One morning in 2015, instead of heading into the fields, a group of about 50 farmers gathered in a parking lot in Vermont — a handful on tractors. They arrived to protest outside a meeting of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB); on a mountain of decomposing kale stalks, onion peels, and tomato stems, they objected to a proposal that would allow producers of hydroponic vegetables to put a USDA-certified organic label on berries and greens grown without soil.
The demonstration was the start of a movement called Keep Soil in Organic, and it’s one small example of the many big ways people are arguing about what “organic” really means now.
Unlike vague food label terms like “natural” and “humane,” the USDA-certified organic label has long been seen as a reliable stamp: It signals that a food was produced according to set standards that prohibit the use of most synthetic pesticides and includes other requirements related to conserving biodiversity and animal welfare. It means the farm and any processing facilities involved in producing that food have been evaluated by a third-party certifier to verify the standards are being followed.
Those who believe in organic as a solution to negative effects of “conventional” food production assumed the word would evolve into shorthand for “healthy” — but it was never going to be that simple. Talk to farmers like the ones at the protest, and “organic” is a lifestyle that involves a philosophical understanding of the relationship farmers (and all people) have to the earth; talk to a Whole Foods supplier and “organic” is a value-add that means a higher price on the shelf. Talk to a consumer, and organic is now simply confusing.
A big reason for that is that those within the industry — not to mention the institutions that use and govern the term — don’t agree on several contentious issues. First, animal welfare standards: Advocates say factory farm operations that use organic feed but confine thousands of chickens or cows into cramped indoor spaces do not meet the standard, but those farms are continually approved for certification. Second, the aforementioned soil: Should hydroponic vegetables be certified organic?
Farmers like those at the protest see these issues as related to an influx of corporations trying to cash in on the term. Organic product sales reached nearly $50 billion in 2017 and demand still vastly outstrips supply, sometimes leading to outright fraud. A Washington Post investigation last year, for example, revealed that in the rush to satisfy demand, millions of pounds of soybeans and corn from Turkey were sold into the U.S. market as organic but had been grown using conventional farming practices.
At a time when more eaters than ever say they care about where their food comes from, can “organic” weather the storms to settle on a clear definition and resell consumers on its promise? “There’s no question organic is at a very critical juncture right now,” says Max Goldberg, founder of Organic Insider. “It has become very big business, and everyone wants a piece of it.”
The history of organic
To understand the organic standard, it helps to know the history. Chemical pesticides began to transform American agriculture after World War II. With war-torn countries desperate for food, the global call was to produce as much food as possible, quickly.
WTF Is Organic Today?
• In 2017, the organic food market hit $45.2 billion in sales. (Source: OTA)
• The Organic Trade Association (OTA) is a membership-based business association for organic agriculture and products that represents 9,500+ organic businesses.
• After a Washington Post investigation, USDA inspectors found Aurora Organic Dairy — which was producing private-label organic milk for Walmart, Target, and Costco — in violation of 14 tenets of the organic law, including confining their cattle (grazing is required by law). At the time, the farm housed 4,400 cows. (Source: Cornucopia Institute)
• 21 million pounds: The amount of imported certified organic soybeans sold to consumers before it was discovered they were fraudulently labeled organic. (Source: Washington Post)
Chemical companies had the answer. During the war, the insecticide DDT was credited with saving thousands of lives thanks to how effective it was at eliminating disease-carrying insects. Plus, companies like I.G. Farben — which had produced chemical weapons and gas chamber poisons like Zyklon B and participated in the operation of concentration camps — needed new markets. (The company was broken up into smaller entities after a postwar trial. Two of those entities, BASF and Bayer, are still among the biggest manufacturers of agricultural chemicals today. Bayer also purchased Monsanto earlier this year.)
With these suddenly available tools that made commodity agriculture easier, many farmers heeded the call to scale up using chemical inputs, including synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. And that call got louder in subsequent decades, when famed secretary of agriculture Earl Butz repeatedly told farmers to “get big or get out.”
However, a different idea about how to feed the world was also taking root. The American version of An Agricultural Testament, a book that sparked interest in organic agriculture, was published in 1943, and J.I. Rodale founded the pioneering research organization the Soil and Health Foundation (now the Rodale Institute) in 1947. In 1962, conservationist Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, a popular book that sounded an alarm about the damaging environmental (and to a lesser extent, health) effects of pesticides. In response, part of the anti-establishment awakening of the ’60s and ’70s became the back-to-the-land movement.
“It was part of a counterculture movement… moving back to the land, eating whole foods, and growing this fruit without a lot of chemical pesticides or fertilizers, right?” says Dave Chapman, an organic tomato farmer and one of the leaders of the aforementioned Vermont protest. “In the process… we learned a lot of very good reasons to do it that way.” For these pioneers, it was about more than just not using pesticides; it was about environmental stewardship, family health, and living in line with the principles of nature. And their original customers were local eaters with the same principles, who purchased food from them directly.
Over the years, as more organic food was produced and sales shifted to bigger grocery stores, a movement for an organic certification emerged. The movement was concerned with establishing a set standard for the term so that shoppers could easily identify organic food and so that the term could not be co-opted by farmers not following agreed-upon practices. In 1973, Oregon passed the first state law regulating organic, and other states followed. To create a uniform federal standard, Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act in 1990. Even then, disagreement pervaded the industry. After a few failed attempts, a final rule establishing the USDA organic standards went into effect February 2001.
Chapman was in the first group of farmers to be certified by Vermont’s state program and then later by the USDA. “As the whole system became less intensely local, certification became something that was more important to the participants — both the farmers and to the consumers,” he says. “We had to figure out how to find each other. How do we identify each other in the marketplace when we don’t know each other, and be honest? As far as I was concerned, the whole thing was working pretty well.” For a while, in most ways, it was.
“Cheating” and disagreements in organic
While the vast majority of organic farmers are sticking to the standards the label established, many say that lax USDA enforcement means some are now getting away with “cheating” as they try to cash in on the growing market for organic food. “It’s a failure in the system,” says Cornucopia Institute co-founder Mark Kastel. “Now you have to look for this label and do your homework.”
Cornucopia released its first-ever Organic Dairy Brand Scorecard earlier this year because the association was alarmed by the rise of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in organic dairy, Kastel said. Many conventional dairy cows are kept indoors in large, factory-like settings (although small dairy farms that are not organic do exist). In contrast, the organic standard requires that cows have access to pasture at least 120 days per year. Investigations have revealed, however, that some of the bigger organic dairy brands are not meeting that requirement.
Kaster’s team set out to help consumers separate what he calls “the organic wheat from the organic chaff.” In fact, almost everyone in the industry agrees that the animal welfare requirements in the USDA standard are not in line with what consumers imagine when they choose organic (i.e., happy cows grazing on tall grass). During the Obama administration, a set of rules called the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices (OLPP) were finalized to correct that discrepancy. The rules focused on further codifying what provisions in the standard related to things like “outdoor space” really meant, so that things like small covered porches outside cramped chicken barns would no longer be seen as sufficient “outdoor access.”
The implementation was delayed, however, until President Donald Trump took office, and in March 2018, the USDA announced it was withdrawing the rules. The leading voice in the industry, the Organic Trade Association (OTA), is now suing the USDA “over the agency’s failure to put into effect new organic livestock standards.” It’s also leading a task force to prevent fraudulent food imports like the aforementioned shipments of “organic” soybeans and corn from Turkey.
“Cheating” isn’t the only issue. Organic farmers and food producers also don’t agree on how to treat companies that are getting into organic food but still primarily produce conventional food within the industry, or on which practices do and don’t belong in organic.
In July of this year, the Nature’s Path cereal and grain brand made a loud exit from the Organic Trade Organization with a press release, citing (among other issues) the association allowing controversial members to join. Those members included BASF, one of the world’s largest producers of pesticides, and Cargill, a company that dominates the market for livestock feed (GMO grain) used in CAFOs. Goldberg of Organic Insider broke the story with an impassioned post outlining how misaligned the interests of the two companies are with the organic mission. (OTA CEO and executive director Laura Batcha said that while the companies do have other interests, the OTA only represents their interests in organic.)
Nature’s Path also cited the OTA’s support for allowing hydroponics in organic as a major factor in its decision, which illustrates how contentious arguments in the organic community can center around distinctions that, to outsiders, may seem small. Hydroponic farming — growing food in water with added nutrients and no soil, usually indoors — has grown in the public consciousness as companies like Square Roots and Gotham Greens have expanded, and many argue that even if those farms are not using any of the substances outlawed by the organic standard — like synthetic pesticides or GMOs — they should not be eligible for organic certification.
“Hydroponics is a complete violation of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, which says that you have to have a management plan that fosters soil fertility,” Goldberg says, emphasizing that he’s not against hydroponic farming; he just doesn’t think it qualifies as organic. Calling hydroponically farmed greens organic is “creating an unequal playing field for these soil-based farmers who can’t compete fairly,” Goldberg says.
At the end of 2017, the NOSB voted to allow hydroponic vegetables to be certified organic. Supporters of that decision see it as a sign of progress and growth, since it will mean many more fruits and vegetables will be eligible for organic certification. But it didn’t end there.
Are new certifications the answer?
Chapman’s group of protesting farmers decided to forge its own path. A coalition of farmers and industry leaders established the Real Organic Project (ROP), a certification that will function as an “add-on” to the USDA organic label. In other words, it requires farms to be USDA certified but then checks that they’re meeting additional standards — like soil fertility and animal welfare requirements — that the organization feels the USDA is failing to enforce. ROP has lined up 50 farms across the country to launch the certification, and has already inspected about half of them.
Meanwhile, the Regenerative Organic Alliance is trying to raise the bar even higher with a new certification called Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC). Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario — who also helms Patagonia Provisions, maker of packaged foods like smoked salmon and breakfast grains — said the idea came out of an observation: Many forward-thinking food producers began calling their practices “regenerative” to signify they were going beyond organic. “They were saying ‘[Organic] is not going far enough, or you know, it’s too big of a hurdle, or it’s a political lightning rod,” she says.
Marcario and collaborators like Dr. Bronner’s CEO David Bronner didn’t want the term “regenerative” to cannibalize what they saw as its foundation — organic — or to be tossed around in a way that would lose meaning. (While Dr. Bronner’s is known for its soap, it now makes food products too, like coconut oil for kitchen use.) “We thought, well, what’s the harm in putting together the highest bar certification that encompasses those three pillars: soil health, animal welfare, and social fairness?” Marcario says. “The idea is that we’re going to regenerate soil over time, sequester more carbon, and give the customer the peace of mind that the animal welfare standard is the highest level of certification and that we’re providing economic stability and fairness to farmers, ranchers, and workers.”
Twenty-one farms and brands (of 80 that applied) — including Patagonia Provisions and Dr. Bronner’s — are now part of the 2018 pilot program. Marcario expects the ROC certification label to appear on the grocery shelf in early 2019. “We believe in USDA Organic as a baseline,” Marcario says, “but we do think that these additive practices are more important for the actual transformation of agriculture.”
But will an already confused grocery shopper faced with cereals labeled USDA organic, ROP, ROC, non-GMO, and who knows what other acronym really be able to make informed choices? Advocates say certifications, no matter how imperfect, are still the best tool for quickly conveying value to a consumer and leveling the playing field for honest farmers — especially when selling not at a local farmers market, but into a growing global market.
“There’s money to be made; there are fortunes to be made,” Chapman says, “and, you know, we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
Lisa Elaine Held is a journalist based in New York City who covers the intersection of food, health, and sustainability. Keith Carter is an illustrator and designer living in Portland, Oregon.
Editors: Erin DeJesus and Daniela Galarza
This content was originally published here.