The USDA’s organic label is broken. Here’s how to fix it.

This grassroots, farmer-led movement is working to restore credibility to organic certification

Linley Dixon February 1, 2024

Before the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) had control over the legal definition of the word “organic,” it was farmers—organic farmers—who defined what organic meant. As early as the 1970s, farmers were forming local chapters to set organic standards and the processes by which farms could become certified. In 1990, many of these same farmers helped write the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA), which gave the USDA authority over the use of the term “organic” and established the National Organic Standards Board, whose job was to ensure that the principle of “continuous improvement” was upheld.

OFPA was and still is a relatively good law representing the guiding principles that unite the organic movement. But now, 30 years later, many organic farmers believe the USDA program no longer provides an accurate representation of what constitutes organic farming due to a lack of enforcement of the standards. In the arid West, for example, 10,000 cow dairies are certified organic, despite the fact that these facilities drain aquifers and keep cows close to the barn for easy milking, with no pasture to eat. Soilless hydroponic farms, where a crop’s fertility is supplied by liquid fertilizer, have supplanted farms where fertility is grown and cycled in the soil using cover crops, green manures and compost. Large confinement chicken houses with tens of thousands of birds are provided with the most cynical version of the “outdoor access” required by law: a concrete “porch.” Imports of fraudulent “organic” grain supply the feed for these giant certified confinement operations, and a lack of supply chain transparency prevents eaters from verifying “pasture” claims on labels. This is clearly not the organic we set out to create!

So what do we, the people—and we the organic farmers—do about it? One option is simply to walk away from the label we helped to create and start over. But doing so would hand a $70 billion market over to the same corporations that have successfully lobbied to water down organic standards in the first place. Many of us have been lobbying for political reform for decades, gaining only small policy wins that fool us into thinking there is progress. Meanwhile, certified operations that fail to pasture and attend to soil health are permitted to expand and multiply. 

Enter the Real Organic Project (of which I am a co-director), established in 2018 by organic farmers who concluded that the best and perhaps only viable option was to follow the model that Europe has employed from the beginning: Creating “add-on” organic labels, set by farmers, to truly ensure continuous improvement and transparency.

For the last six years, a 15-member Real Organic Standards Board has set “add-on” standards for soil health, animal welfare and worker protections under the USDA organic seal. To be certified with the Real Organic Project label, the whole farm must be free from substances that are prohibited in organic, instead of certifying just a portion of the farm. 

Despite these high standards, more than 1,100 farms across 49 states have qualified for Real Organic Project certification. Through podcasts and other online events, the Real Organic Project also educates eaters about the shortcomings in our food system and the solutions that real organic farmers bring to the table. (I prefer the term “eater” to “consumer” because we all need to eat).

Organic has had higher integrity in Europe in part because of add-on labels. The EU has prioritized converting their agriculture to organic because they acknowledge the fact that the food system is responsible for a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and 70% of global freshwater use. Their Farm to Fork initiative calls for 25% of farmland to be certified organic by 2030 along with a 50% reduction in chemical use overall. 

Members of the Real Organic Project with Naturland, an international organic add-on label in Europe, at the Natural Products Expo in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in September 2023. (Real Organic Project)

Meanwhile the USDA openly opposes the EU’s Farm to Fork strategy. In the U.S., only 1% of our farmland is certified because the USDA has never truly supported organic. Instead, while the EU launched Farm to Fork, the USDA announced $3.1 billion for “climate-smart commodity” agriculture. This funding went for practices such as “no-till” (which involves heavy fertilizer and herbicide use), the harvesting of cover crops for fertilizer production (which releases more greenhouse gasses than leaving cover crops in place to benefit future crops) and feeble attempts to reduce methane off-gassing of manure lagoons (instead of pasturing cows and composting winter bedding). The reality is that these grants should more appropriately be called “climate-dumb” initiatives.

In addition, our elected representatives in Washington, D.C., have been duped by agribusiness lobbyists into believing that organic farming could never be climate smart because organic farmers use tillage. In fact, intelligent tillage uses cover crops to hold soil in place between cash crops and also raises soil organic matter, mitigating the need for fertilizer applications by incorporating the cover crops into the soil. Skillful tillage is part of a real climate-smart strategy to mitigate the need for fertilizers and herbicides that has been effectively demonstrated by organic farmers for decades. Like the EU, we should be investing in more of what is already working rather than putting Band-Aids over the gaping wounds in our food system. 

Organic certification is far from perfect, and that’s why continuous improvement has always been a founding principle of the organic movement. But organic farmers know what is good for the land, and we are the ones who should define the standards for the future. We can’t leave it to corporate lobbyists or the USDA anymore. The Real Organic Project not only promotes farmers who are doing the right thing—it also educates eaters about how the current food system attempts to dupe us. We are reawakening the organic movement, asking millions of eaters to once again support a movement that has succeeded in transforming the way food is grown.

Linley Dixon

Linley Dixon farms certified organic vegetables in Southwest Colorado. She holds a Ph.D. in Plant Pathology from the University of Florida and a Masters in Soil Science from West Virginia University in organic farming systems. She held a 2-year post-doctorate with the USDA’s Systematic Botany and Mycology Laboratory in plant fungal interactions. In 2018 she began the pilot program for the Real Organic Project certification program and is now the Co-Director with Vermont organic farmer Dave Chapman. Real Organic Project is a farmer-led “add-on” organic certification that certifies farms that foster healthy soils, pastures livestock, and are committed to organic principles across all their agricultural enterprises. Real Organic provides the transparency that is often lacking in the market place and educates eaters about the farming practices that will provide for a healthy future.

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