MOSA provides our clients with much more than just certification.

Joe Pedretti

MOSA Client Services Director

Slumbering Fire: Organic at a Crossroads

Slumbering Fire: Organic at a Crossroads

By: Stephen Walker, MOSA Operations Manager

In our organic community, recent months have exemplified “interesting times.” We’re coming off a year with a new administration, criticism in the mainstream press, market uncertainties, troublesome imports, unified pleas for stronger livestock standards, continued debate on organic values and boundaries, and enforcement challenges, and through it all, organic continues as an economic engine. Organic innovation continues to move quickly, while deliberation about changes takes its careful pace. We monitor, learn, assess, and adapt, to do better. This is how continuous improvement- an organic tenet - steps forward into a new spring. Tension arises from the frustrating dichotomy of enthusiastic efficiency versus the pace of sound stewardship, but that also is rather in tune with the season.

We’re wrapping up winter here in the northern Midwest, with a touch of pride in our tenacity. The wheel comes around one more time on its annual cycle. In sync with the web of life, these cold months are time to pull within and gather what we need for new growth. Longer nights and blankets of snow give their medicine: time to pause, listen, gather some wisdom, and plan. What new thing do we want to birth this spring? For our organic label and for our thriving organic world vision, it’s high time to ruminate, check our values, and prepare for where we want to get to.

The settling of winter left us organic stakeholders with a whole lot to consider. As October turned to November, I attended the National Organic Standards Board meeting in Jacksonville, Florida. NOSB meetings are all about defining organic vision. Over the years, I’ve been to many of these meetings, held each spring and fall. I’ve heard many hours of passionate and reasoned testimony on widely diverse agenda items, and I usually bring my own words on behalf of MOSA. NOSB discussion exemplifies democracy at its best. But, Jacksonville… Jacksonville was heavy. The weightiest fall agenda item was a proposal to prohibit hydroponic production under the USDA Organic Seal. There also was a further intensification of focus on soil as the foundation for all things organic, and promotion of regenerative organic practices as a solution to climate change. These issues came right to the heart of organic values and vision. (Since we’re now closer to the next meeting, in Tucson AZ in April, I won’t get into all of the Jacksonville votes and issues; those have been reported elsewhere, but feel free to call us regarding details.)

In the end, the hydroponic prohibition measure failed on a vote of 8-7. It kind of figured. The even divide was frustrating, but not surprising. This issue seemed to pit our stalwart organic pioneers - many of whom showed up at the meeting - against some of our most forward-thinking organic entrepreneurs. There were differences of opinion on the NOSB, in our staff, and even in my own immediate family. Respectfully, each side recognized the merits of the other. For all of the feeling that this vote defined organic at some crossroads, the results of this democratic process seemed inconclusive, flat. I don’t think anyone left the meeting feeling very happy.

Soon after the vote, we began to hear the reactions, and some spin. Some declared they were done with USDA organic. Others claimed victory. But, headlines don’t do justice to the deliberation. Meeting transcripts help provide a fuller picture, but they don’t show a twinkle in the eye, nor tears. Some sections are worth a read to gain better perspective on the dissonance. Up there just past page 1400 we read how NOSB members summarized the extreme difficulty of the decision.

For example, there was this expression of reason and passion, from NOSB member Sue Baird, who also serves on MOSA’s Board. Sue spoke through tears. “I am a product of farmers. I am a farmer more than anything in the world… You can't please everybody. So I'm here to follow my heart, and my heart says land is disappearing. My people, that settled in northwest Arkansas in 1852, can no longer buy farms... They want to farm. They were raised for generations to be farmers. They can't find land. They want to raise food for their neighbors. Last year we had a horrible incident in Missouri… Do you all remember Ferguson? Made national news. Urban young people are so disenfranchised. They don't have fresh food available. You can say, ‘Oh, well, you know, you can go to the grocery store,’ but many people don't have opportunities to go to the grocery store, and they need fresh food. And there is no land; it's concrete... We can establish community gardens, and we do that. But we have young people who have lost their hope. They can't afford tractors. They can't afford cultivators… And they need opportunity to farm food. So, reading this, and seeing that the intent was that someday we would allow hydroponics and aquaponics, and all the new stuff that happens to be labeled as organic, I am not inclined to limit organic labeling to just soil. And I'm sorry to the pioneers who have done such wonderful, wonderful work, in the soil. I'll always be there with you. I'll always put my feet in the dirt first thing in the spring. But I have to say no.”

And there was this comment from Jesse Buie, regarding USDA’s responses as many hydroponic systems became certified in absence of adequate standards. “I believe that soil is the foundation of organic, and this subcommittee has really worked tirelessly to come up with a compromise. Good or bad, I have seen much work done in trying to get some consensus. And as everybody has mentioned, we don't have it yet. But fellow board members... The elephant in this room is the fact that we are trying to solve a problem that kind of was created above us -- above the chain of command… The ultimate solution is for the NOP to enforce the regulations. It's just that simple.”

Producer representative Steve Ela raised questions about humility. “We're farming very complex systems, and we don't know what is happening in our soils, yet we do know there is cycling… we know there is carbon sequestration and release. We know there are multiple layers, including high-end predators and low-end plants.We know it's a system that can create its own nutrition through nitrogen fixation and legumes, and one that includes multiple plant species… I don't believe that we can engineer or design a replica of this... complex system that we have yet to understand... I don't believe that the science exists to make a complete choice. With any new material added, we want to dive ahead and figure that it's okay, but so often we find that that new material isn't okay. And for me, I have great respect for the hydroponic, aquaponics growers. They are very, very intriguing systems, and I believe in the integrity of those people and their best intentions. (But,) at this point, until we have a better understanding… I'm going to stay with the soil.”

Conservationist Asa Bradman was extremely torn as to how to vote, but in the end, seeking better compromise, he voted against the hydroponic prohibition. “I understand that this container production (a separate proposal, still under discussion) is seen as a compromise, but I don't think it reflects the full breadth of the existing community... I feel like there is a potential opportunity for compromise. I see that in the labeling front. And, you know, last spring I said very clearly that I wanted to vote for something, not against something. And what I would like to vote for is a deeper compromise that allows for some labeling, allows for transparency, and also can set standards. I think there are a lot of great points about the kind of ick factor when we see highly mechanized, controlled environment agriculture. And I think there is an opportunity to develop standards that address that... But, the reality is I think there is an intent in those systems to really adhere to the principles of (The Organic Foods Production Act) and the principles of an environmentally productive agriculture, and I think that has to be validated.”

With a recent announcement from NOP clarifying that hydroponic production can fit within our organic regulations, it now seems incumbent upon us regulators to better define expectations for ‘ponic systems. To that end, we are in discussion with other certifiers about best practices. Organic hydroponic systems must go beyond input substitution, and must follow organic principles, like consideration of ecological footprints. Policy agreement is needed now, or yesterday, but sound policies take time to develop. This exemplifies that frustrating dichotomy of pace, and shows a need to pull in, to wisely move forward.

The divided NOSB vote raised uncertainty about the prospect of some fragmentation of our organic community. And, more-recently, the very-disappointing proposed withdrawal of the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices rule, which was over a decade in the making, has given new urgency to considering action outside of the NOP structure. As we head into spring, we’re commenting on developing standards or otherwise considering a number of possible additional verifications, including: grassfed organic dairy, regenerative organic certification, animal welfare, food safety/GAP verification, and transitional verification.

So, these winter months were a gift, here in the midst of the crossroads, an opportunity to embrace the uncertainty while pulling back a ways from the surrounding drama. When pondering uncertainty, best values and vision shine through and give direction for action. At the heart of the soil/hydroponic debate I saw some important common vision, which motivated both camps. All seek continuous improvement. The soil movement and ‘ponics at their best each progressively work toward carbon-neutral solutions for an imminent, much-altered future. Going forward, it seems wise to build on common ground, to take action on values held in common by all we serve.

MOSA’s primary role is regulatory, but that doesn’t just mean setting policies and issuing noncompliance notices. To achieve our vision, enforcement-based “pushing” needs a balance of educational “pulling” toward better practices. In considering how organic must progress with balance, I’ve found IFOAM’s Organic 3.0 concept paper to be a very interesting read. It’s forward thinking, considering challenges of climate change, organic accessibility for vulnerable communities, innovation, use of technology, and efficiency in verification. The paper also speaks to challenges with our current “2.0” regulatory system. Looking ahead from these crossroads, we might envision a different kind of organic verification system. We’re engaged in that conversation, to learn, assess, adapt, improve.

From a similar perspective, we recently provided detailed feedback on Rodale’s Regenerative Organic Certification. This new standard builds on our current NOP Organic regulations and adds requirements for carbon sequestration, animal welfare, and fair labor practices. This certification scheme has gained a lot of attention from organic stakeholders concerned with our global future and frustrated by NOP’s pace. Like many others offering comments, we found this certification to be admirable, but leaving logistical gaps and questions. It continues cost and practical limitations of our current regulatory/verification structure. So, as we continue conversation about regenerative agriculture and organic’s future, we’re focusing on educational “pulling” toward better practices, encouraging voluntarily going beyond regulatory requirements. To this end, we recently joined as a partnership organization with Regeneration International (, to help encourage best regenerative practices. And, in conjunction with Regeneration International, RegeNErate Nebraska, the Organic Consumers Association, and the Main Street Project, we’re cosponsoring a “Regenerate the Midwest” meeting at the upcoming MOSES Organic Farming Conference, in La Crosse, WI. That’ll be at 7 PM on Friday, February 23rd. We’ll discuss how communities can come together to build strong local and regional food systems, and we’ll brainstorm how to transition from degenerative industrial agribusiness to a regenerative agriculture model empowering independent farmers and promoting public health, a clean environment, social and economic justice—and fighting climate change.

Winter’s pause helps to bring forth deep organic values, which emerge in spring. In an 1843 meditation titled “A Winter Walk,” Henry David Thoreau wrote about winter’s seasonal gift, time to re-attune to our perennial values as we prepare for new growth. Summer’s glory is sparked from the fire within, passion which directs our course.

“There is a slumbering subterranean fire in nature which never goes out, and which no cold can chill…. What fire could ever equal the sunshine of a winter’s day, when the meadow mice come out by the wallsides, and the chickadee lisps in the defiles of the wood? The warmth comes directly from the sun, and is not radiated from the earth, as in summer; and when we feel his beams on our backs as we are treading some snowy dell, we are grateful as for a special kindness, and bless the sun which has followed us into that by-place. This subterranean fire has its altar in each man’s breast, for in the coldest day, and on the bleakest hill, the traveller cherishes a warmer fire within the folds of his cloak than is kindled on any hearth. A healthy man, indeed, is the complement of the seasons, and in winter, summer is in his heart.”

As we move forward, we hold organic as a solution to urgent global challenges, and envision a thriving organic world, with balance - socioeconomic justice, ecological sustainability, interdependent well being of individuals, communities and ecosystems. This slumbering fire drives us forward, does not burn out, and warms our hearts even when shifting winds bring uncertainty. We invite you to join in the conversation, and action toward vision. Bring some kindling.