Organic Policy and Regulations, What is Organic

Remember the Alamo? What happened in San Antonio?

AlamoMany of you may have seen the emails and headlines regarding the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) meeting that was held in San Antonio at the end of April. The context of this biannual meeting was already askew as the fall meeting had been canceled because of the government shutdown. So there was old business and new business and changes on the agenda. The hot spring air felt ominous, like we were headed for some kind of showdown. Many activist groups and engaged individuals were very passionately opposed to some changes our National Organic Program made last fall. I pen this blog not to agree or disagree with the changes but to help engaged stakeholders understand what really changed and how this is affecting our community.

The meeting was barely called to order when a small but vigilant group stood up and commanded the attention of everyone in the room, chanting “Don’t change Sunset”. A few intrepid souls braved men in uniforms and, yes, one even managed to get arrested. How do you wrap your head around such zeal in the context of a USDA meeting? Perhaps it was because there was no public comment period when the change was promulgated.

After the one hour commotion the changes were described by Miles McEvoy in his presentation on the National Organic Program.  But to understand the issue you must first understand what sunset means. The US organic regulations  clarify the what, how and why of organic agriculture. Within the regulations there is The National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances which outlines which substances may be used in organic production. These materials have been reviewed, vetted and discussed with great vigor by many previous and knowledgeable souls in order for them to be ever allowed. When the organic law was first penned these materials were given a “Sunset” clause so they would be reviewed by future NOSBs every five years to examine whether they should stay on the list.

On September 16, 2013, the National Organic Program announced a new transparent and streamlined sunset review and renewal process. They believe this new process better clarifies the procedures, provides increased opportunity for public comment and ensures a decisive, majority vote for all recommendations to change the National List.

The new process requires that the sun setting materials are discussed and reviewed at two public meetings now, not one. So if a farmer hasn’t read the public register in time for the first meeting, she can go to the second and describe why she needs it and how this material keeps her livestock healthy. The new process makes the voting requirement consistent whether substances go off or get added to the National List; both now require a 2/3 majority vote. Yes that is a majority to take materials off and a majority to add new materials. The National Organic Program made these changes with the benefit of wisdom gained after watching the organic industry grow.

Agriculture is, in its essence, a material working of the soil, water and weather to produce food and textile on a regular basis. Materials have been utilized since the dawn of agriculture when the first manure dropped from nearby grazing animals. The materials included in organic production have had the highest amount of scrutiny and examination by hundreds of qualified and passionate individuals.

The National Organic Program has made enormous strides in the last few years. Their mission is to ensure the integrity of USDA organic products in the United States and throughout the world. Their work in the following areas is staggering while their budget in 2013 was a mere $6.36 Million. The NOP has worked diligently to:

  • Develop and maintain the organic standards
  • Accredit and oversee third party organic certifying agents who review, inspect, and approve organic producers and handlers
  • Implement international organic trade agreements
  • Investigate complaints of violations (example: uncertified farmer selling food as organic, selling conventional food as organic)
  • Support the work of the National Organic Standards Board

I may not always agree with everything the NOP does, but I appreciate many of their accomplishments. Because of the NOP’s exemplary work, we have a better and more sustainable food system that far outshines the dim light of conventional chemical agribusiness. Because of the program, we have more organic fertile soil, clearer running waters and a choice for millions of Americans to purchase certified organic food and textiles. It is my greatest hope that as a community we can come together and discuss our opinions and beliefs and agree that sometimes we will disagree. It is through solidarity that we will remain strong. Splintering and fighting is the very thing that will weaken the organic movement we have worked so hard to build.

I am not shy about standing behind my National Organic Program and ask the entire community to acknowledge the good it has already grown. We who have worked so hard for so long need to begin talking and working with the program.

My friend Marty Mesh weighed in with this comment: “As I watch, listen, and feel the evolution of our community, I am frustrated in how we frame our common goal of furthering organic agriculture. Organic is a way to protect our natural resources, our precious ground water, the biodiversity of nature, and to affect farmers’ and workers’ health. I’m here to urge a more civil discourse, an open mind and heart in hearing others. I want a reaffirmation that we collectively view the widespread adoption of organic agriculture practices as beneficial to helping solve some of the most pressing issues of our time. We will be leaving our planet in a healthier state for not only our children, but for generations to come.”

As my friend Dennis said, “I have EVERY CONFIDENCE that our Organic Community will ‘come together’ and then we’ll pose the toughest UNITED FRONT our nonorganic competition has EVER SEEN!”

Change your food, change your life, and change your thoughts to the good organic way!


3 thoughts on “Remember the Alamo? What happened in San Antonio?”

  1. My Good Food Friends –

    We currently have a disastrously argumentative community, and it’s not getting any better. And each argument, tiff, squabble, recrimination and accusation that our potential Consumer reads about, or hears, confuses the Consumers’ understanding of the VALUE of ORGANIC and diminishes its long-term viability.

    As my FAVE Blogger, Organic ENTHUSIAST par excellence AND Good Food Friend, Melody, was so kind to “quote” me above, YES, I’m convinced that ALL Members of the Organic Community want the same thing: ORGANIC SUCCESS. We have to learn to share the wealth a bit and recognize the expertise and value of each Public Interest Group, Association, Non-Profit, Educator, Affiliate, Partner, Farmer, Processor, Manufacturer and Retailer.

    We MUST begin to stitch our community together so we don’t continue to be peeled apart and fighting to our own disadvantage while our non-organic competition watches on in amazement!

    We can’t continue this zero-sum game. Each side has got to stop trying to impose it’s will upon the other. I have no agenda. I’m only interested in a product … Organic Good Food … that can be successful in the Marketplace for THE GOOD HEALTH of PEOPLE & PLANET!

    If we can’t organize our intramural games any better, there’s NO HOPE for the bigger, intermural playoffs!

    If you review the 969 written comments to the NOSB from the Public, the consumer, OUR CUSTOMERS, they’re asking for, DEMANDING, PLEADING for Organic INTEGRITY. They’re asking that what they BUY & BELIEVE Organics stands for, in fact does.!docketBrowser;rpp=25;po=0;dct=PS;D=AMS-NOP-14-0006

    Don’t misunderstand me. I stand FOUR SQUARE behind the Organic Program and the founding Vision of the NOP and the NOSB. THAT gives us our ‘Official’ Credibility in the marketplace and the envied position that our non-organic competitors just WISH they had! But until they are as transparent, democratized and pure as the driven snow as we are, THEY CAN’T!

    My only concern, and it does tend to happen in other Regulatory frameworks, Mission/Vision slip can happen and we must be watchful. Because, in the end, all we have in the ORGANIC BRAND is a TRUST on the part of the Consumer and that the Consumer is CONFIDENT that what they’re paying for IS IN FACT different from all other ‘foods’.

    There’s a lot of conversation and politics going on around the revised ‘Sunset Rule’. Its unilateral change will stay in the craw of many, and the many seem to be in the majority: Consumers, Writers and Non-Profit/Public Interest groups that read as a who’s who: Consumers Union, Food and Water Watch, Beyond Pesticides, Center for Food Safety, The Cornucopia Institute, etc. And what we don’t need is any more ruffled feathers within the Organic Community to distract from what should be our singular mission to counter our non-organic competition.

    The revised Sunset Rule makes it easier for temporary substances to become permanent and puts at real risk THE INTEGRITY of THE BRAND. Fiddling around the edges of Organic Integrity in pursuit of the last nickel of profit risks the years of building Consumer TRUST in THE BRAND.

    A Writer: Max Goldberg, Founder of the well-read, an Organic Good Food Blog:

    “Our government is trying to decimate organic by chipping away at federal organic standards. Namely, the USDA has undermined the intent of the National Organic Program by altering the incredibly important Sunset Rule, which would make it much easier for specially-approved synthetic ingredients to stay in organic much longer than they should.”

    A Non-Profit: Circulated on the widely-read Washington Sustainable Food & Farming Network Listserv

    “What happened at the National Organic Standards Board Meeting two weeks ago? Democracy happened.

    Many of us consider organic to be more than how they define it – it is not just a label that the US Government controls.

    Organic is more than a marketing label – it is a well-defined alternative to our industrial food and agriculture system that is desperately needed at this time for human, environmental, and global health. Yet the federal government continues to encourage its success as only another label in the marketplace for those who can afford it.

    Changes are happening in many ways. When USDA tries to wrest power from the citizen board – as they have in every administration since the law was passed, and as they have recently done – public outcry is necessary.

    When the industrial food system tries to exert power to change the rules and weaken organic, we need to speak up.”

    The revision of the Sunset Rule is perceived as Government/Industry meddling. And unfortunately, its defense comes from Business. We have to be very careful that this situation isn’t allowed to degenerate into Business vs. Consumers/Interest Groups as is found in the non-organic World. Organic Companies, in their proclamations, say their interest in Organics, and commitment to Organics, is for the GOOD of PEOPLE & PLANET.

    We may have been given a wonderfully refreshing opportunity for Business to come to the side of Consumer concern and join in ‘the ask’ for reconsideration of the revisions to the Sunset Rule.

    To Your Health!
    Dennis L. Weaver, MBA, GFG
    Change Your Food – Change Your Life!™
    CELEBRATING Organic Good Foods with
    – & –
    National Columnist/Opinion Piece Writer
    On the HOME Front Page
    BK Presents: Dennis L. Weaver

  2. Most farmers are too busy this time of year to either read blogs or to respond to them, but ever since attending last year’s NOSB meeting I have paid more attention to the politics of organics. The meeting and what led up to it was eye-opening and heart-wrenching for me and left me feeling quite cynical about the very groups that have become so militant and vocal in their apparent defense of the purity of organics. I certainly don’t pretend to know the whole story behind their hysterical rants, but my sense is that it is very self-serving. Most of the “consumer groups” that many of us trusted to bring us accurate information have greatly misled the public and done a huge disservice to, not only their followers, but especially to the farmers that are the ground floor of organics. On a tour, prior to the NOSB meeting last April, one board member told me, as an aside, that he was leading a group whose mission was to destroy organics as we know it. This was following a carefully orchestrated campaign of misinformation about the use of antibiotics to help control fire blight in apples and pears. It’s a very complicated issue that has a huge impact on organic orchardists who were fighting to keep the main tool for controlling a disease that kills whole orchards, only until a properly proven substitute was found. An extension was all that was asked for. This is an issue that doesn’t lend itself to a quick sound bite because the science is complicated. It’s nothing even similar to the use of antibiotics in livestock, but it was made into an easy banner headline that purposely linked it to the public’s fear of ingesting antibiotics and creating more antibiotic resistance, which is an important issue on its own. The board member I mentioned blatantly and wrongly started a campaign, well before the meeting, suggesting that antibiotics are sprayed all over the organic apples that you buy in the market. It was picked up, or perhaps done in a concerted effort by many other groups, whose purpose was fear mongering, seemingly to raise money, since “donate now” is always included in their email blasts. The public is supposed to believe that they are leading the charge on their behalf to protect the organic product, so they obediently sign petitions without the depth of knowledge required to adequately understand the situation. I pointed this out to the board member involved, and he cynically said, “Well, that’s just the world we live in now.” Well, that’s not the world I live in or want to live in and he should be ousted from the NOSB. I have been an organic farmer since 1981, well before the NOP even existed. I consider myself a purist when it comes to growing our crop and protecting our soil and wildlife. I also remember Miles McEvoy from the early days of organics as being a true pioneer with great integrity. At the board meeting last April, many pioneers in the field of organics with great integrity were dismissed and disagreed with by the all too powerful consumer groups, and that was such a disgrace. Someone needs to publicly take on these groups and strip away their thinly disguised attempts at self-aggrandizement. We all support their attempts to label GMO’s and to take down Monsanto, but they constantly have to create a climate of fear and new issues to fuel their own agenda. And this latest attempt to take down organics and create an alternate brand is a dangerous game they are playing. They certainly don’t seem to care anything about the farmers they will take down as collateral damage. You asked in a prior blog “Where have all the farmers gone?”. This is an important question to keep considering.

    1. Thank you Brady, I do appreciate your comments. The ground floor story needs to be told.
      If you know other organic producers that want to chime in please pass it along. Thanks!

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