Worth billions of dollars, the organic label is the only federally regulated food label that conveys any information about how that food was produced. Certified organic is the fastest-growing food segment—and the distinction can be profitable for farmers (and also costly and difficult to implement)—but that doesn’t mean everyone’s happy with it. A series of scandals and a lack of faith in the current iteration of the USDA, which oversees the organic program, has led a group of pioneering organic farmers to create their own label: the Real Organic Project.
In the past few years, the rules surrounding organic farming have taken a turn not to the liking of the sustainability-focused small-scale farmers who pushed the movement into being with the 1990 Farm Bill. For one, the USDA declared that soil-free farming methods can snag the coveted label despite objections from farmers who consider the Earth a fundamental component of organic farming. And more recently, the USDA torpedoed a previously-approved law that would have required basic animal welfare standards for organic livestock.
“I got involved when I started seeing a lot of hydroponic tomatoes certified as organic showing up in the market, about five years ago,” says Dave Chapman, a longtime organic farmer who runs Long Wind Farm, in Vermont. “We made a really good faith effort to reform the organic program, but we realized [certification of hydroponics] was not the only egregious failure—the NOP [National Organic Program] was very weak on animal welfare, too.”
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