The Real Organic Movement
Organic farmers have always known that farming begins in the soil. Healthy soil creates nutritious food, healthy people, and a healthy environment. A couple decades after the rise of the modern US organic foods movement from the 1970s forward, grass-roots organic farmers initiated a bottom-up movement to get the USDA to codify a set of standards that would certify food producers as “Certified USDA Organic.”
As a result of their efforts, in 1995 the term “organic” was legally defined according to standards developed by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), the USDA’s expert advisory panel, as “an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles, and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain, and enhance ecological harmony.”
For several decades following that USDA recognition, representatives from among practicing organic small farmers, soil science academicians, and organic food producers, distributors and retailers volunteered their time to served on the NOSB to keep the standards high, to oversee certification of farmers and producers, and to address related issues as they arose.
Meanwhile, the “Certified USDA Organic” movement grew into a multi-million dollar business, and that attracted the interest of “Big Ag.” However, the large agriculture interests were not committed to the strict standards of soil regeneration, food production, and animal quality-of-life standards that characterized true organic farming. They were only interested in accessing the lucrative organic foods market, and started using their considerable USDA lobbying power to get “representation” on the NOSB. From there they finally managed to water down the organic standards, and just 3 years ago successfully took over the NOSB, relegating true organic farmers and producers to a minority position. Many of those sidelined and excluded organic volunteer board members had been in the movement since its inception and were long time standard bearers for the integrity of the “Certified USDA Organic” label. In their place now sit paid employees of major corporations and their advocacy groups, who are redefining the standards of “organic.” It means that “Certified USDA Organic” no longer means what consumers think it means.
In recent years, the USDA has changed the definition to allow even certification of vegetables and berries grown hydroponically without any soil at all. They have also allowed industrial confinement operations that provide animals zero access to soil to certified organic. Those and other similar changes have turned the meaning of “organic” on its head. It’s left the real organic movement wondering how they could protect the movement that organic family farmers built over 40 years.
In response, my upstate friend Dave Chapman, an organic tomato grower, became the organizing force for a new movement. The failure of the USDA to uphold the legislation governing soil health and animal welfare resulted in the formation of the Real Organic Project; I have been a financial supporter since its inception. The movement’s “Real Organic” label is an add-on label based on peer-to-peer organic farmer and producer certification. Once again an impressive list of advocates, scientists, academics, institutions, regional organic networks, and (most importantly) real organic farmers of all sizes have come together, created an advisory board, set standards, and sent out teams to certify interested farms and producers as meeting the standards for the new “Real Organic” label. They have become the continuation of the standards and best-practices framework that used to be reflected in the USDA’s certification program – standards and best practices that many of these same people originated in the first place, and enforced over the years when they took turns serving on the NOSB, and the NOSB served its legislated purpose.
Over the last couple of years, hundreds of farms and producers have been certified. At the same time, David Chapman and friends have organized annual symposiums to educate, coordinate, and fellowship. The first was held at Dartmouth College on the border of New Hampshire and Vermont. This year, because of Covid, the second symposium was first postponed, and now has been turned into a virtual event that will be broadcast across the 5 Sunday afternoons of January, 2021.
If this is something that interests you, here is more information on The Real Organic Project. You will also find on the site a link to the upcoming symposium and how to participate. If you have any questions, I’m happy to answer as I can.
The goals of The Real Organic Project are tightly aligned with the Peak Prosperity tribe’s interest in resiliency, environmental restoration, and economic use of energy resources. I think those intrepid, trail-blazing and persistent organic farmers and producers are among our most natural allies. I am happy to support them.
For the post. Bluestem Farms is very interested.
Very informative. I wish I could say I was shocked. This is all the more reason for more of us to start growing more of our own food. With that in mind I’m looking very forward to Joel Salatin’s and Singing Frog Farms’ presentations during the seminar. My wife and I brought our raised beds back to life this year but I’m inspired to make next year our best ever.