For a group of farmers and consumers around the country, the term "organic" just doesn't go far enough. They say the U.S. Department of Agriculture has weakened standards for food that is supposed to be raised organically.
And so they’re meeting in Vermont this week to come up with a new label that they argue will show that the food has been produced in ways that protect the environment and animal welfare.
Thetford farmer David Chapman raises organic tomatoes on his Long Wind Farm. It’s what he’s done since 1984. But he spends a lot of time these days helping organize what he calls the "Real Organic” movement.
“I would say the national organic program is just failing miserably at the one thing that they were asked to do, which was to protect the integrity and the transparency of the food supply between the organic farmers and the people who want to buy organic food, organically grown food,” Chapman says.
Chapman’s activism kicked into full gear last year when the USDA allowed vegetables raised hydroponically – without soil – to continue to be labeled organic.
And then this month, the USDA rejected Obama-era animal welfare rules that would have required chickens in large-scale organic egg operations to have access to the outdoors. Chapman says farms known as “concentrated animal feeding operations,” or CAFOs, now dominate the organic egg market — and for one reason:
“The primary influencer on this process is money,” he says.
Both decisions from the USDA, Chapman says, came after heavy pressure from businesses hoping to capture the price premium organic food earns in the market.
“All told, between CAFOs and ‘hydros,’ we’re probably talking about $2 billion in annual sales of CAFO/hydro production that is being certified as organic,” he says.
Enter the “Real Organic” movement, which Chapman is helping organize. A group of farmers and consumers is meeting in Fairlee this week to come up with new standards that Chapman hopes will bring the organic label back to its roots.
“I go to the store, and I buy food — I buy vegetables, I buy milk, eggs,” he says. “Unless I know the farm, I certainly can’t count on the USDA label to let me know whether or not that was produced in the soil, in a soil-based system for the animals, or whether it was produced in a factory.”
From Vermont Edition: Organic Standards At A Crossroads [Nov. 21, 2017]
But the movement has its skeptics.
Grace Gershuny is a pioneer in organic agriculture. She helped develop Vermont’s first organic standards, and then worked for the feds developing the national standards.
“I don’t think that the solution to their complaints lies in another label,” she says.
Gershuny would like to see organic food more available – and more affordable. She worries that “real” organic products would be expensive and would serve only an elite, privileged market.
“A lot of people can’t afford to buy organic food,” she says. “And a lot of people don't have access to local, you know, righteously grown 'real' organic, or however you want to label it.”
Gershuny instead wants better enforcement of organic standards.
“I think that the solution isn't to add on another layer of rules, but to help see that the rules that exist are enforced,” she says.
And a group representing Vermont's organic farmers also has some concerns. Noel Dehne is the certification director for the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont. In her ideal scenario, the "Real Organic" movement would push USDA to strengthen its national standards.
“We need to be really careful not to devalue the current organic label,” Dehne says, “because the majority of organic farmers are meeting the regulations.”
Dehne also worries consumers could get confused by the profusion of new labels on food. But Chapman says consumers are already confused.
“It won’t be our label that’s creating the confusion,” Chapman says. “What’s creating the confusion is that the USDA is redefining organic to mean something very different.”
On Monday, a USDA spokesperson sent the following statement:
"There are many labels that farmers and food companies use to help distinguish products in the marketplace.
"The standards for the USDA organic label are public, transparent and rigorous, and consumers have shown confidence in the label as evidenced by the strong growth in demand for products bearing the USDA Organic Seal. These standards are built on a robust public comment process that balances many interests in the industry. USDA will continue to protect the integrity of the USDA organic label by rigorously enforcing these standards.
"USDA generally does not comment on third party standards set up by industry or interest groups. When a proposed program includes the word organic, there is a federal regulatory interest and we review the program materials accordingly."
Chapman says the group meeting this week in Vermont hopes to come up with new standards — and a name for a new label — over the next two days.
Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy is credited with initiating the national organic program through legislation he sponsored in 1990. His staff has been following the "Real Organic" movement, but did not say whether the senator supports the new label.
In a statement, Leahy said:
"I know the Vermonters who are leading this national effort and they care deeply and are working hard to protect organic agriculture. For my part, I will continue working to keep USDA Organic strong and to reverse some of the damage to the meaning of organic that has been done in recent years. That is why I fought to increase the funding for the National Organic Program by $3 million in the recent Omnibus spending package to provide USDA with sufficient funds for fraud detection and proper oversight."
Update 12:13 p.m. 3/27/2018 This post was updated to include comment from the USDA.
Disclosure: NOFA-VT is a VPR underwriter.