Has your tomato grown on earth or water? Organic buyers may notice more labels this summer that will give them the answer and tell them if their choices are in line with what a rebel group of farmers and scientists believe is the true spirit of the organic movement.
About 15 farmers and scientists from all over the country met in Vermont at the end of last month to set standards for a further organic certification program, which plans to implement between 20 and 60 farms nationwide as a pilot this summer .
In the current program of the US Department of Agriculture, the organic label means that your tomato was produced without synthetic substances – with some exceptions – and without certain methods, such as genetic engineering. The additional label, which does not yet have a name or a word, indicates that a tomato, for example, has been grown in the ground and that meat and dairy products come from farms that graze their animals.
An inspector would certify that the farm met the new standards and that the farms – not the distributors – would add the label.
The move comes five months after the National Organic Standard Board, which advises the US Department of Agriculture, has voted against a proposal to exclude the hydroponic USDA biological certification program – raising plants with water but without soil – and aquaponics, in which plants and water animals, like fish, are cultivated within a single system.
“I think many farmers, especially young farmers, believe that the organic label no longer describes the way they grow, and we are trying to recapture it,” said Linley Dixon, a vegetable grower in Durango, Colorado, and senior scientist for the Cornucopia Institute, which is also a member of the Real Organic Project standards committee.
The group that creates the new label, which is called the Real Organic Project, said that it had not abandoned the National Organic Program, which is the federal standard, and is not attacking organic farmers.
“Some of the cornerstones of what organic means are taken away, and we’re worried about how creaky everything is,” said Dave Chapman, member of the executive committee and standards of the Real Organic Project and owner of a farm organic in Thetford. He believes that the cornerstone of the organic being is growing in the soil and improving its fertility.
For Dixon, “organic” means a very diverse operation, the rotation of animals and crops and the cultivation of cover crops to control erosion, increase the organic matter in the soil and manage weeds, among other things.
The new label would exclude from the certification the hydroponic agriculture and the large zootechnical farms that do not graze their animals, known as contained animal feeding operations or CAFO.
The hydroponic industry claims that another label could mislead and confuse consumers and is a way for traditional organic farmers to try to gain competitive advantage.
“It’s a competition because field growers can not produce the volume that hydroponics can,” said Dan Lubkeman, president of the Hydroponic Society of America.
While shopping at the Hunger Mountain food cooperative in Montpelier, Jessica Manchester, Worcester, the agreed label is becoming confusing for the average consumer, but in the long run he thinks it’s good to know where the food comes from. He said he prefers products grown in the ground.
“They are only for plants that grow in their natural way and are related to the microbes in the soil and the interactions that these microbes have with the roots of plants,” said Manchester.
But the traveling companion Laurie Griggs, from Calais, said she did not buy totally organic and did not care if vegetables or berries were raised hydroponically.
“I just think we need new ways to make things grow,” he said. “We have a lot of people and agriculture is really hard on the earth, and if we can find ways to lighten our impact on the earth and grow healthy food for people, I have no problem with it.”
The farmers involved want a more transparent label and at the beginning they will not see an economic advantage, said Chapman. The program is now funded by contributions. Farmers would pay a fee to be certified, but doubts that it could cover the cost of the program.
“I hope the day will come when there will be an economic advantage because I know there are millions of people in the country who really care about whether food is grown in the ground and if the animals have access to pasture,” he said.