It’s hard to find anyone who knows more about organic policy than Miles McEvoy. Miles began working in organic agriculture for the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) in 1988. Prior to that, he spent 10 years working on farms, with fisheries and in forests. He says this background provided him with valuable context on the keys to sustainably producing and harvesting food, while still running a successful business. His perspective is a unique one, in that it combines the idealism of a grassroots farmer and environmentalist with the knowledge of someone who’s spent years working within WSDA and now the USDA.
I recently sat down with Miles for an interview on topics ranging from organic history to new initiatives to challenges for our industry. Below is the first part of the two-part interview. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Q: Tell me a little about your personal history working with organic agriculture.
A: In 1988, I became the first organic inspector for the state of Washington. At that time the organic regulations were only one page long and the inspection reports were two or three pages. There were only 63 organic farms in the state and I traveled to meet all the organic farmers doing unannounced inspections and sampling. It was such a small industry at that point, it was just a part time job. As interest in organic farming grew, we went from 63 to 300 growers in just two years.
I worked for WSDA for 20 years, first as an inspector and then as the program manager. I did inspections throughout, because I’ve always felt it’s important for leadership to understand the work at the ground level. I also conducted investigations, assessing civil penalties and the development of international certifications standards. I did a wide variety of jobs at WSDA before I came to The National Organic Program in 2009. I continue to be involved with the audits of certifiers, because I think it’s important to understand the struggles and barriers that certifiers face.
Q: Tell me about the days before there was a National Organic Program.
A: Before national standards were developed, it was a mishmash of different state and private standards. We had so many standards out there, it was difficult for farmers to sell their products across different states. Many groups played a role during the 1990’s to help coalesce and develop the national standards. We had dialogue and worked actively with the Western Association of Certified Organics (WACO), California Certified Organic Growers (CCOF), Oregon Tilth and Washington Tilth . On the national level we worked with the Organic Trade Association (OTA), State Departments of Agriculture in Minnesota, Texas, Idaho, Iowa, California and Montana, The National Association of State Departments of Agriculture as well as IFOAM on International standards.
Q: What is your biggest take away from all of this hard work?
A: What’s stuck with me is the way in which all the different stakeholders came together to reach common ground. It’s important to realize that 99% of the standards we have now have full international and domestic agreement. It’s been a lot of work to get us where we are today and a lot of great people have been involved in the process of building this incredible industry.
Q: What are the top current initiatives for the National Organic Program?
A: The primary mission of the National Organic Program (NOP) is to continue to protect organic integrity and to make sure all products have consistent standards whether they are coming from domestic or international sources. We are improving our processes so we have quicker response times on complaints as well as prompt investigations and follow ups on appeals. We want to improve the certification processes so certifiers are consistently implementing the requirements domestically and internationally.
The new thing we are very excited about is the Sound and Sensible Certification Initiative. Although we have seen success over the last 20 years, the number of certified operations and the number of new operations in the US has remained relatively flat in the last few years. The industry continues to grow, sales are up, but the number of certified operations has not grown. We hear complaints from operators that there is too much paperwork, that there’s too much focus on record keeping and not enough on practices, and that becoming certified it’s too difficult and too costly.
So the Sound and Sensible Initiative looks at the certification process to see if there are areas to reduce the burden on operations. We are eliminating bureaucracies, reducing unnecessary paperwork and focusing on practices. We are standardizing and simplifying the requirements so farmers and handlers can understand what is required of them. Many of the complexities are due to a few intricacies but the basic standards are pretty straight forward.
Q: How are you getting the word out?
A: News and initiatives are communicated through the NOP Insider, which you can sign up for online. This is our main way of communication with the community. We also conduct webinars for certifiers and annual training seminars that all certifiers are highly encouraged to attend.
Q: Do you perceive any barriers to completing these initiatives?
A: The NOP is responsible for a huge $35 Billion organic industry in the US alone. We oversee a global program with 25,000 certified operations in 133 countries. We are responsible for standards development, accreditation and oversight, international agreements for equivalency and enforcement. Yet we have only 34 staff members responsible for all of that work! They are an amazing group of dedicated people and the workload is intense. Additionally, we would like to implement a technology initiative, which is a new sophisticated data base.
The last barrier I want to cite is the lack of consensus on issues. We need to encourage healthy debates and come together to discuss things respectfully. Debates are great and there should be spirited discussions within the organic community on controversial topics. We have so much agreement on the value of organics and on the basic concept of what the standards are, and we should focus on that.
(Editor’s note: This is the first part in a two-part interview with Miles McEvoy. Look for the second part soon at www.organicmattersblog.com.)