Organics: Report from the Lone Star State

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From #107, July-August 2003

Organics: Report from the Lone Star State

B Y   C I S S Y   B O W M A N
Illustration for Organics in Texas

Mid-May is always a happening time for organics. With farmers in their fields and farmers markets opening, much of the country gets the first locally grown organic produce on the shelves of retail stores. Add to that an Austin, Texas meeting of the National Organic Standards Board followed by the annual All Things Organic conference and trade show, and you're bound to get some real excitement. With the broadened scope of the National Organic Program, the meeting got hotter than the Texas weather and the issues as steamy as non-organic compost.

Hydroponics: not organic?!

In its May report to the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), the Crops Committee stated that hydroponics "do not support the tenets of organic production systems." "It is difficult to justify organic production systems in soil-less environments" said committee chairman Owusu Bandele. This contradicted a decision made in the mid-1990s by a previous NOSB that nearly decided the same-until it began to recognize hydroponic systems that are naturally occurring, such as for growing watercress and spirulina.

Fortunately, there was sufficient public input on this issue to get the committee to re-think its position. More comment will need to come in, from folks such as this publication's readers, to help the committee understand the importance of having certified organic hydroponic operations. What are the benefits? Hydroponic systems can provide a local source of off-season fruits and vegetables that have higher nutritional quality, longer shelf life, and a lower environmental profile than foods grown far away that depend on days of transportation. Why shouldn't these hydroponic systems be certifiable as long as they comply with the regulations?

What are the dangers of leaving soil-less systems out of organic certification? On the surface the exclusion sounds plausible. The basis of organics is the soil-we all know that. However, there are foods in nature that do grow in soil-less systems. To leave one soil-less system out of organics could open the door to leaving out others just because they, too, are not land-based. Examples? Shiitake (and many other) mushrooms, sprouts, and honey. Aquaculture used to be in this category, until the recent amendment tacked on by Senator Stevens from Alaska (remember the Alaskan salmon issue?), which now specifically directs the National Organic Program (NOP) to create standards for aquatic systems. Optimistically, a similar amendment to keep hydroponics or other soil-less items certifiable will not be required.

It's not just about food anymore

The USDA may not have realized the impact of its year-old announcement that non-food items could be certified organic. But it was there as questions and concerns came before USDA concerning personal care items, fertilizers, pesticides, clothing, and other "organic" products that are now on the market. The integrity of the organic label is at stake as manufacturers, certifiers, and consumers attempt to understand how the national organic regulations apply to everything from worms and crickets to shampoo. Considering that the current regulations took 13 years to create and implement, it seems that we have much work to do to protect quality standards among the many new stakeholders who want to add value to their products by using the "O" word.

There is already a great deal of controversy over the labeling of personal care items as organic since most such labels on the market do not measure up to the NOP labeling requirements. In order for a product to legally be labeled organic on the front panel, it must contain at least 95% organic ingredients, excluding salt and water. So, organic shampoo must have at least 95% certified organic ingredients or it is not "organic" shampoo. Some of these so-called "organic" products are made using water that is left over from the distillation of organic herbs and flowers. This is then called "organic flower water" and included in the calculation of the 95% organic ingredients. Other products are simply mislabeled and/or not certified at all.

Consumers need to be aware of what the term organic means on every item. If they should lose faith in the label on personal care items, their faith in the term organic as it applies to food and other items could seriously erode. Fortunately, the Organic Consumers Association and Consumers Union are busily creating consumer education materials on these very issues. The public needs to learn about and be involved in this one. For more information on this issue, contact them at:

Organic Consumers Association:;

Consumers Union eco-labels site:;

It's even what you wear!

Organic fiber is good for you -- but it's more than just what you eat. Organic fashion is off the runway and into the stores, brought to us by private designers, mom and pop operations, and even Patagonia and Nike. Recent work with naturally colored cotton has offered us new hues from green to orange to brown -- all made without any dyes. Improvements in the quality of the fibers themselves now bring us home décor items, furniture, and some of the softest towels you'll ever wrap yourself in. And if you've never tried out an organic cotton bed or pillow-well, you really should before you buy anything else.

Despite its beauty, organic fiber has issues too. As we move toward a consistent organic standard for other products, there is also a group working on fiber processing standards. (Fiber production standards are already covered in the NOP, the same as any other crop, but processing fiber is different and merits more consideration than is already in CFR 205.) The Organic Trade Association (OTA) Fiber Council has been drafting what OTA will eventually put forth to the industry as the "American Organic Fiber Standards," with the idea that the industry will follow them until such time as there are such standards in the NOP.

As a member of this council, I was outraged to hear the final proposal included an exemption for certification if industry members of OTA sign a statement of conformity with these new standards. This could allow fiber products to be marketed as organic without any oversight for 18 months after the statement of conformity was signed. The 18 months was shortened from an original proposal of five years. Workshop attendees were livid and their opinions did seem to have an effect, but not enough to cancel the exemption from certification.

Unlike hydroponics, where the discussion comes from a committee of a board of directors that is required to provide a forum for and listen to the public, the most disconcerting part of the fiber story is the lack of public participation. Members of the Fiber Council do not include consumer representation or outreach. In fact, you have to be a member of the Organic Trade Association to get information or comment on this issue. Since some members of the Fiber Council are stakeholders in the organic fiber industry, there is every possibility that the standards will be written to meet their needs instead of the demands of the consumers who buy their products. In the end it is up to the OTA Quality Assurance Council and then the board of directors to decide what these standards will be.

The Organic Trade Association has historically been well-respected by the industry and by USDA. As its influence helps to shape the future of so many products that go on or into our bodies, however, it is time for the OTA to listen to the people who support industry with their purchases. Consumers need to know how to ask questions and where to get answers. Retailers' willingness to provide them with consumer association links and contact information will help them tremendously. The two organizations named above-Consumers Union and Organic Consumers Association-are extremely well-informed and are run by folks who are passionately dedicated to consumer education and protection. In the stream of commerce, the last hands before the final consumer are the retailer's. The greatest power in protecting the integrity of organic certification is within those hands. The next National Organic Standards Board meeting is scheduled for October 2003 in Washington D.C., and the next All Things Organic conference will be held during May in Chicago, Illinois. Meanwhile, you can keep posted on USDA standards development by visiting


Editor's note: The Organic Trade Association responded to this article after publication with a correction to the above paragraph. The OTA statement, which will appear in full with the next edition, included the following:

Throughout the lengthy development of these standards OTA has publicized and posted various drafts of this document on OTA's public web site ( In fact, the final draft that has emerged from this public process is currently posted at, along with a link for submitting comments ( Thus, it is available for everyone and anyone to read and comment on. OTA encourages anyone interested to read over the document, and submit any comments in time for the Aug. 4, 2003, submission deadline.


Cissy Bowman manages Hoosier Organic Marketing Education, a non-profit educational organization in Indiana (317/539-4317 or [email protected]).


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