This week I am lucky enough to be attending the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) meeting in La Jolla California. It won’t be days of beachcombing or sipping sweet nectars in the sun for me. Instead I will be locked inside a room for 8-10 hours with a dedicated group of stakeholders discussing current and future changes to the organic regulations. It’s a sometimes tedious and always in-depth process of public comment and board recommendations to the National Organic Program (NOP). The thorough and rigorous nature of the discussion is a sure sign that the organic seal is absolutely the highest standard of food production in the land!
The culture of transparency began way back with the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990.This act authorized the National Organic Program to administer and enforce the organic regulations. The standards for organic production had not yet been written and it took many tenacious and dedicated souls to work on the regulations. In the end it took them 10 years and the final rule was finally published in 2000! During this process there were multiple periods of public comment which allowed everyone, farmers, manufactures and consumers to weigh in. They received a total of 275,000 comments on the proposed rule, more than any before or since! The tradition of openness and transparency had been set as a key tenet in the organic process and culture.
It’s a little known fact that Miles McEvoy, now Deputy Administrator of the National Organic Program, was one of those early stakeholders who labored on the final rule. He now plays a vital role in making sure that this rigorous transparency continues. His department inside the USDA works with the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) to make recommendations on things like new standards (such as aquaculture), updating current standards (such as animal welfare) and organic certification requirements. This NOSB board is made up of volunteers that represent different stakeholders in the industry. They meet twice a year in different locations and invite all members of the organic community to weigh in. There is no other food system with as much regular public input and involvement as organic! It’s unmatched in its stakeholder participation.
These meetings are important because major changes can be made to the regulations that can give or take away the tools producers and manufactures have in producing certified organic goods. Many consumers believe that absolutely no synthetic substances are used in organic production. For the most part, that is correct and is the basic tenet of the organic law. But there are a few limited exceptions to this rule, and the National List is designed to handle these exceptions. The National List is the restricted tool box farmers and manufacturers have available to use when there are no natural alternatives. It is much smaller than the full tool box used in conventional farming. Organic farmers have restricted access to 25 synthetic active pest control products while over 900 are registered for use in conventional farming.
It took the first NOSB five years to review, discuss rework and finally establish the National List. Once an input has been added to the list, it must be reviewed by the NOSB and by the public every five years. This is known as the “Sunset process,” through which the NOSB can remove inputs based on any new information regarding adverse impact on human health or the environment, or the availability of a natural or organic alternative. Recent changes in the Sunset policy now allow for two public comment periods before the NOSB completes their review. During this process plenty of hearty engagement and technical discussion takes place. The public and private voices are encouraged to weigh in. In fact this year the NOP had to extend the meeting times because so many tenacious comrades have something to say when it comes to the organic regulations!
There isn’t another label on the shelf that is as highly vetted, powerfully protected and vigorously enforced as the USDA organic seal! When you see that seal you can rest assured that many people have spent hours of time, attention and research into what comprises organic production. Organic means transparency and integrity in every delicious bite and in each luscious sheet or towel. I am proud to support the process of organic transparency now and for the future.
The Organic Trade Association has put together an excellent resource guide to learn more about the NOSB. You can download “The Organic Farmer’s Toolbox” for more information.
Hope to see you there!