Once again, I find myself hunting the illusive meaning of organic regulatory and culinary bliss. I have traveled to Stowe, Vermont at the tail end of the peacock show of autumn foliage. I am not here to walk the sodden paths and observe auburn leaves aflutter. I come here to attend the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) meeting, held twice a year and open to the public. I come to participate, make public comment, and network with colleagues. Of greater import I show up to listen and learn, to get a read on the health of our organic process and the people who fuel it. I am an avid and eager organic participant. I am eternally hungry.
The meeting commences with two prestigious figures. The Secretary of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets , Chuck Ross, has multitudinous words of wisdom to set the tone. One of his messages is driven home in my mind like a hot anvil strike: “We are too busy focusing on the things that divide us rather than that which unites us … and there is too much at stake, organic is bright and necessary.” And so we must be united and not at odds.
The honorable Senator Leahy then appears with a pre-taped message and reminds us that we were celebrating the 25-year silver anniversary of the organic regulations in Vermont, the birthplace of organic regulations. Now one of the birthplaces of GMO labeling! I had no idea that Vermont has more organic farms per capita than any other state. From delicious sharply aged cheeses, rich grass-fed beef, typey black-red delicious apples to voluptuous hothouse tomatoes …Vermont is very organic and, I was soon to discover, quite delicious, but I digress …
Deputy Miles McEvoy then gave us a tour of the National Organic Programs (NOP) work. Once again this small but mighty department within USDA is striving for continuous improvement. Their new database is up and running and allows certifiers to enter information on certified entities directly into the system, thus streamlining the work while keeping information quite current. No longer do we suffer through outdated certifications!
Preparations for the meeting have been made robustly in line with the NOP’s “Sound and Sensible” goal to better communicate the organic value proposition. The NOP has enhanced the public input process by providing webinars so everyone didn’t have to travel to Vermont. All totaled with the webinars, there were 14 full hours of oral comments, and of 145 total commenters, I am one of many in the process.
The NOSB chair, Jean Richardson reminds us how hard the members of the NOSB work. For this meeting alone, they read and digested over 3000 pages of comments, about 40 hours of work. Because the sunset process (review of allowed materials) is now done over two meetings, it provides the opportunity for the public to make more comments. It also allows more time for those who may be impacted by some of the changes or delisting of materials to be aware and speak up. She prophetically reminds us that the board must look to balance whole-system synergies, consumer expectations, and the potential hardships to farmers and processing businesses should materials be taken off the allowed list while still needed.
We break for a much anticipated local lunch but not before a bit of dirty excitement! Vermont farmers have driven tractors and trailers, 4×4’s and Waggoneers to protest hydroponics in organic. Their earthy cry is “Save The Soil” in organic production. Their premise is that the organic regulations are all about healthy soils and growing food in water just isn’t what organic intended. It’s a mighty raucous but not enough to keep me from a delicious Vermont duck leg confit over sweet kale and the wildest of rices. Their remnants are still chanting as I trundle back from lunch.
As I prepare for the podium, I notice that someone has placed a container of local hothouse cherry tomatoes sheathed in ruby and golden skins. Their perky green nubbins still intact they veritably taunt me to taste. But first my mouth is destined for other oral activities. It is now time for my public comments.
I speak about the need for biodegradable mulch to be allowed in organic production instead of the nasty plastic variety, a petroleum product that pollutes our landfills. I advocate for the continued use of synthetic ethylene, a naturally occurring gas that is instrumental to pineapple production in the tropics. Without this growth regulator, hundreds of growers would be forced to resort back to conventional agriculture. I advocate for eliminating the incentive to convert pristine ecosystems into organic acreage to avoid the three-year transition period.
There are many in the audience that agrees with my sentiments. There are many who do not. Some would like it if there were no synthetics on the list and we resorted back to our roots of small scale agronomic traditions.
The soils advocates were out in full force. No hydro but only soil. Loud and clear!
The discussions are thoughtful and deep, sometimes philosophical and always respectful, sometimes laborious, but always necessary. What is at stake is as heavy as a container of pineapples that represent the welfare and wellbeing of families far afield. It is detailed and excruciatingly embedded in technical reviews and consumer sentiment.
The dialogue is a nexus of traditional beliefs laid down in the first regulations and the collision of new technologies and innovative ways of producing food and materials. It’s a plexus of the old nerves and blood vessels carrying the life blood of the organic movement into new pathways, getting that organic fluid to new areas of the agronomic body.
Organic is a solution to the chemicals in traditional agriculture. The standards must be nurtured, bottle fed, fertilized, hybridized and organized with enough oomph so that the new child can be pushed out. That push must come from balanced consideration of the future and the visions of the past.
One of my dear colleagues said it so eloquently, “Do we want organic to be a regenerative movement or the perfectionist circular firing squad that results in consumer doubt? Organic is the most transparent, public open source standard in the world. Let’s be accessible to creativity and let’s not reject progress for attaining perfection. We need to allow for the most progressive and positive tools for organic farmers because we are losing them. We must grow organic to more than 1% of US agriculture.
Is it fair to quote Einstein here? “We can’t solve our problems with the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”
Food for thought as I nibble a seedy sweet Vermont golden teardrop with a hunk of nutty Grafton cheddar … I am grateful for this open organic forum. The most transparent food system in the world!