USDA Certified Organic” – I repeat – NOT. And for good reason. The USDA National Organic Program has been totally corrupted by the money, power, and influence of industrial food corporations. Hydroponic vegetables, grown without soil using artificial lighting and nutrient solutions from the chemistry lab, are sold everywhere as “USDA Certified Organic”. Enormous ‘Confined Animal Feeding Operations’ (CAFOs) with no access for the animals to outdoor pastures are producing the majority of the “organic” milk and eggs in this country. The USDA recently scrapped new animal welfare standards for organic certification at the behest of these CAFOs.

The deep integrity of the passionate, old-time, organic farmers who started this movement is now nothing but greenwash for the USDA “fauxganic” program. We proudly advertise our produce as GUARANTEED “REAL ORGANIC”. We invite other farmers to join us.