Are We on the Brink of an Organic Crisis?

When Congress passed the Organic Food Production Act (OFPA) many years ago, it formed a federal advisory committee to develop and recommend organic standards and review materials in organic production. This 15-member volunteer board has worked diligently over the past 26 years updating the standards and making recommendations for continuous improvement.

Some members of Congress would like to rewrite the very meaning of what the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) does. This transparent public process, so unique to organic, is on the brink of being undermined in the next Farm Bill.   

What is the NOSB and why is it important?

After a decade of hashing out the minutia, OFPA mandated the basic standards for organic production. One of the unique things about this act was to ensure an open process for setting and revising the standards by establishing the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). OFPA states that the NOSB “assist in the development of standards for substances to be used in organic production and to advise the Secretary on any other aspects of implementation of this title.”

The original drafters of the act established this 15-member volunteer board to ensure that all stakeholder sectors of organic—farmers, handlers, retailers, environmental/conservationists, public interest/consumer groups, and scientists—had a seat at the table.

That final version wasn’t perfect and lacked aspects such as complete animal welfare and aquaculture standards. It was written with the intention of continuous improvement through the NOSB process.

Organic producers, public interest representatives, environmental protection advocates, and organic consumers have been actively involved in driving the organic process for 26 years.

The public expects the organic process to be transparent.

The NOSB meets twice every year in various locations across the country. The meetings are open to the public and attended by a motley crew of farmers, consumer advocates, certifiers, businesses and policy wonks. The debates are sometimes heated and always passionate because everyone cares about the development of the regulations and respects the process. These meetings are the cornerstone of continuous improvement and democratic input for organic.

Indeed, there is no other food system that is more transparent than organic, and the role the NOSB plays is central to that transparency.

The threat to the NOSB is hidden in the next Farm Bill.

Over the course of the last year, the House and Senate requested and collected input from stakeholders about priorities for the next Farm Bill. During House and Senate Agriculture hearings, the topic of NOSB was raised several times during witness testimony. Some claimed that NOSB was not serving the industry and needed to be overhauled by Congress in the next Farm Bill.

During a hearing last summer, Senator Pat Roberts, Chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, stated “uncertainty and dysfunction have overtaken the National Organic Standards Board and the regulations associated with the National Organic Program. These problems create an unreliable regulatory environment… some in the organic industry have a tendency to narrow their focus to overly specific issues determined by parochial interests of activist groups.”

Some politicians would like to strip away many of the NOSB’s duties and work plans, perhaps relegating the board members to only reviewing materials.

The ramifications of an NOSB overhaul are huge.

If the leaders of the House and Senate agriculture committees make changes to NOSB in the upcoming Farm Bill, it would erode consumer trust in the organic label. It would create uproarious clamor within the organic community that would splinter the movement even further.

The reputation of the organic label is at stake now, in what is already a challenging time for the industry, rife with fraud and lawsuits.

Weakening the power of NOSB would put the organic standards development in the hands of Congress and USDA. This would create a dangerous environment where the standards could be dictated by political and special interests and not the organic industry.

What’s to be done to avert this crisis?

If you are someone who has a vested interest in keeping the label relevant to consumers, it’s now time to contact your Congressional leaders. Let them know that making changes to NOSB in the Farm Bill will harm the integrity of the organic program, undermine the public trust in the organic label, and severely damage the reputation of the industry as a whole.

The Farm Bill is not the place to contain controversial provisions that do not have broad support amongst the organic industry.

Let’s walk Congress off the brink of an organic crisis before this Farm Bill gets written.

11 thoughts on “Are We on the Brink of an Organic Crisis?

  1. I sell and have organic products made and one of the problems is the local organic certifiers do not agree or cooperate with each other Many of us in my industry feel this system is worse then the kosher system
    I want to sell organic to my manufacturing customers But it can be so difficult that they just give up on projects . And this is what is going to make congress get rid of the old system . There has to be a way to make this work for the consumer and still preserve the system of producer control
    Thank You

    • Thanks Jim. We need to make it work for the consumer and the producer.

      I appreciate your comments! Melody

      Melody Meyer

      O 831.462.5865

      C 831.566.5069

      Skype melody.meyer

      http://www.organicmattersblog.com

      From: Organic Matters Reply-To: Date: Friday, March 23, 2018 at 9:17 AM To: Huffington new Subject: [Organic Matters] Comment: “Are We on the Brink of an Organic Crisis?”

  2. The Sen Roberts’ threat to the role of the NOSB is not the only issue that could, and should be addressed in the farmbill. Some rethinking of the role and composition of the NOSB is in order, especially given the big challenges confronting the organic community. Deepening divisions over all sorts of issues — from livestock care practices to hydroponics, to farm size — are making the job of the NOSB and NOP more difficult, and in some cases, impossible. The inability of the NOSB/NOP to adapt to changing needs, challenges, science, economics, politics renders the government’s role in organic less valuable than it once was, and could be. This is also what is behind the drive for various add-on labels, e.g. regenerative, non-GMO, etc etc. The best way to change ag in positive directions for the land, animals, consumers, and farmers is to strengthen the organic label, build trust in it, and advance consumer understanding of what it represents re food nutritional quality, safety, and taste. If and as the NOSB/NOP/USDA fail to rise to the occasion, demand will grow for separate, private add-on labels, and consumers will loss confidence in the organic label. That would be a shame. But let’s also admit that dysfunction and divisions within the organic tent are a big reason NOSB/NOP has been frozen in place for over a decade. If the community really came together and supported a unified NOP reform agenda, I am pretty sure it would make it into the farmbill, as long as it did not markedly drive up NOP costs, nor too overtly threaten the conventional ag and food communities. For more see the three part blog re growth in the organic apple industry in WA State at https://hygeia-analytics.com/2018/03/03/a-tipping-point-for-organic-apples-in-the-pacific-northwest/ Part III lays out the main ways USDA/NOP policy is holding back growth in consumer demand for organic food and farming.

  3. Hello Melody & Chuck,

    Thanks for raising the question of how this administration is messing with organic in the Farm Bill. While I have no doubt that the current administration would like do do all it can to stifle the growth of organic, I can’t share the dire concern expressed in the word “crisis.” Along with Chuck, I believe that part of the problem is the extreme divisiveness of some segments of the organic community. This situation isn’t helped by ramped up rhetoric every time USDA (or in this case Congress) makes a pronouncement that some people don’t agree with.

    A more serious critique of your post is that it contains some rather inaccurate information about the role of the NOSB, the difference between the OFPA (the organic law) and the NOP (the regulations), and the implications of the kind of restriction you are saying this bill would impose on the NOSB. Some of this stems from a history of misconstrued belief that the NOSB exercises any regulatory authority over the development or approval of the standards promulgated by the NOP. Its role is and must be strictly advisory.

    Here is what the OFPA says is the job of the NOSB in Section 2119 [7 USC Sec.6518(a)) :
    This section directs the Secretary of Agriculture to establish the NOSB in accordance with the Federal Advisory Committees Act (FACA), “to assist in the development of standards for substances to be used in organic production and to advise the Secretary on any other aspects of implementation of this title.” Later on, subsection (k) lists a few specific subjects that Congress directed the NOSB to advise the Secretary about, including developing an initial proposed National List, convening Technical Advisory Panels to provide scientific expertise about substances being considered for inclusion on the National List, special review of botanical pesticides, a procedure for product residue testing, and rules for exemptions when an operation is subject to an emergency spray program.

    All of these duties were carried out faithfully by the initial members of the NOSB, which was not an easy task. The initial NOSB also went above and beyond this direction, which was a great blessing and exemplary demonstration of an open and transparent democratic process for collecting public input about every aspect of the regulations, and submitting comprehensive recommendations to the NOP staff, once a few people (including yours truly) could be hired to begin the process of regulation writing. This somewhat backwards process was necessitated by the fact that USDA did not want this program, and had not requested funds to implement it, so the all volunteer NOSB took it upon themselves to begin work. An advisory board is never empowered to write regulations, which is a task that can only be performed by the agency charged by Congress with administering the program.

    The OFPA also gives the NOSB responsibility for developing a petition process to consider new substances for inclusion on the National List and proposing amendments to the National List (whether to add or remove any substance). However, this function is still strictly advisory, and the Secretary (i.e. USDA) retains the authority to contradict or revise the NOSB’s proposals, as long as the National List and any amendments to it are first published as formal notice and comment rulemaking, with the public given an opportunity to comment. Early on the NOP decided to never flat out contradict any NOSB proposal, in light of the outrage generated by some members of the community who mistakenly believed (and obviously still believe) that the NOSB has statutory authority over the National List.

    Along the same lines, the NOP made the political decision to avoid promulgating any new rules or guidance documents without prior recommendations issued by the NOSB. More recently, the NOP decided to exercise its statutory authority over a FACA committee by requiring the NOSB to stick to a work plan limited to advice requested by the NOP, rather than setting its own agenda for questions it wants to address. The NOSB process has continued to be extremely transparent and open to public comment – and nothing stops the public from commenting on matters that don’t appear on its agenda.

    So, in suggesting that “Some politicians would like to strip away many of the NOSB’s duties and work plans, perhaps relegating the board members to only reviewing materials,” they are not advocating anything other than what the OFPA already requires of the NOSB.

    I do think the airing of disputes about organic standards in a public forum such as NOSB meetings is an invaluable means for keeping the NOP in touch with public sentiments. However, in no way should consumer confidence in the organic label depend on the NOSB’s ability to make its own recommendations—except insofar as misinformed activists broadcast such claims through their networks.

    What matters most to consumer confidence in the organic label? The power of the US government to enforce the current standards with criminal penalties and fines for deliberate fraud. A power that can be reduced by removing funding from the NOP as well as by lobbing lawsuits and other forms of attack at the NOP, which must be given the attention of their legal staff to the detriment of other urgent needs. A power that none of the private “add-on” labels can claim. Not to say that the NOP has been as effective as it should be on this score, but in my opinion public pressure to improve enforcement is much more important than the “optics” of making the standards ever “higher” or more restrictive.

    Personally, I would start with putting more teeth into the existing NOP requirement that organic producers “maintain or improve” the natural resources of the operation—a mandate that most organic farmers already meet, but that could certainly stand to be more of a mandate for “continual improvement,” as is claimed by the newly released Regenerative Organic Standard. A simple guidance document that outlines recommended measures to monitor soil and water quality, biodiversity, and other “natural resources” on any given farm would be a good start.

    Finally, kudos to Chuck and associates for the great information about organic apples in Washington, and especially for the very nicely summarized explanation of why the EU is so far ahead of this country in supporting organic. If only the energy put into slamming the NOP or USDA could be channeled into supporting more non-market dependent incentives for organic transition.

    The whole story (from my own perspective) of how the NOP came about and why it has not been able to reflect what I call the “true organic vision” can be found in my book, which I know you have a copy of! See: http://www.organic-revolutionary.com

    With all best wishes,
    Grace

    • Thank you Grace for the correction. I will make note in my blog.

      Some members of Congress are suggesting that the NOSB only works on materials and does nothing to assist or advise on the development of regulations – no work plans on seed purity, aquaculture etc. This I think would create a crisis in the community.

      I do agree that our more serious problems are the divisions within our community.

      Melody Meyer

      O 831.462.5865

      C 831.566.5069

      Skype melody.meyer

      http://www.organicmattersblog.com

      From: Organic Matters Reply-To: Date: Sunday, March 25, 2018 at 4:22 PM To: Huffington new Subject: [Organic Matters] Comment: “Are We on the Brink of an Organic Crisis?”

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