Important decisions in organic certification

December 18, 2017

Two recent developments from the U.S. Department of Agriculture have angered some in the organics community, while making some poultry producers and soil-less growers happy.


lettuce growing under purple lights

NASA Stennis Space Center visitor center and museum grows butterhead lettuce using an aeroponic process that involves no soil and advance LED lighting techniques. Original from NASA. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel.

Hydroponics and aquaponics to be considered organic


As reported in the Seattle Times last week, the National Organic Standards Board voted by a one vote margin to keep aeroponic farming (which grows plants — typically herbs and leafy greens — suspended in the air with their roots exposed) out of the systems included in the organics standard. However,  NOSB voted to allow hydroponics (which grow plants in water-based nutrient solutions), and aquaponics (which combine hydroponic systems with farmed fish operations) to be included.

This decision has rocked some organic farmers and consumers, who believe that the basis of organic farming is soil health. Without the soil, they claim it is not organic. However, the USDA defines organic agriculture as “a production system that is managed to respond to site-specific conditions by integrating cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.” Nowhere in this definition is there mention of soil being a requirement.

The Seattle Times article noted that during NOSB testimony, several organic farmers protested the certification of hydroponic farms, wearing tee shirts that said, “Save the Organic Label.” At rallies this month in Hanover, New Hampshire, and Burlington, Vermont, protesters held signs with slogans such as “keep the soil in organic.”

“This notion that organic farmers are stuck in the past, or that they’re a bunch of Luddites hanging on to the way things used to be — that’s a misnomer,” said Cameron Harsh, the senior manager for organic and animal policy at the Center for Food Safety, in a Washington Post article. “Soilless systems are just incompatible with the organic program and its regulations.”

But in a series of close 8-7 votes on Wednesday, the NOSB appeared to disagree. Instead, it sided with hydroponic growers, many of whom have spent several years and several thousands of dollars acquiring their organic certification.

Organic sales topped $47 billion in 2016, according to the Organic Trade Association, representing 5 percent of all U.S. food sales. That growth has not been driven by idyllic family farms, either. Increasingly, the organic market is dominated by industrial brands that look little different from their conventional counterparts.

Click the link for the full text of the USC Chapter on Organic Certification.

With some organic purists claiming they plan to form a new standard to include only soil-based farming practices, it is a certainty this controversy will continue.

two chickens in grass

Photo by Etienne Girardet on Unsplash

Animal welfare rules to be repealed

During the Obama administration, farmers and advocates pushed to see new rules, the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices (OLPP), put in place. The rules were finalized on January 18, 2017, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture delayed implementation following the regulatory freeze imposed by incoming President Trump, after which the agency withdrew the OLPP all together.

The Organic Trade Association (OTA) immediately denounced the USDA’s decision, pointing to the immense support from all sectors of the organic industry and the public at large. “By the department’s own count, out of the more than 47,000 comments the department received in the last public comment period … 99 percent were in favor of the rule becoming effective without further delay on Nov. 14,” said OTA in a statement. In September, the OTA sued the USDA, alleging that the agency unlawfully delayed the OLPP and failed to protect the integrity of the organic label.

“Today’s announcement is a subversion of comprehensive federal animal welfare standards approved by the USDA,” said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States, “and it will prove crippling to family farmers all across the nation who treat their animals well and want to be able to market their products under an authentic ‘organic’ label. We are appalled by this action, and plan to mount a major effort to reverse a decision that will contribute to hollowing out rural communities and that will allow factory farmers to trick the public and sell their products at a premium under a deficient organic label.”

However, not all are in opposition to the withdrawal of this rule. Senator Pat Roberts, chair of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, issued a statement on December 17, which stated in part, “With USDA’s wise decision to withdraw this rule, organic livestock and poultry producers can rest assured that they will not be forced out of business by another costly and burdensome regulation.”

“Having fought this unwanted and unneeded regulation from the beginning, I’m pleased to see the Trump administration listening to my concerns, along with the concerns of organic livestock and poultry producers across the country. Together, we warned USDA of the unintended consequences of this rule, but our concerns fell on deaf ears in the previous administration. The rule was finalized two days before leaving office, despite its serious potential to force organic livestock and poultry producers out of business, increase prices paid by consumers for organic food, and increase animal disease and mortality. By withdrawing this rule, the Trump administration is again demonstrating its commitment to de-regulate rural America.”

USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service will publish a proposed rule in the Federal Register requesting public comments on its intent to withdraw the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices Proposed (OLPP) final rule published in January 2017, according to a notice on the agency’s website.

“USDA believes the OLPP final rule exceeded USDA’s statutory authority beyond the intent of the Organic Foods Production Act,” the statement said.

There is a public comment period for input on this proposed rule withdrawal.  For information on how to submit comments, click here.

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