Cow eating in bright green pasture.

Best Intentions

I’ve been in the organic industry for several decades now, and there is an increasing trend to move the organic standards towards complete and utter purity. Some in the organic community are clamoring for the National Organic Program (NOP) to regulate perfection in the organic rules. They want zero tolerance, exact measurements, and prescriptive protocols. I wonder, can organic achieve ultimate perfection in an imperfect world? To what end does this ultimate penchant for perfection actually harm us?

For example, consider one of the latest lawsuits against the NOP. In 2011 the NOP issued guidance on the use of green waste in organic manure. Clippings and cuttings from lawns and gardens are vital ingredients for producing the vast amount of compost needed in our burgeoning industry. Organic farmers simply can’t exist without a good mound of microbial compost churning nearby.

In April 2015 the Center for Environmental Health (CEH), the Center for Food Safety (CFS) and Beyond Pesticides filed a case alleging that USDA’s guidance was issued without sufficient public comments and the complete rulemaking process. They suggested that using green waste could create a way for synthetics to contaminate organic compost.

On June 20th a California judge sided with the plaintiffs and struck down the NOP guidance, leaving organic farmers everywhere in a muck on what compost they can use. As a result, organic chaos reigns in the absentia of formal guidance. We could see a huge disruption in production. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced the actions it is taking to address this federal court ruling that invalidated their earlier guidance.


Yet, many organic farmers have been thrust into a black hole questioning how they can best fertilize their land. They may be vulnerable to lawsuits and they may have to resort to expensive testing on every batch of black microbial brew.

How will we grow organic acreage if there isn’t enough compost to fertilize the land? What percentage of synthetic materials should be allowed when the very world we live in is contaminated? How perfect can compost be in a polluted world?

Another example of this striving for precision is the opposition to any organic production that isn’t grown directly in the soil. You can read more about the debate on hydroponics, aquaponics, and bioponics in my previous blog “The Dirty Dialogue in Organic.” These innovative growing methods use a fraction of the water used in traditional farming methods and can grow more food faster while using less acreage. Because the original language in the Organic Farming Production Act specifies that organic practices “shall be designed to foster soil fertility,” the debate is awash with controversy.

Future Focused

As we move into the future to feed the 9 billion in all its varied climates and conditions, as new emerging ways of producing food are introduced, should we incorporate some of them into the organic family? Or should we hold steadfast to what has always been done and cling only to the soil in the ground? Should we allow some innovative food systems to be certified to ensure they are chemical free, healthy, and promote ecological balance while conserving biodiversity?

In July a sixteen-member hydroponic and aquaponic task force weighed in on whether these practices align or don’t align with the Organic Foods Production Act and the USDA organic regulations. You can read their comments here if you want to take a deeper dive into this tank of controversy.

In the end, we must decide if soil is the very definition of organic, and if so, will that make the organic regulations perfect?

The organic community is very good at vigorous dialogue and debate, dedicated to complete transparency and excellence. The world we live in isn’t as cut and dry. There are nuances and complications, technological innovations and chemical contamination.

If we make organic too strict and prescriptive will we limit the amount of acreage that can potentially be grown without toxic pesticides and herbicides?

Do we want organic to be a regenerative movement or a perfectionist circular firing squad?

Organic is the most transparent, public open-source standard in the world. Let’s be accessible to creativity and let’s not reject progress for attaining perfection. We need to allow for the most progressive and positive tools for organic farmers. We must grow organic to more than 1% of US agriculture.

The National Organic Standards Board hosts this discussion twice a year; they take public comments and give their recommendations to the NOP on the future of organic regulations. It’s a fine balance they must strike to keep organic strong and not regulate it into obsolete purity.

Shall we moderate our quest for perfection to reflect what’s right for the planet, farmers, and consumers? Let me know what you think.

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About The Author

Melody Meyer's picture

Melody is the Vice President of Policy and Industry Relations for United Natural Foods (UNFI). In this role she is responsible for communicating and educating all stakeholders on critical organic issues. Her Blog covers a range of organic and sustainable food issues.

She is the executive director of the UNFI Foundation which is dedicated to funding non-profit organizations that promote organic agriculture Melody serves as Secretary of the Board of Directors for the Organic Trade Association

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