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USDA’s About-Face on Organic Hemp Leaves Growers in Limbo

Luke Runyon
Harvest Public Media

From Harvest Public Media

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has reversed course on its organic certification of industrial hemp operations throughout the country.

A handful of hemp farms, including Colorado-based CBDRx, had secured or were in the process of securing, certifications from third-party auditors following a directive from the USDA's National Organic Program staff allowing hemp to be certified organic.

The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) published new instructions last week putting the kibosh on that. (PDF)

"Organic certification of industrial hemp production at this time is premature and could be misleading to certified organic operations," AMS wrote in the directive.

"The legality of the various uses of this product has not yet been determined. Until USDA guidance regarding industrial hemp production under the Farm Bill is completed, NOP-accredited certifying agents may not certify the domestic production of industrial hemp," the document continues.

That leaves farms that secured the certification before the USDA backtracked in bureaucratic limbo. Some of those companies are using the USDA organic seal to market products.

In an email, a USDA spokesman noted the department doesn't intend to take action with regard to current certified operations at this time. The department has, however, told third-party auditing firms not to certify additional hemp operations in the country as organic.

The dispute over whether or not to certify hemp as organic puts the plant's murky legal status on full display. Hemp is an umbrella term for varieties of cannabis below a threshold of THC, the psychoactive compound often found in the plant that gives users a high. Hemp is often used in industrial products like rope and fabric, and in consumer products like protein bars and beauty products.

Colorado lawmakers are attempting to establish a state standard for organic cultivation of cannabis in the absence of federal direction. Consumer fraud regulators in the state are already looking at dispensaries and edible manufacturers for potentially misleading consumers on organic practices.

The states of North Dakota, Illinois, Nebraska and Indiana have industrial hemp statutes on the books. All told, at least 27 states have laws in place that address the cultivation of industrial hemp, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Those laws have made commercial hemp operations viable in some states, and created research programs to study the plant’s possible uses in others.