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Growing Organically Since 1982

Fall Policy Update

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2017 November Issue Newsletter

By Dan Bensonoff, NOFA/Mass Policy Director

Rows of hydroponically grown crops, should they be considered Organic?

Harvest season is just about finished, but the season of policy-making is in full swing now that Summer is over. While the news cycle continues to be dominated by Trump’s latest foibles and scandals, we continue to work on the issues that impact our local food and farm ecosystems. Here’s a run-down of what we’re focusing on and how you can get involved.

Organic Hydroponics 

The certification seal for a Regenerative Organic Farm will allow consumers to see that a farm is actively working on building soil ect.After years of fierce debate on whether the “Organic” label should include hydroponic and container-grown crops, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) is set to make a final decision at their upcoming meeting in Jacksonville, FL in the first week of November. Although the issue of hydroponics is nuanced (see last issue of The Natural Farmer), the majority of organic farmers are against the inclusion of hydroponics for a few key reasons:

1)     It goes directly against the law and spirit which established the organic program- None of the founders of the organic movement could have imagined that their work would apply to hydroponic systems. They were interested in natural fertility, not inputs. When their ideas were later codified into The Organic Food Production Act, it became even more explicit: “An organic plan shall contain provisions designed to foster soil fertility, primarily through the management of the organic content of the soil through proper tillage, crop rotation, and manuring.”

2)     Soil is complex- With soil science and nutrition still in their disciplinary infancy, it seems an act of hubris to suggest that bottled fertility could recreate the complex nutritional needs of a plant or that those plants are nutritionally the same as soil-grown plants.

3)     International consistency- The EU has already banned the hydro products from being called organic. It’s likely that the current inconsistency will lead to a glut of imports from other countries, thus undercutting local producers.

After hearing from many of you, our members and supporters, we’ve decided to support a ban on hydroponic inclusion. Although hydroponics can offer certain resource benefits, particularly in arid zones, we believe it would make more sense for those products that do meet high standards to contain a transparent and distinct label.

Regenerative Organic Certification

Speaking of the organic label, The Rodale Institute has unveiled a new set of new standards that would be used to certify a farm as “regenerative organic”, meaning that the farm is actively building soil and organic matter, enhancing biodiversity, etc. The standards are divided into three distinct areas: soil health and land management, farmer and worker fairness, and animal welfare.

While organic already does have standards for soil health animal welfare, the addition of worker fairness is one that many people applaud. To qualify for that area, farms would have to ensure the right to organize, cap work weeks at 60 hrs./week, and pay a living wage, among many other things.

These standards, which build on top of the Organic program, have galvanized many people, who’ve long considered the need for a “regenerative” label. But while the idea may be worthwhile, there is a concern that few farmers are willing to go through yet another accreditation, particularly one as complicated (and expensive) as this one appears to be. It remains to be seen whether the buyers and eaters of the world will see this as just more label confusion or a gold standard.

Let Rodale know what you think by submitting your own comments about the new standards. Deadline for review is November 30th.

State Legislation

The group, including NOFA/Mass staff Dan Bensonoff and Allison Houghton, working to pass the Healthy Soils ActHearing season is in full swing in the Massachusetts State House, and we’ve been busy advocating for bills that would promote local, ecologically-sound farming. Here’s an update on a few bills we’ve been working on:

An Act to Promote Healthy Soils (H.3713)

This bill, which would create a Healthy Soils Program within the MA department of agriculture tasked with incentivizing “regenerative agriculture”, remains one of our top priorities. A wide and diverse set of groups including Union of Concerned Scientists, Climate Action Now, and American Farmland Trust have endorsed the bill. Should this bill pass, Massachusetts would join Maryland, California and other states that have come to understand that a holistic environmental policy must support soil health.

An Act to Protect Massachusetts Pollinators (H.2113)

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