A New Product Label Promises a Higher Standard for Organic Food

Jed Oelbaum

It wasn’t so long ago that the term “organic” conjured up images of farmers markets, hippie health food stores, and supermarket specialty aisles where off-brand granolas awaited the occasional ecologically minded shopper. Today, though, even Walmart stocks its shelves with organic products, participating in what has become a nearly $50-billion-a-year business that accounts for 5 percent of all food sales nationwide. While scaling up has brought more organic food to consumers, some farmers say the USDA—the federal agency that regulates which products can be called “organic”—has achieved that growth in part by watering down its quality and animal welfare standards.

Fed up with a national organic program they feel is pushing out the types of farms it was built to represent, farmers across the country are gearing up to offer a new product label—an add-on that will appear alongside the current USDA seal and highlight adherence to what they consider the true spirit of organic. Known as the Real Organic Project, the effort includes activists, academics, and food-industry professionals, and already has more than 30 farms signed up for certification.

“We tried for years to reform the national organic program,” says David Chapman, a project leader who has been organically farming for 40 years. Chapman is standing in a bright, spacious greenhouse at Long Wind Farm, his organic tomato business in Thetford, Vermont. Outside, workers hose down school bus-sized piles of steaming compost. “I wrote letters, circulated petitions, I helped organize people, we had rallies,” he says. “And we failed. We failed miserably.”

The coalition of organic advocates gathered in Vermont earlier this year, and “people agreed we had to start another label,” he says. The Real Organic Project’s certification will, among other specifications, ensure animal welfare standards, and require that growers plant in the ground, contributing to the health of soil systems. A national pilot program this summer will launch the project, which aims to have its mark on products within a year.

Chapman says some of the project’s participants hit their breaking point with the USDA program late last year, when the Trump administration decided that organic livestock didn’t require more humane treatment than conventionally raised animals, scrapping a proposed rule that would have guaranteed minimum welfare standards for organic poultry. While the USDA ostensibly requires organic cattle to have room to graze, and chickens to have access to the outdoors, an increasing number of certified-organic egg farms are packing hens into tightly cramped barns with elevated concrete porches that just technically meet the program’s requirements.

These egg farms “are trying to trick the public and sell their products at a premium under a deficient organic label,” Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States told The Washington Post in December. According to a 2017 Consumer Reports survey, organic purchasers overwhelmingly agree that organic food should come with higher animal welfare standards, with more than 80 percent saying it’s important to them that egg-laying birds be given time outside.

But for Chapman, it was the dirt that set him into action. For about five years, Chapman has been part of a movement fighting to keep hydroponic growing, which feeds nutrients directly to plants suspended in water-based systems, out of the organic program. To farmers like Chapman, the term “organic” is meaningless without soil. According to the definition of the term “organic” offered by the National Organic Standards Board, which advises the USDA on organic policy, “The primary goal of organic agriculture is to optimize the health and productivity of interdependent communities of soil life, plants, animals and people.” Controlled hydroponic growing environments might not sound like they meet that ideal, but after years of debate, in a series of close votes in November 2017, the board decided that hydroponic production (and some other types of indoor soilless container growing) should be welcome in the USDA Organic program.

Reaching between tall columns of gnarled tomato vines, Chapman scoops up a handful of earth. “[Soil] is the heart of organic,” he says. A few worms squirm out between his fingers. “It’s very beautiful, very fertile. You see the worms, but what you don’t see are the billions of microbes living here, which are doing very good things for these plants.”

Organic tomatoes at Long Wind Farm in Thetford, Vermont. Photo by Yoni Lamm

While traditional organic farming does have documented benefits to soil health, biodiversity, and a number of other environmental metrics, it’s also not hard to see the appeal of hydroponic growing: It not only produces higher yields than soil-based agriculture, but can also minimize water use in arid areas, and be used to efficiently grow local produce in urban settings all year round, regardless of season or outdoor climate. Speaking to The Washington Post last year, a hydroponics industry group representative called the National Organic Standards Board’s indoor-growing decisions a “powerful message” that the organic program “wants to be inclusive, not exclusive.”

“There’s nothing wrong with hydroponically grown food,” says Chapman. “It’s just by definition, not organic.” To consumers just looking for food produced with minimal pesticide use, the hydroponics fight might seem like a minor quibble over a technical term, but “there’s a lot of money at stake here,” says Chapman. Higher yields produced by hydroponics and container growing might lower prices for consumers, but for small farmers, lower prices erase the economic incentives to put extra labor into soil production or raising livestock in a way they see as ethical.

“It frustrates me that even some people within the broadening organic community think the goal should be for organic food to be cheaper,” says Maddie Kempner, membership and advocacy coordinator for the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont and a Real Organic Project advisory board member. “Of course we think all people deserve the right to access really healthy, organic food. … But we don’t want to see it at the cost of losing organic integrity, or losing our producers.”

Linley Dixon, a Colorado farmer, senior scientist with the Cornucopia Institute, and the Real Organic Project’s associate director says, “The prices in organic are so low now that a lot of younger farmers aren’t getting certified because there’s no incentive to anymore.” Dixon is the Real Organic Project’s first official hire, and she will manage the upcoming pilot, inspecting farms and reaching out to the wider organic community over the next few months. “What we’re really doing is saving [organic],” she says, “because we’re giving these new family farms a way to stand out amongst industrial players, while still working within the organic label.”

Kempner says it’s important to keep some nuance in the conversation, and remember most USDA-certified producers are still doing things the right way. Her organization operates Vermont Organic Farmers, a USDA certifying body, accredited to inspect and grant organic status to local farms. “We don’t think the USDA logo is meaningless,” she says. “We’re in it every day, processing applications and sending inspectors out on farms.” But until differences over the importance of soil growing and outdoor access can be resolved on a policy level, she says, “the Real Organic Project, especially as a farmer-driven label and effort, would fill the gaps, and give consumers the produce they’re looking for.”

These days though, consumers are looking for a lot of organic produce. The market for organic food grew 6 percent last year and millennial shoppers are projected to keep demand on the rise for the foreseeable future. Reconciling stricter production standards and the public’s call for more organic foods could seem like an impossible balancing act, but Chapman insists traditional organic growing can be done profitably on a large scale. The Real Organic Project’s concerns are ultimately “not about the size” of a producer, he says.

Dixon says, “There are some large farms that are really doing it right. … It’s not only about helping family farms, but farms that are fostering soil fertility, getting animals out on pasture.” She says small organic farms can work together to scale up, citing the Organic Valley model, in which farmers form co-ops to supply the market with large volumes of organic food. For young farmers that may already be essentially growing organic, but don’t see financial or philosophical benefits in the USDA label, says Dixon, she’s hoping the Real Organic Project can be a reason to get involved with a wider organic community, and a context for forming cooperative business relationships.

But first the Real Organic Project has some shorter-term goals to take care of, like actually deciding what the new label will look like, and what it will say. “We’ve already got farms lined up to be certified. We don’t even have a name for the label, let alone an image,” says Chapman.

One big issue with labeling food products is not only what a label says about the products that bear it, but what it implies about the other products around it on a supermarket shelf. Chapman believes they could face lawsuits from businesses whose growing practices are excluded by the Real Organic Project and feel the new label casts aspersion on their products, or from the USDA, if the department takes issue with their labeling terminology.

The USDA didn’t respond directly to questions about the agricultural issues driving the Real Organic Project, but David Glasgow, public affairs director for the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, writes in an email, “USDA supports opt-in labeling for farmers and ranchers who want to differentiate their products.” Still, he says, when “third-party labels include the term ‘organic,’ USDA has a regulatory interest in the use of the term and the National Organic Program will review it for compliance.”

The USDA tightly regulates the use of the word “organic,” says Kempner. “I don’t think legally, it can be called the ‘Real Organic Label,’” she says.

Kempner says another tricky aspect of labeling is the “understandable confusion among consumers” about the explosion of packaging claims like “natural,” or “pasture-raised,” or “hormone-free,” some of which are meaningful assertions, and some of which mean very little. She asks, “What is the capacity of the average consumer to understand what an add-on label to organic is going to mean?”

To address that confusion, the Real Organic Project plans to roll out campaigns to educate consumers and vendors about organic food production and what the new label stands for. Dixon says as she inspects and certifies farms this summer she will create media, like short videos, so Real Organic customers can get to know the label’s farmers and the practices they use. She says there are already more than 30 farms signed on for the initial round of certifications. “As word is spreading, I keep getting emails and phone calls, farms wanting to be a part of it,” she says. “And so the limiting factor is going to be how many farms can I get to?”

The goals of the pilot, says Dixon, are to “make sure the standards are working” to guide participating farms, and that the Real Organic Project fosters integrity and transparency. “We have to make sure that what we put together not only helps family farms, but also can’t be co-opted or taken over,” she says.