Help Wanted: Participate in Our Organic Regulatory System
Help Wanted: Participate in Our Organic Regulatory System
By Stephen Walker, Accreditation and Industry Affairs Manager
Continuous improvement is key to our organic movement and our organic regulatory system. MOSA brings a strong national voice toward improving organic. We aim for stronger standards, with practicality and keeping organic accessible, and our regulatory work is driven by recognizing how organic agriculture offers solutions. Our work - your work - helps address hunger and malnutrition, poverty, water use challenges, climate change, and unsustainable production and consumption. There’s great value in participating in continuous improvement of our regulatory systems. It’s rewarding work, and we encourage you to join in.
One way to participate is by offering your perspective at the semi-annual National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) meetings, which help the USDA develop and refine our standards. NOSB public comment webinars are April 19th and 21st. The public meeting is April 26th-28th. It’s all online again, so it’s easy to participate - no need to travel. Full details are on the NOSB Spring 2022 Meeting webpage. This meeting’s documents related to Program improvement and organic materials are detailed below.
In November, the National Organic Program (NOP) sent a memo requesting NOSB review and public comment facilitation on the NOP Risk Mitigation Table, which documents how NOP safeguards against potential conflict of interest in accreditation oversight of certifiers. The Certification, Accreditation and Compliance Subcommittee (CACS) found that all potential conflicts of interest are included and are clear.
The CACS is continuing discussion regarding “Human Capital Management” needs, with a “NOSB Technical Support Initiative” document. This initiative’s rationale is simple. NOSB work isn’t paid, and many Board members have full time jobs. NOSB members’ workload can take 10-15 hours per week. This limits the number of people willing to seek Board membership. Additional technical support could make voluntary NOSB work more tenable and attractive. Commenters were supportive, but expressed some concerns including not compromising process integrity and autonomy.
The CACS is also continuing discussion on fraud deterrence and Modernization of Supply Chain Traceability. With improvements, organics may be able to claim being the most traceable food system in the world. Consumers expect a transparent organic supply chain. More consistent supply chain data reporting is an NOSB priority. This document highlights two low burden key elements that can aid in deterring fraud: 1) reporting acres per crop on operator certificates and 2) a universal bill of lading. The forthcoming Strengthening Organic Enforcement (SOE) rule may require crop acreage reporting. Acreage data, as confidential business information, would only be available to certifiers. But, that leaves a transparency gap for buyers and inspectors. As to the bill of lading, certifiers will be improving auditing forms to satisfy requirements in the pending Origin of Livestock (OOL) rule. That’s an opportunity for certifiers to collaboratively develop forms so dairy inspectors know to ask consistent questions and can expect specific data needed for rigorous OOL audits. Similarly a “universal bill of lading” for all agricultural commodities would aim to require consistent reporting information in organic transactions where bulk goods change form or are aggregated. Transaction documents would require unique lot numbers, crop year grown, transaction date, crop, and buyer and seller names.
The Handling Subcommittee is recommending to not approve a petition to add cetylpyridinium chloride to the National List as an antimicrobial processing aid on poultry or poultry parts at slaughter or processing plants. Concerns included residues on surfaces and poultry, whether expansion of organic’s sanitizer toolkit is essential, and review pathway complications because the material requires use of an inert in its formulation.
The Handling Subcommittee is proposing to amend phosphoric acid’s National List annotation to also allow its use “as an acidifier to adjust pH of an extraction solvent to extract antioxidants or other target molecules from lamiaceae plants, provided the amount of acid used shall not exceed the minimum needed to lower pH to 2.5.” The review considered phosphoric acid’s essentiality as the most effective pH adjustment acid, its low negative health impacts, and some uncertainty regarding exactly how this is going to be used.
The Materials Subcommittee will continue discussion on organic research priorities, and will discuss a petition for Distilled Tall Oil intended to be used in crop and livestock production as an inert ingredient and as a solvent, sticker, anti-leaching agent, and time-release agent in pesticides. The Subcommittee also has a proposal to clarify cell and protoplast fusion’s positions in excluded methods determinations. Uses between taxonomic plant families are determined to be prohibited. Some uses between the same taxonomic plant families could be allowed.
The Crops Subcommittee is proposing to prohibit highly soluble nitrogen (HSN) fertilizers with a C:N ratio of 3:1 or less, including in blended fertilizers, unless use is 20% or less of crop needs. Comments from long-time organic organizations and growers tended to favor limiting HSN fertilizers based on the organic principle of enhancing soil biology rather than applying immediately available plant nutrients. They also noted that low carbon to nitrogen ratios and the high solubility could cause environmental issues. Proponents cited the need for immediately available nitrogen sources as a bridge for when unusual events cause nitrogen deficits to crops, and soil processes have not had a chance to recharge the available nitrogen. They also note that these materials can help prevent nitrogen loss through targeting of nitrogen applications to specific crop needs.
The Crops Subcommittee also recommends allowing synthetic carbon dioxide for organic crop production use as an algicide, disinfectant, and sanitizer, including irrigation system cleaning systems and as a plant or soil amendment. Carbon dioxide has inherently low risk and is approved as a processing aid. Since it’s synthetic, Subcommittee discussions considered its need or benefits over other allowed alternatives.
The Policy Development Subcommittee is proposing minor clerical changes to the NOSB Policy and Procedures Manual for public comment process clarity. They propose adding a sentence requiring written commenters to refrain from personal attacks.
The meeting agenda also begins the 2024 sunset review process to decide whether current materials should stay on the National List of allowed and prohibited substances. For crops, inputs up for re-review are: soap-based herbicides, biodegradable biobased mulch film, boric acid, sticky traps/barriers, elemental sulfur, fixed coppers, copper sulfate, polyoxin D zinc salt, humic acids, micronutrients (boron, and sulfates, carbonates, oxides or silicates of zinc, copper, iron, manganese, molybdenum, selenium, and cobalt), vitamins B1, C, E, squid byproducts, lead salts, and tobacco dust. For livestock, sunset reviews include: chlorhexidine, glucose, tolazoline, copper sulfate, elemental sulfur, and lidocaine. And for handling, potential sunsets include: (nonagricultural materials) - attapulgite, bentonite, diatomaceous earth, magnesium chloride, nitrogen, sodium carbonate, acidified sodium chlorite, carbon dioxide, and sodium phosphates, and (norganic agricultural materials) - casings, pectin, and potassium acid tartrate.
Four new NOSB members will join the April meeting. Liz Graznak (Missouri) is appointed to an environmental protection and resource conservation seat. She operates an 82-acre organic vegetable farm, has an Environmental Studies degree, and has shown a commitment to sustainable agriculture during previous Board appointments. Allison Johnson (California) fills a public/consumer interest group seat. She works for the Natural Resources Defense Council, is an attorney with organic regulations and certifier experience, and has focused her work on sustainable food systems. Dr. Dilip Nandwani (Tennessee) fills the scientist seat. He’s a Tennessee State University professor with a Botany Ph.D. His 10-years of teaching experience include a focus on organic agriculture, certification, and crop science. And, Javier Zamora (California) is appointed to a farmer seat. He operates a 100-acre vegetable/fruit farm and has 20 years of farming experience. He’s provided farmers assistance with direct marketing regulations, organic compliance, and developing direct marketing channels.
Organic Farming and Climate-Smart Agriculture
In response to a letter the NOSB recently sent to Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack, the NOP has asked the NOSB to start a dialogue about the links between organic farming and climate-smart agriculture. The Biden Administration is committed to curbing climate change, and USDA is interested in developing and rolling out climate-smart agricultural strategies and resources for producers. The NOSB letter emphasized how organic agriculture exemplifies the climate-smart agriculture principles and so should play a prominent role in USDA work to reduce agriculture’s carbon footprint.
The USDA recently published a supply chain report - “USDA Agri-Food Supply Chain Assessment: Program and Policy Options for Strengthening Resilience.” This looks at vulnerabilities and current federal actions to secure and strengthen supply chains, prompted by President Biden’s February, 2021 executive order, and informed by public comments. The report highlights organic as a model for climate-smart agriculture and delivering value-based market incentives that support food system diversification. Key organic supporting policies include allowing sourcing organic for food procurements, removing barriers and improving access to USDA loans and grant programs for organic producers, ensuring that USDA efforts on climate-smart agriculture enable organic producers to access and inform those efforts, expanding investments in USDA’s Organic Research and Education Initiative, and establishing programs across USDA to incentivize transition to organic.
A March 21st NOP listening session sought comments to help prioritize its standards development work, including past NOSB recommendations. Comments are NOT sought for rulemaking priorities already in progress, including the SOE Final Rule, OOL Final Rule, Organic Livestock and Poultry Standards (OLPS), or Inert Ingredients in Pesticides for Organic Production. Comments are sought regarding the current NOP structure’s effectiveness (with six subdivisions including the Office of the Deputy Administrator) in supporting the Program’s mission. And comments are sought regarding the prioritization of outstanding NOSB recommendations and NOP Handbook updates (specifically, comments on whether issues not currently included should be considered for regulatory action). Some unaddressed NOSB recommendations date back many years. These include recommendations related to apiculture, pet food, hydroponic/aeroponic/greenhouse/containers, mushrooms, aquaculture, livestock emergency parasiticide use, native ecosystems conversion, commercial availability determination criteria, organic seed use, genetic engineering and excluded methods determinations, personal care products, and livestock vaccines from excluded methods. MOSA has commented on most of these issues over the years and has weighed in again- MOSA Commentary.
NOP and ACA Training
An annual continuous improvement time marker is annual training for certifiers, inspectors, and others working with the organic standards, presented by the NOP and the Accredited Certifiers Association. We were pleased we could register all MOSA certification staff for these January and February training sessions. In fact, over 800 folks registered for the NOP sessions.
USDA’s Organic Priorities include: addressing climate change via climate-smart agriculture; advancing racial justice, equity and opportunity; creating more and better market opportunities; tackling food and nutrition insecurity; and making USDA a great place to work for everyone. NOP’s 2022 goals include: strong organic control systems, robust enforcement, developing standards, and engaging stakeholders. The new SOE, OOL, and OLPS rules are in clearance or already under management and budget office review.
We heard about areas where certifiers' work can improve, including information sharing with other certifiers, checking certification applicant histories, and assessing our administrative capacity before taking on more work. NOP stressed the value of Organic Integrity Learning Center (OILC) educational tools.
Other sessions covered: NOP’s risk-based oversight of certifiers, material review audits, remote inspections during COVID, import certificates’ data and fraud prevention capabilities, a recap on imports and international investigations, NOP Compliance collaboration with certifiers, complaints review processes and complaint filing best practices, current human capital projects and organic workforce planning, and certifier audit summaries. Upcoming certifier accreditation audits will focus on certifiers’ staff expertise, capacity, annual program reviews, material review programs, livestock operations’ compliance, and natural resources and biodiversity conservation. We heard a lot about improving livestock producers' compliance enforcement, including necessary recordkeeping and inspector verification. Upcoming OILC livestock-related training updates will include verifying temporary confinement, evaluating actual feed fed, and calculating weighted averages of dry matter intake from pasture.
I was impressed with the thoughtfulness and cooperative spirit shown by fellow certifiers, inspectors, and NOP staff as we aim to improve our work. NOP Deputy Administrator Jennifer Tucker commented that, “In organic, all the easy stuff has already been figured out. Only the hard stuff remains.”
The sessions concluded with a thought-provoking keynote presentation on diversity, equity, and inclusion in the organic industry. Discussion about how we attract and retain staff and inspectors emphasized the value of transferable skills in folks with different backgrounds, and how life experience can outweigh “checkbox” credentials. We can train for particular skills, and many backgrounds can find a place in our agricultural work. One presenter commented, “Don’t try to fit in or be what you’re not. Be who you are to make an impact.”
Considering our legacy
As I consider our continuous improvement efforts and the global importance of this organic movement, I’m also thinking about our legacy. What values will we leave with our descendants? It’s not lost on me that I’m writing this near my dad’s birthday, after he passed away last April. He planted many good seeds over his lifetime and some of those are growing in me. And on our local radio station this past week, I heard a “Who’s in the Kitchen” interview with an old friend, Catherine Young - educator, farmer, and writer. She talked about homesteading, seed saving, and shared some poetry. I was particularly intrigued by her thoughts on the seed rematriation movement in indigenous cultures, which recognizes how humans and plants evolve together. Fedco Seeds says of rematriation, “Seeds represent food, and they also represent culture and relationships. All across the world, people and seeds are asking to be reunited so that old agreements can be renewed.”
Seeds have always been among my favorite metaphors. They provide hope for the future as they link to the past.
In that vein, our organic movement’s future is hopeful. According to data from 190 countries, FiBL and IFOAM – Organics International’s 23rd edition of “The World of Organic Agriculture” shows the global organic market showed its highest growth ever in 2020, even against the backdrop of the pandemic. The U.S. continued as the leading organic market. There are 3.4 million organic producers worldwide, a steady increase of organic farmland, and in 18 countries, at least ten percent of farmland is organic. Indeed, that’s a lot of help, and a nice legacy as IFOAM celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2022.
From thinking globally to acting locally, I’d again invite you to consider ways you might join in, from plugging away with purpose, to commenting on our continuous improvement efforts, and even to considering joining organic’s regulatory work force. As MOSA and this community continue wrestling with capacity concerns, we recognize that many of you may have skills to bring to our daily work. We’re looking for organic inspectors, review staff, and seasoned organic perspectives from folks with applicable skills and passion for what’s best about organic. Whether you’re planting organic seeds literally or metaphorically, we’re grateful for your community engagement.