I make the biannual pilgrimage to the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) meeting flying straight into the heart of the Sonoran Desert. Tucson, AZ is the first US city to be honored with a UNESCO Capital of Gastronomy designation.
This place has one of the oldest food heritages on the continent dating back to the ancient O’odham people who once planted maize and beans.
Amongst a landscape of prickly pear cacti and sagebrush, 1 million people now celebrate a vibrant culinary scene.
And so, this meeting which holds the balance of organic agriculture is conducted in a desert filled with food.
This meeting had a distinctly different tone than many before it. In the past, the purists and farmers and economists all squared off and bristled with passionate disagreement on topics like synthetics, hydroponics or gums.
The meeting was much less contentious than the last few—there was a new strangely uncertain dynamic present: the role the USDA is exerting over the organic process.
The track record is clearly before us. The dismissing of the Animal Welfare final rule after years of public ministrations is one instance. The allowance of Carrageenan is another, despite the fact that NOSB recommended its removal from organic production.
So, a current of wariness ran through the meeting as we made our way through it.
Greg Ibach, Under Secretary USDA Marketing and Regulatory Programs, was present and announced the appointments of two new NOSB members. Both are from California and represent the fresh organic produce industry—representation that was lacking on the past board.
Dr. James Greenwood fills the environmental seat as an organic avocado farmer and handler.
Eric Schwartz was seated in the handler seat and is the CEO of United Vegetable Growers Cooperative
Mr. Ibach stressed the protection of the integrity of the USDA seal especially in businesses around the world with a focus on imports.
When asked about the Animal Welfare rule, Mr. Ibach pointed to adding labels, such as the Process Verified Program (PVP), if growers want to make claims for enhanced animal welfare. Many in the audience were none too keen on additional label claims.
Much of this meeting was focused on stemming the fraudulent activity that has plagued the organic industry for some time.
Jennifer Tucker, NOP Associate Deputy Administrator, went on to outline some of the NOP’s goals specific to fraud.
There is a directive to increase inspections and enforcement in Eastern Europe and develop greater collaboration with CBP and APHIS to investigate and block fraudulent imports.
The USDA intends to embraceinnovation in technology tools and production practices. Farm-to-market traceability in the worldwide supply chain requires robust enforcement to identify shipments and fumigation on imports. They also plan to hold unannounced Dairy inspections as a regular practice.
With many of the NOP’s efforts focused on enforcement, they have scaled back the NOSB’s work plan.
The balance of Wednesday was filled with a multitude of public comments.
Topics such as the native ecosystem proposal, pesticide and genetic drift, ensuring the genetic integrity of organic seeds, finalizing excluded methods, reporting of acreage in the database, and re-listing various gums that love water and provide viscosity were all discussed.
Farmers indicated that sulfur is an essential tool for their crops and liquid fish products are a good source of nutrition despite the concern that some wild fish are harvested solely for the purpose of fertilizer.
The prickly topic of vaccines came up. Many vaccines include ingredients that are GMO in origin, but they are needed for organic livestock more than in conventional.
There weren’t a lot of decisions made at this meeting as final comments on sunset materials will occur in the fall.
The board did approve the recommended rule change that will protect Native Ecosystems from conversion to organic production.
The Fall meeting will be held in St. Paul, MN,October 24, through October 26, 2018. This will be the last chance to let the board know if a host of materials are still needed in organic production.
Included on this list are materials such as ethylene, sulfur, plastic mulch and lime. If you are a farmer or handler, it’s imperative to pay attention and speak up to ensure we have the right tools to grow and protect the organic market.
Balancing the needs of the market with the meaning of organic knowing full well that we live in an imperfect, polluted world is not an easy task.
Holding the USDA accountable to the organic process appears to be an ongoing endeavor.
Perhaps the organic industry will find some unity in the struggles we face in an ever-changing world.
Show up at the fall meeting to find out.