While the USDA fiddles, The Real Organic Promise rebuilds the future.

Created on 2018-04-27 15:35

Published on 2018-04-27 15:55

“It’s easy to compromise when your community is informed, experienced and honest.” — Alan Lewis

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“Let me describe how the Real Organic Project came about. These are many of the original farmers who helped put the Organic Food Production Act in place. The last thing they wanted to do was start over. But understand that they – we—have no choice. All day here at the NOC (National Organic Coalition) meeting, every conversation has come around to the fact that we are losing organic farms and farm families every day. It’s a historic threat the American agriculture.

  • These comments were made at the NOC (National Organic Coalition) meeting in Tucson by Alan Lewis. The biannual NOC meetings take place the day before the National Organic Standards Board convenes.

“When we met at Lake Morey in Vermont, there was 500 years of experience at the table. Months and months of work had been done beforehand. We dug in and reached agreement, often unanimous, but after contentious debate, on seven standards over two days. It was wonderful to be engaged in deep discussion with a group of people who are so deeply experienced in their own, and others’, operations, with a social, historical and scientific perspective on every issue. That makes it easy to take a stand on principle; it also makes it painless to compromise for practical reasons. We hammered out the Real Organic Project and are now piloting it across the country to see how it holds up.

“Imagine what it was like for me to hold the retailer seat at this table. At first, I told them no, find someone more qualified. But I eventually agreed and worked for months to make sure when I showed up in Vermont I had something of value to contribute. I think I did.

“Most of the Real Organic Project standards were received from the organic community. The animal welfare, pasture, and soil standards should be familiar to everyone. It’s what we decided collectively to put in place under the NOP but were thwarted by the USDA and large commercial operators. If you are critical of the Real Organic Project’s values, consider that they are your goals too.

“What has not come through so far today about the Real Organic Project is that it costs almost nothing to add that certification to NOP (National Organic Program). This is a wrap-around label that requires USDA certification as a base. It might be the same NOP certifier and same annual inspection. Or it might be a separate inspector visiting once every four or five years to verify continued adherence to the Real Organic standards. For the most part, they will just be inspecting to the standards that we all expected would be part of the NOP regimen by now.

“But here is the difference: the Real Organic Project is designed to support small American organic family farms so they can compete again in the marketplace. Trade organizations rightly focus on national and international measures. That’s fine. It’s not what Real Organic Project does. Real focuses at the community level. That is where the local organic farmer at the farm stand, local retailer, or farmers market can display the Real Organic Seal to show her customers that she is part of a family farm operating with strong organic standards. Our farmers are not shipping overseas or across the country. They compete locally, within a region, and Real can communicate that value to those markets.

“The NOP seal has been weakened because it allows CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) and hydroponics, and fails to enforce animal welfare and pasturing rules. Real Organic Project fixes that. Real does not specifically limit the size of a farm. However, it puts in place “guard rails” that prevent scaling up beyond the farm size or number of livestock that organic systems can successfully support.

“We’ve talked all day about the family farm crisis. Foreclosures, bankruptcies, suicides. We need a seal that gives consumers renewed confidence in the USDA seal. Real Organic Project doesn’t allow CAFOs. We don’t allow hydroponics. We require pasturing. We require care of the soil. Real Organic Project farm production must be at least 90% certified organic. A split farm can’t put a few acres under the NOP, call itself an organic farm, and market GMO sweetcorn under their organic banner. The Real Organic Project intends to prevent fakers and cheaters from robbing the tried and true. That’s one key way Real addresses social justice issues. We protect the price premium for family farms, so they can continue to grow healthy food and are there to support their local communities. There’s more to do on that issue, but how can we not start where the distress and danger are worst?

These are some of our tactics and strategies, but what is our goal? The goal of the Real Organic Project is to be a guide stone for the NOP community. Our hope is that the NOP fixes its problems and quickly makes the Real Organic Project obsolete. Tomorrow would be fine with us. But it looks like the current administration will undo most of our progress over the next three years, which will take a subsequent decade to fix. We need the Real Organic Project to remind everyone what the promise of organic was supposed to be. Perhaps ROP should stand for Real Organic Promise.


Hat tip to Dave Chapman, who helped capture and edit my spoken comments. Here is his kind introduction to the piece, which was included in his email to the organic community.:

When I walked into my first NOC meeting I was stunned by this gathering of some 70 or 80 organic advocates from all over the country. There were few farmers, but lots of directors of various non-profits who spent much of their time working for organic integrity in the National Organic Program. There were also a few corporate lobbyists with other plans in mind.

One of the organic champions I met that day was Alan Lewis, Organic Policy Director for Natural Grocers. Natural Grocers is a chain of over 140 stores in the Western states that sells only certified organic produce. And they have their own verification program to ensure that they sell no products from CAFOs, certified organic or otherwise.

Alan is a strong and articulate voice in the NOC meetings, and I was so impressed by him that we got to know each other, and he now serves on the Standards Board of the Real Organic Project.

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