A few weeks ago I got to ask an important question of Jennifer Tucker, the head of the National Organic Program (NOP).
"I have received reports from both Florida and California of hydroponic berry operations that are spraying herbicide, immediately covering the ground with plastic, putting pots down and then getting certified the next week."
“And my question is, if that were true, is that permitted by the National Organic Program?"
We were at the end of a turbulent meeting with Jenny and about twenty farmers from the Organic Farmers Association. Some of the farmers had spoken passionately about the need for the NOP to end the lack of enforcement of the Pasture Rule and to finalize the Origin of Livestock Rule for dairy animals.
Many of us did not feel that our concerns were being addressed in a meaningful way.
I have been hearing for months that glyphosate is being sprayed on fields about to be certified organic for hydroponic berry production. The way this use of herbicide is incorporated into “organic” certification is to laser level a field, compact it until it is like a parking lot, wait a little while until the weeds (that always follow disturbed soil) have germinated. And then spray it with an herbicide. They are doing this in California and Florida. The weeds in Florida are fierce, and can grow straight through the black plastic. Weed control in organic blueberry production is the biggest challenge. Being able to spray glyphosate and still sell it as organic is an enormous economic advantage.
Shouldn't we all want to get to the bottom of this story?
Unfortunately, the NOP does not have a great track record dealing with formal complaints. The results of their investigation of Aurora Dairy were not inspiring. That complaint appears to have been summarily dismissed with little attempt to learn the truth.
As a result, real organic farmers are going out of business, and their farm products are ever less available to customers who THINK that is what they are buying when they pay extra for “certified organic.” There are real consequences for all of us from these failures.
So, is the use of herbicides in hydro such a big deal if it IS happening?
Yes, it is a big deal. It is happening on a large scale. It is an unfair advantage to soil growers who manage weeds organically. The Florida berry industry is changing overnight. As predicted, organic blueberry production is now being dominated by hydroponic facilities. One producer made an advertising video to show how they produce berries. We have to at least appreciate they are being transparent about what they are doing.
A much larger operation sells under a brand called Hippie Organics. One of its facilities is described in this article. They made this clever advertising video that is not so forthcoming about their hydroponic practices. To this old hippie, they appear to be neither hippies nor what I would call organic. But they are certainly certified as organic by the NOP. I know of high quality organic blueberry soil growers now struggling to find shelf space. They are being put out of business.
The world is changing, and it is changing fast. Once again, the soil farmers are being pushed out of the market by a tidal wave of cheap product. Once again people will go out of business who are growing exactly what customers WANT to buy. Once again, we lose our choices in the stores. Once again we are misled. Once again the USDA fails us.
So back to my question for Jenny Tucker. Would she say that spraying with herbicides the week before being certified is allowed?
Jenny said that the challenge from a regulatory perspective is, "The plant itself is not being exposed to prohibited substances." She talked about the requirement to maintain or improve the environmental quality of an operation, and about what is that doing on a site-specific basis? "Is it actually maintaining or improving the natural resources of an operation?"
Jenny said those would be the kind site-specific questions that one would ask. She said she has to look at it through the eyes of a lawyer. She doesn’t like thinking like a lawyer, but she has been learning to do it more often.
I asked, "So there’s no obvious answer that spraying with herbicides just before certification is NOT allowed?"
Jenny replied, "Correct. Yeah, I hate to say that, but there really isn’t."
So, if I understood Jenny, there is no reason to gather evidence and file a complaint.
BECAUSE THE USDA DOES NOT CONSIDER SPRAYING HERBICIDE ON THE SOIL IMMEDIATELY PRIOR TO INSPECTION TO BE A DISQUALIFIER FOR ORGANIC CERTIFICATION.
This is in keeping with what growers are being told in Florida by some certifiers. This is in keeping with what the National Organic Coalition has been told by the NOP. "There is no transition time for hydroponics." The pots of coco husks are the “organic farm.” Or the tubes of water. Or whatever….
I would add that the use of herbicides is the smoking gun for “organic hydroponics.” However, nothing about allowing hydroponic to be labeled as organic makes sense. If you accept the idea that a system of growing food totally based on inputs and totally divorced from a soil ecosystem could be called organic, then the use of herbicides is just another small step. But we don’t accept that idea in the first place.
Jenny Tucker said at the 2019 Global Organic Produce Expo said, “Last year we issued an Organic Insider (e-mail newsletter) that indicated that hydroponics had been allowed since the beginning of the program and that (they) are still allowed,” Tucker said in response to a question from the audience. “We consider that a settled issue.”
Jenny was generous enough to meet privately with me after the OFA meeting. We had a long conversation. I told her I would never attack her personally. But I said I would continue to hold her publicly accountable for her words and actions.
Jenny has been quoted at a number of events as saying that hydroponics is a settled issue.
It is not settled.
It is possible that it is settled for the USDA. But certifying hydro as organic is NOT settled for the millions of people who spend their money to buy organic. It is not settled for the EU, Canada, or Mexico, all of whom prohibit hydro from certification. It was not settled for the farmers from the Organic Farmers Association that had just met with her.
The cognitive dissonance between the USDA and the rest of the world is enough to make the room shake. The USDA is desperately clinging to the conceit that THEY have the power and the right to define organic as whatever they say it is, regardless of history, biology, ecology, the law, or the American people.
USDA Organic is a voluntary program. It was idealistically created to PROTECT farmers and eaters from fraud. Now it is supporting the very fraud it was meant to be preventing. And the USDA makes clear they have no intention of changing, regardless of what we, the people, think.
Last night I got to meet with Senator Pat Leahy. The Senator was the co-sponsor of the Organic Food Production Act that is the legal basis of the National Organic Program. That is the law that is now being ignored by the USDA. It is the law that is being cited in three pending lawsuits against the USDA. The Senator and I talked about the terrible problems of the current NOP. His anger over the failures of the organic program that he helped create was apparent. I mention this meeting with Leahy so that we can remember that we have MANY friends. We are not alone. We might not win. But perhaps more important than winning a single regulatory victory is that we build a community that will work together to support the things that we believe in. There are millions of us. Together we can make changes.
The Real Organic Project will continue to work to create more honest ways for people to find and buy the food they want from the farmers they want to support. Please join us in creating an add-on label that will more clearly identify the organic food that so many people want. None of this is going to be easy. Protect organic. Support real organic.
Dave Chapman is executive director of the Real Organic Project. He runs Long Wind Farm in Thetford, Vermont.