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Organic Certification - NOP, ROP, ROC, TCU, oh my!

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2018 April Issue Newsletter

By Julie Rawson, Executive Director, NOFA/Mass and co-farmer, Many Hands Organic Farm

My husband Jack and I decided to get our farm certified in 1987. That was the second year that NOFA/Mass was performing certifications for folks in our state. And NOFA/Mass kept that up until 2002 when the Feds took over the word organic and NOFA/Mass spun off what is now called Baystate Organic Certifiers. Baystate and NOFA/Mass now have a convivial and arms length relationship.  Our farm is still certified.

If you have been in touch with the organic news these days, the topic of certification is a very hot one. In October 2017 the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) decided to allow the certification of hydroponic operations, after a lot of pressure from the big hydroponic operators and despite a mighty effort by Dave Chapman, Davey Miskell and the “Keep the Soil in Organic” people. Around the same time, a very progressive animal welfare and outdoor access proposal that had been in the works for the National Organic Program (NOP) was close to passing, but was dropped by the new administration, listening to the corporate organic processors who didn’t want the higher egg and other input prices that would result. We are now living with a National Organic Program that allows animals to be raised with no significant outdoor access, among other things.

Right after the hydroponics fight was lost, the dynamic team of Daves (Chapman and Miskelll) from VT called together a who’s who of the old organic guard to set up a new Real Organic Program or ROP. They will be having an important board meeting in late March. Theirs is at present an add-on standard to the National Organic Program that among other things stipulates that organic food has to be grown in soil.

At Expo West 2017 Rose Marcario, CEO of Patagonia, and David Bronner, CEO of Dr. Bronners, and a few others coalesced around the need for a regenerative certification that would focus on soil health and carbon sequestration along with animal welfare and agricultural justice. This Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC) program was launched at this year’s Expo West in Anaheim, CA on Friday, March 9. I was invited to attend the launch ceremony as a representative of Many Hands Organic Farm (MHOF). I assume I was chosen because of our long term certification status, and the fact that we are working on carbon sequestration and have a large animal component to our farm. Patagonia paid my way out there and treated me very kindly.

So I did a quick fly in to Expo West. Mostly I tagged along with my friend Lisa Stokke from Next7 and formerly of Food Democracy Now. She has been embroiled in the more national level of the food and organic purity world for many years. That connection was worth the trip alone as she knows a lot of the CEOs of the big organic food companies by name and introduced me to a handful of them.

Midday on the 9th there was a meeting of Patagonia, Bronners, Rodale and NSF (the company that is going to be handling the details of this certification) to which a handful of farmers like myself were invited. I think that the impulse behind this new certification is one that represents high integrity and a real desire by businesses like Patagonia and Bronners to put their money where their mouths are.  I wondered about others in the coalition. The invite to attend was made by Jeff Moyer of Rodale, but for some reason he neglected to come to this meeting where the project was launched. And the folks from NSF seemed somewhat disconnected from farming on anything like our New England scale. One of their representatives spoke of how they are looking to certify operations that are vertically integrated where there is a direct supply chain from farm to food manufacturer. I felt that MHOF and most all NOFA/Mass farmers and processors were not exactly in the same league. Generally, it seems to me that the ROC certification is targeted to large operations of the scale seen in places like CA, TX and CO, but not so much the small family farms that are more representative of the NOFA constituency. After careful perusal of the standards I felt that aspects of them were a little thrown together with less than full diligence. They did emphasize that the standards are just at the beginning stages and will be continually improved upon.

In mid-March Larry Copald of The Carbon Underground (TCU), where the tag line is Solving Climate Change from the Ground Up announced that they are working on a regenerative standard. In a press release TCU said the standard is being developed in partnership with DanoneWave, the parent company of the Earthbound Farm organic produce and Horizon organic dairy brands, General Mills, Inc., the third-largest producer of natural and organic foods and the owner of the iconic Annie's Homegrown organic and natural foods brand, Unilever's Ben & Jerry's brand, and supplement and vitamin brand MegaFood.

 

Everybody’s doing it, it seems! And I love the diversity. Regeneration is in. How long until that word is co-opted, many ask? Probably not too long, my somewhat non-rose color glasses view of reality tells me. But the silver lining, as I see this entire debate, is that carbon sequestration, organic integrity, animal welfare, agricultural justice, and many of the other topics that give an organization like NOFA/Mass life and breath, are on more and more people’s lips and occupying a lot of brain space in the organic movement and the organic foods industry.

 

I think that our responsibility in NOFA/Mass is to carefully navigate through the potential pitfalls of accepting money from these industry folks to do our education work, being clear on our mission at all times, while strategically working with all of them, potentially, where it makes sense, toward our goal to promote best practices for food production in Massachusetts that support a healthy soil, water, food and people.

 

Many ask whether the word “organic” is lost, whether we should turn our backs on NOP certification, or embrace it more heartily while working to make it stronger. Others will want to have an “add-on” standard like some of those above, which will probably continue to proliferate. Others will advocate that we just drop it all and sell close to home to those who understand our practices. This is an ongoing conversation, and we will be featuring it at our Saturday night debate at the NOFA Summer Conference on August 11. Don’t miss it! The NOFA Interstate Council will be grappling with this at our end of March retreat also.

 

I did walk away from my whirlwind trip to California with a little more understanding of the big forces that are out there on the issues of organic, regenerative, worker justice and animal welfare. In the end, I do feel optimistic that there is an overwhelming desire by industry to be part of the solution rather than the problem, and that it behooves small players like us to get to know those folks so that we can possibly have an impact with them when it comes time to make decisions for where to put their dollars and their might. We are the grassroots. We are out there raising food in all types of weather and we are solidly connected to nature. Our voices and our food are the foundation.

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