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 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.