If you are one of the 82% of Americans who buys Organic food because you think it’s healthier or better for you, your family, the planet and farmers, listen up. The USDA Organic Standards are not what they used to be. The green and white label looks exactly the same, but the standard by which it’s regulated – and what you are buying – is significantly different from what you’ve rightfully come to expect.

While many of these changes didn’t happen overnight, foundational changes to the Organic standard have occurred in recent months that have caused many organic farmers to declare that Organic doesn’t represent them any longer and that they’ve “lost a partnership” in the USDA.

Dave Chapman, organic farmer and co-founder of Keep the Soil in Organic from Vermont stated, “We can’t trust that the vegetables and berries that we buy are actually grown in the soil. This is a massive disservice to the honest organic farmers who have embraced the practices known as organic for the last 75 years. This is also a failure of the USDA program to protect the millions of trusting eaters who choose to spend their hard earned money on “certified organic” food.”

As a longtime supporter and advocate for organic and sustainable agriculture, who doesn’t farm, I purchase much of my food in a grocery store or coop. It’s not evident when shopping in the store that anything has really changed, which leaves one to question the real purpose of the label when the 82% of us are left with little transparency. We’re buying organic with the basic understanding that the USDA label represents real Organic standards and values, yet a closer look shows us that much of what is sold in stores is benefitting from a “halo effect”, appearing what it once stood for, yet from my vantage point, no longer does.

Let’s take a brief look….

If the USDA Organic Program were to be transparent and honest in its labeling, it would state underneath the green and white label all of the changes to the standard since its beginning. It would look something like this:

  • Fruits and vegetables: May have been grown hydroponically in plastic and/or Styrofoam with a soluble nutrient solution, no longer in the soil.

Soil is the foundation of Organic farming and where plants’ nutrients and vitality come from. It’s “what makes Organic, organic”. And also is required by law as stated in the Organic Food Production Act of 1990. (QUOTE)

Any good organic farmer will tell you, “Feed the soil, not the plant.”

The change: In November, 2017 the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) failed to pass a proposal disallowing hydroponics in Organic. Shockingly, hydroponically-grown produce has been sold as Organic for several years, completely under the radar, despite in 2010, the NOSB ruled to disallow hydroponics in Organic certification.

The part where it gets interesting is where the proposal did allow for “container” growing, assuming that the “container” would contain soil or compost. Driscoll’s, Wholesum Harvest, the NOP, CCOF and others have taken advantage of this proposal (never implemented by the NOP) and instead worked to actively confuse “container growing” with hydroponic growing. The containers that Driscoll’s, Wholesum Harvest and others engage in is not with soil in most cases, but with coconut husks or “coco coir” – the stuff they make doormats out of – and not “true” container growing in the spirit and intention of the 2010 NOSB proposal. It’s really hydroponics, as these plants are essentially on life support with an IV drip, not receiving any nutrients from soil. Think of it like, “CAFOs for plants”.

Sadly, these organizations have more an allegiance to their corporate masters rather than the farmers and eaters whom they used to or should be representing. They successfully facilitated the further watering down of the standard to ultimately include hydroponics, aquaponics and also “container” growing.

As an example, when you purchase berries from Driscoll’s (the largest berry producer in the world) and they are labeled USDA “Organic”, they may or may not have been grown in soil. Driscoll’s lobbied the NOSB and NOP hard to water down the Organic label so they could grow their “organic” berries cheaply and hydroponically but sell it you for a price premium with larger margins because it’s cheaper for them to grow in coco coir with plastic tubing. Real organic farmers growing in soil on their farms will have a difficult time competing, putting their farms and business at risk.

Takeaway: Don’t buy Driscoll’s or Wholesum Harvest. Ask your produce manager at your grocery store if the produce they source is grown in soil or hydroponically. You may be surprised to find that they don’t even know as there’s been no transparency. Ask for soil grown only.

Animal products: “Organic” dairy, eggs and meat may originate from (and most do) a Confined Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) or feedlot  where animals are not given access to the outdoors. CAFOs are those depressing, nasty places that no one ever wants to visit or smell or even think about – and the main reason most people buy Organic dairy, eggs and meat. Who are we kidding?

The change: This has always been an issue in the National Organic Program. The original animal welfare rules fought for by organic farmers were never adopted into the standard. Therefore, new rules were proposed called Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices (OLPP) rule which would have required greater access to the outdoors, closing a loophole that allows Organic chickens to have “outdoor access” only on screened in porches. This has been widely acknowledged as deceptive to the consumer. Even worse, it deprives chickens of their natural environment where they thrive – the outdoors – and puts organic farmers raising chickens on pasture at a major disadvantage.

The Trump administration officially booted long fought for rules that would have given animals access to pasture and improved welfare. The USDA stated that this had no place in Organic – and now those proposed rules are gone. Miles McEvoy, recently retired director of the National Organic Program has said that 75% of eggs labeled Organic by the USDA would lose their certification if these rules were ever implemented. As such, most of the eggs, meat and dairy are produced in ways that most people would not recognize as Organic.

Takeaway: Buy your animal products from a farmer or rancher you know and trust. Look for grassfed, pasture-raised and organic. There are two add-on labels I trust: Animal Welfare Approved and American Grassfed Association for being strong standards that put the animal first. In the future, look for the Real Organic Project, Savory’s Land to Market or the ROC (Regenerative Organic Certification) labels – all coming soon. Avoid brands such as Horizon and milk from Aurora Dairy, notoriously known for degrading the Organic label and practicing poor management practices that are not Organic, yet due to poor enforcement by the NOP have continued to qualify.

Also, remember that it’s not “cheap” to raise animals well. You get what you pay for, generally, and this is never more true than with good quality animal products, such and meat, dairy and eggs. It’s worth the extra dollars for the sake of the health of the animals, your health and the planet. Eat a little less of it, buy better quality…is my rule of thumb.

Grains: Organic certified grains imported into the US may not even have been grown organically. Due to a gross lack of oversight and enforcement, it’s been estimated that fraudulent grains recently imported into the US are worth $2.5 billion. The NOP has known about this issue for years and has done nothing to remedy the situation. Alarmingly, much of the documented imported grain from Turkey illegally labeled as “organic” – 21 million pounds – actually made it to the market, mostly destined for animal feed.

The change: As Organic demand has grown and companies source from other countries for cheaper ingredients, fraud has become too tempting. There’s little incentive for transparency and honesty with importation. For farmers, this has meant harmful unfair competition. According to the Washington Post last year, imports caused a price drop by 25%, causing small US farmers to lose money and their markets.

Organic has become a victim of its own success.

The Takeaway: Again, buy your animal products – and food, in general – from farmers you trust as fraudulent grains eaten by animals producing “organic” products were sprayed with a fungicide or pesticide. Pay a little more to the farmer or rancher who takes the time and care to know the food source for their animals.

Synthetics: May contain. While this is not new, many people I talk to about this don’t realize that there is a list of allowed synthetics in Organic standards for growing and production, aka “the National List” – and there has been a fundamental change to the “sunset rules” since.

The change: In 2013, the National Organic Program unilaterally decided to essentially eliminate the Sunset Review Process, making it easier for these non-organic materials to remain on the approved list indefinitely, unless the NOSB specifically voted to remove them. Previously, it was required that synthetic materials be removed from the list every five years, absent a two-thirds vote by the NOSB. The process was originally set up in a way that if farmers, producers or handlers could make a good case for needing a synthetic material for production, the NOSB would hear arguments, hold a vote and, if passed, it would be allowed for use for five years and then automatically “sunset” unless passed it by 2/3rd’s again to allow. The expectation being that in the five-year timeframe, a means to source the needed additive or input organically would be found or created. This just didn’t work for Industry. (I mean, come on…don’t we really need carrageenan for Organic gummy worms??)

Just last week, however, the National Organic Program announced that it unilaterally decided to permit carrageenan in Organic certifcation, despite the NOSB voting to restrict it, primarily due to numerous health concerns. So Sunset Rules or not, the NOP is demonstrating that it doesn’t intend to heed the direction of, nor defer to the NOSB or the thousands of people who voiced their concern over carrageenan in Organic – now or in the future. Welcome to the Wild West.

There have been a lot of good people over the years who have served on the NOSB – farmers, scientists, citizens and advocates – who have given their time and energy to develop standards that provide guidance for farmers and producers and an assurance for the rest of us. Unfortunately, NOSB members are appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture (a political appointment), and agendas sway with the administration and political party. This means that currently, that we have a Secretary who is a strong advocate for Industry and Big Food at the helm at the USDA.

However, regardless of the administration, there are consistently NOSB members at the table from large multi-national corporations that advocate for their non-organic parent corporations, who are not exclusively Organic. Recent and current examples include a past seat held by a Driscoll’s employee (occupying the “farmer” seat) and a Clif Bar employee, who currently sits as chair of the NOSB and has worked with other corporations and the Organic Trade Association to codify a number of these unfortunate changes to water down Organic standards.

Many of these corporations, including some Organic companies, have worked to maintain the popularity and the market for the Organic label, yet not care about the integrity of the Organic standards – and this is an important distinction.

As eaters and supporters of Organic, all is not lost. Many organic farmers in the US – those you are buying from at the Farmers Market and your CSA, for example – are farming with true organic practices. The divorce of the Organic Industry with load of packaged goods and that of Organic agriculture is at the root of this problem.

While there are still efforts to recover the National Organic Program and great efforts to regain transparency and support farmers, the reason we eat and love food grown with best practices is for nutritious food, and how it can build soil, sequester carbon and support farming that is regenerative and in harmony with Nature.

At Next7.org we are working toward an exciting plan to bring this into the World. But we need you! If you care about these issues, take our survey so we know what you think.

There is much more to come.