NOSB Deliberation in Denver
NOSB Deliberation in Denver - THIS is what democracy looks like
Stephen Walker, Operations Manager
The National Organic Standards Board held its spring meeting April 19-21, 2017, in a subterranean ballroom meeting space at the downtown Sheraton Hotel in Denver. With some upheaval from Administration change, meeting documents were published just a couple weeks before comments were due. Still, 2045 written comments were submitted, including eight from MOSA (see our website). Most meeting time was devoted to receiving verbal testimony from various organic stakeholders. MOSA sent seven staff to this meeting. I’ve certainly attended more dramatic NOSB meetings, with more decisions on the line. But, this meeting was particularly noteworthy for its respectful and thoughtful discussion.
MOSA Certification Team Lead Kristen Adams reflected, “I found our Board, as a whole, to be quite open minded, truly having the future of this movement in mind. They were well educated, with each having obvious areas of specialties but also cooperative in spirit. There are some hard decisions ahead... At the end of the day, I may or may not agree with the final decision, but because I got to experience this thoughtful Board, I feel like I can stand behind whatever decision they make. They gained my trust.”
This was also the first NOSB meeting for Certification Specialist Erik Gundersen. He noted, “I was unsure what to expect. Would I fall asleep, like folks who put on C-SPAN to fall asleep? Or would I be engaged and on the edge of my seat, like folks who put on C-SPAN for entertainment? I found it was the latter. What struck me most was the tone of the three-day conversation between NOSB and the public. It was thoughtful, engaging, passionate and even at times funny. Humor always helps when discussing things like ancillary substances permitted for use in cellulose. Given the current state of our country, the democratic nature of the Board was inspiring to say the least. Board members listened and heard each other and the public. It was heartening to know that this is where our standards come from: a place of intelligence, conversation and community.”
Indeed, we have a very special public process in this organic community. This is what democracy should look like. Meeting highlights, and flavor, follow.
After 13+ hours of public comment, Francis Thicke (NOSB Environmentalist/Conservationist seat) noted organic community division is on whether or not various “‘ponic” or other soil-less container-grown systems can meet the organic regulations. Each side is using the Organic Foods Production Act to support their view, certifiers are split as to whether they’ll certify ‘ponics operations, and any decision will cause some economic damage.
Jessie Buie (producer seat) framed the NOSB’s challenge. “The most import way we uphold the Seal is working with the existing regulation. We need to determine that these entities meet the organic standards and not their own standards... As a Board, how do we get there is the big question. We need to come up with a consensus we all can believe in.”
As at recent NOSB meetings, heartfelt testimony on this ‘ponics issue continued in Denver. Dave Chapman has farmed organically for 37 years, and served on the USDA hydroponic task force. He calmly expressed his values, and some grave concerns. “The foundation of organic agriculture has always been the development and maintenance of fertile, living soil. We believe that all benefits proceed from this starting point - healthy plants, healthy animals, healthy humans, and now we learn, a healthy climate... This debate will decide if the USDA is worthy to serve and protect organic integrity. If you decide that soil is unimportant, certified organic will continue as a brand, but it will lose its place as the world leader of the healthy soil movement. And the world needs that movement more than ever. We are running out of time... The NOP was created to serve and protect, not to reinvent… This is the most important recommendation you will ever make. You will either tear apart the organic movement, or you will start to restore it. When organic certification is reduced to a marketing strategy that misleads consumers, it loses its soul, and it will soon lose its followers as well.”
MOSA certifies several operations that incorporate ‘ponics into their organic production systems. We recognize the need for more specific organic regulations for these systems, and see value in having them under the National Organic Program. Kristen Adams testified, “We believe that the inclusion of these production systems within… organic production offers innovative, creative solutions to our food sovereignty challenges and may even have a place in reducing the conversion of fragile ecosystems to soil-based organic production. For example, one of the aquaponic producers certified by MOSA is located on the edge of... a Wetland of International Importance. The aquaculture facility on this parcel contributes significantly to the economic stability of this multi-generational, family owned farm and allows for the remaining fragile land base to be uncultivated and preserved as an education center. On the other end of the ecological spectrum, (these) contribute to local food systems in urban and peri-urban settings, where soil-based agriculture may not be possible… These production systems have a place in ensuring that all communities have access to fresh, organic and healthful foods… It is important that the organic community lead in the future development of innovative, sustainable production methods.”
Phil LaRocca, farmer, wine maker, and CCOF Board President, commented, “I’ve spent half of my life building soil. Having said that, we would like to see organic hydroponics labeled “hydroponic” under the organic label and let the consumer decide. If I have a choice between a tomato grown in the soil and hydroponic, I would choose the soil. However, if the only choice was organic hydroponic and a conventional soil grown tomato, I would choose the organic hydroponic.”
Dan Seitz (consumer/public interest seat) noted, “This issue gets at the heart of two basic conflicting philosophies: the mechanistic, where humans have the capacity to improve the human condition indefinitely; and the natural paradigm where we should mimic natural systems with minimal influence.” Steve Ela (producer) cautioned about human hubris, noting that organic systems are incredibly complex and we have a very hard time trying to recreate them. Ela is among five new NOSB members, who all showed “intelligence, conversation and community.” Others include: Asa Bradman (environmental/conservation), Joelle Mosso (handler/processor), MOSA Board member Sue Baird (consumer/public interest), Dave Mortensen (scientist), and A-dae Romero-Briones (consumer/public interest).
NOSB Chair Tom Chapman called for balance. “Any compromise on this issue can’t compromise consumer trust in the label… and, we need to get beyond reductionist arguments. The law says organic is about the soil, but it also says it is about inputs. The system is greater than just one item, and we need to address all of these.”
Romero-Briones provided an indigenous peoples’ perspective, “Our food systems are reflections of our nation's history, our political policies, and our social justice… When we look at legal systems, there are biases in the law. Unfortunately, there is a whole class of people that don’t have access to land in this country. Our success as a people is tied to the land, but in Hawaii there are systems that are old and innovative and can meet what we think of as organic and sustainable.”
Certification agent Scott Rice said, “I represent a diverse stakeholder group. I’ve seen so many different operations and have expanded my views of what can be organic... As a certifier I immediately get heartburn in trying to decide how we can evaluate in a fair way… I would like to minimize ‘it depends’ answers.”
Dave Mortensen discussed scientists’ credibility challenge. “While scientists are very objective about their methods, they are incredibly subjective about the questions that they ask. Few people ask ‘why are we asking these questions and not others?’ As a group we need to be asking… What’s the ecological footprint of the practices? How resilient are the systems? What are the ecoservice implications? I understand food deserts. I understand different communities and points of view. We must create space for conversation and that means together, face-to-face, not just on the phone. It’s very important that we get out and see these operations.”
Asa Bradman noted that he’s compromise oriented. He tends to not want to prohibit, but would prefer the Board says what it wants, then goes forward. Another environmentalist, Harriet Behar, noted, “organic is not an input substitution; It is a whole system… a type of agriculture that offers hope.”
Toward the end of discussion, Dan Seitz noted, “This organic deliberative process is very heartening. We should invite congress to come see this process. They could learn from NOSB how to have productive conversation and work toward consensus.” This is what democracy looks like, indeed. Stay tuned for a proposal back on the table, in October.
Eliminating the incentive to convert native ecosystems to organic crop production
There was also a lot of reaction to a discussion document regarding land use prior to certification. The three-year transition requirement can inadvertently incentivize damaging native ecosystems. I commented, “We’re at odds with our principles if we continue conversion of biologically valuable lands to organic production. Our work should be about improvement, about promoting new life, not further agricultural destruction… We’re in the business of drawing boundaries. But, this land conversion issue is tough to regulate. Our certification systems may not be the best method for addressing this. My friend Dave Engel gifted many of us with his wisdom and wit. Early in my time working with Dave, I remember he said ‘the biggest barrier to organic is the space between the ears.’ I think if people understand WHY organic, and use some discernment, then they work toward doing the right thing, toward honoring deep organic principles. Beyond that, we certifiers can regulate, if we have clear expectations that are practical and enforceable.”
The board will continue work on identifying and defining the type of land that should never be converted to organic production, then will consider appropriate regulatory changes.
Strengthening organic seed guidance
As at other recent NOSB meetings, we commented on strengthening compliance with organic seed use requirements. NOSB’s proposal, now sent back for further work, recommended a regulatory change and revisions to existing NOP Handbook seed guidance (NOP 5029). Among several comments noting needed revisions for reasonable implementation, MOSA’s Lynne Haynor testified, “Proposed language implies that once a producer uses only organic seed, that producer can never again source non-organic seed... We caution that this requirement may disable organic farmers who need specially adapted seeds. It particularly may hamstring organic farmers who have been early adopters of sourcing organic seed from being able to flexibly adapt to changing markets or environmental conditions.”
Michael Sligh, from Rural Advancement Foundation International, similarly cautioned, “We do not want to inadvertently discourage greater genetic diversity on organic farms by randomly restricting seed choices or contribute to increased genetic uniformity in our zeal to increase organic seed usage. This is especially true during this period of global history where our future food resilience depends on longer crop and more diverse rotations; more poly-cultures and an overall significant increase of on-farm agricultural biodiversity, not less.”
Lynne also reiterated our GMO concerns. “The current responsibility for preventing GMO contamination unfairly burdens organic and non-GMO producers. While the organic community continues productive work to guard against GMO incursion, USDA leadership is critical for ensuring that the responsibility for preventing GMO contamination is shared. Without meaningful shared responsibility, coexistence cannot work, and the organic label is harmed.” Future NOSB work will more specifically address seed purity.
I attended the April 18th National Organic Coalition (NOC) Pre-NOSB meeting. We heard government transition updates. There’s a lot of uncertainty, but there’s also some hope.
As of this writing, Sonny Perdue is confirmed as the new Secretary of Agriculture, and we await the appointment of some 400 high-level political positions in USDA, including the Deputy Secretary, Inspector General, and the Under Secretaries for Natural Resources and the Environment; Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services; Rural Development; Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services; Food Safety; Research Education and Economics; and Marketing and Regulatory Programs (including the Agricultural Marketing Service, which oversees the National Organic Program). The USDA transition team seems fairly unknowledgeable about organic issues, yet supportive, recognizing organic’s importance to rural community economic viability, consumer and farmer choice, and economic value. We must communicate organic’s positive messages, that resonate across the political spectrum.
A Trump executive order requires each agency to eliminate two regulations for each new regulation implemented. This only applies to “significant” rules (with over $100M impact), but that includes most NOP work underway, including origin of livestock, apiculture, aquaculture, and regulating imports.
The Office of Management and Budget will tell each agency what they can spend on regulations. For some, that might be a negative number. Trump’s “skinny” budget, ahead of a 2018 full budget proposal, called for a ~25% cut to USDA.
By summer, all agencies must have a reorganizing plan, including a review officer and committee to determine which regulations they’ll repeal. These dynamics force future farm bill discussion to focus on cuts, rather than needs. The NOP staff has dwindled from 45 persons to 36. The reorganization plan must precede new hires. In the meantime, organic showed 13% growth for 2016. There are now 24,650 organic operations in the US, and over 37,000 around the world.
NOP Deputy Administrator Miles McEvoy provided other updates. NOP is focusing on organic supply chain integrity, especially with international trade or long supply chains. In upcoming audits, NOP will check that certified operations have sufficient records to show compliance of organic products they receive. Records must have enough detail, maintain traceability, document contamination/commingling prevention, and be available at inspections. Internationally, organic trade is expanding and fraudulent certificates continue to be identified. There’s ongoing investigation into increased organic corn and soy imports from Turkey. There are weaknesses in the system, but, the focus on imports resonates well with the values of the transition team.
The NOP will require import certificates for products from Mexico. Mexico now has its own organic regulation, and equivalence discussion is underway. The average administrative cost of each shipment-specific certificate is about $75, and Mexico sends tens of thousands of trucks across our border annually. So, there’s a need for flexibility in how these are generated. Furthermore, most importing and exporting parties are not certified, yet, but here’s discussion on requiring certification for some parts of the supply chain that are now exempt or excluded.
The NOP is also getting significantly more complaints than they are able to handle. In the last half year, the NOP has received over 180 complaints, but closed only 1/3 of them. McEvoy noted this is not sustainable, and they must rethink complaint handling.
On the other hand, appeals turnaround timeframe is now around 120 days, much improved from five years ago, when some appeals took a couple years to close.
Livestock and Poultry Practices Rule support
With Administration change, the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices Rule was originally delayed until May 19, 2017, and has now been delayed again until November 14, 2017. Most organic egg operations meet the new requirements, but the rule may be targeted because noncompliance of some larger operations may affect about 75% of organic eggs now in the marketplace. Limited organic opposition to this rule adds to opposition from many conventional livestock groups, who do not want to have to counter a higher example. A conventional talking point also suggests increased risk of avian influenza if birds must have outdoor access. In fact, this has been refuted scientifically, and the new rules would still allow for temporary confinement dependent on conditions. There is hope that a consumer push for stronger standards may sway opinions. It’s bad precedent for Congress to attempt to unravel the organic standards. But, we might consider next steps, should the rule not go through as planned.
MOSA’s Cori Skolaski commented on the importance of this Rule being implemented. “MOSA certifies over 2000 operations in 22 states, and certifies more livestock operations than any other agency. This gives us a keen awareness of the challenges related to organic certification of various livestock species… The Rule provides a welcome level of specificity that we believe will bring about consistency in enforcement within the industry, which in turn translates into a level playing field for producers, and greater consumer trust in the Organic Seal.”
The NOSB unanimously passed a resolution urging the Secretary to allow the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices rule to become effective on May 19, 2017, without further delay, but despite this support, on May 10 the USDA delayed implementation until November 14. They also issued a notice for public comment on options related to the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices final rule. (See “Certification Policy Update” on Page 3 for complete details).
Clarifying “emergency” for use of parasiticides
Synthetic parasiticides are allowed for use in some organic livestock production, in emergency situations. The NOSB discussed what situations that would qualify as “emergency” use.
MOSA’s Jackie DeMinter testified, “Routine use of parasiticides is defined and it’s logical that the term ‘emergency’ would also have a definition, however, any definition should also consider other references in the standards and should not specifically refer to parasiticides... Our intention is to better assess the plans for prevention already in place, emergency measures planned in the event of an outbreak, and why such a situation may arise. In our experience, an emergency would occur when one or more animals are going to die, or be permanently damaged, or are going to spread the parasites to more livestock if they do not receive treatment right away... Definition and examples of emergencies would help with certifier consistency.”
The Board will bring forth a full proposal this fall. Should it pass, USDA will determine whether rulemaking or guidance is the best way forward.
In 2013, USDA released instruction to certifiers (NOP 2027) requiring every inspector to be evaluated while conducting an inspection every year. MOSA and others raised concerns about logistical challenges and potential impacts on organic growth. We appreciate recent revisions to NOP 2027, which allow risk-based flexibility. This proposal will be reworked for more focus on defining needed inspector qualifications.
BPA in packaging
Bisphenol A (BPA) is a packaging component that’s raised concerns about food contamination potential and negative health effects. A discussion document sought feedback on whether related organic regulations are needed. There’s apparent interest in prohibiting BPA, but also concerns about the best regulatory approach and whether it would impact decisions on many other packaging materials. A forthcoming technical review will provide more context for deliberation.
L-Methionine, an essential amino acid for human protein formation and healthy growth, will be added to the National List at §205.605(b), only “for use in nutritionally complete pediatric enteral formulas based on soy protein.” L-Methionine is not produced naturally by humans, so must be consumed through food or synthetic nutritional amendments. The decision considered the essentiality of organic soy based enteral products with complete nutrition for infants and children with medical conditions.
The NOSB discussed 43 National List inputs undergoing the 2019 Sunset Review. Most comments favored relisting most materials, but some concerns were raised about the following materials. Stakeholder input is sought for these.
- Crops: Herbicidal Soaps, Biodegradable Biobased Mulch Film, Boric Acid, Copper Sulfate, Fixed Coppers, Humic Acids, Vitamin B1
- Livestock: Oxytocin, Copper Sulfate, Procaine
- Handling: Attapulgite, Magnesium Chloride, Sodium Phosphates, Casings, Konjac Flour and Pectin
Several other materials proposals will be revisited at the next NOSB meeting. These include:
- Marine algaes, for crops and handling. Crop inputs need different criteria than handling ingredients.
- Tocopherols. An annotation change would encourage sourcing non-synthetic or organic forms.
- Ancillary substances for cellulose.
The NOSB rejected a petition to add short DNA tracers to §205.605(b) as an improved method to support traceability of organic products, because it failed to meet the requirement for essentiality, and there were concerns about the use of excluded methods.
Thoughts on process
A couple thoughtful public comments advised NOSB on bigger picture concerns.
Bill Wolf, of Wolf, DiMatteo + Associates, works with farmers, companies, NGOs and governments to grow organic. He suggested considerations when reviewing inputs. “What is OK in organic? Thinking like an earthworm – imagining what products and practices promote our biotic living systems – can help sort out what materials we can use. The List Criteria quantifies this principle but was not intended to overly restrict the toolbox organic producers and handlers need. We need choices, not just one solution for a problem. So, we ask: 1. Don’t make “shrinking” the NL toolbox a goal; 2. Be open to innovation and creativity that fits the organic philosophy. The precautionary principle cuts both ways; and 3. Will your vote help to increase organic acreage and earthworms?”
And, NOSB alumnus Michael Sligh spoke to positive outreach, and also cautioned about delay in NOP response to NOSB work. “As we all engage with this new Congress and new Administration, it is critical that we stand united in positive outreach, and education to ensure that they are all fully apprised of the multiple benefits of organic to our economy, to rural areas, to the environment and how organic represents a very significant international market and remains the fastest growing segment of agriculture, built on very strong consumer confidence… possibly the only industry that has proactively sought federal regulations and oversight as a way to establish, grow, and defend a now $43 billion US organic market. Organic actually thrives because of this very tedious, transparent and hyper-participatory process of continuously updating and making timely refinements to our regulations…
“(We wish to bring to the attention an) ongoing concern that needs community-wide cooperation… It continues to cause unnecessary harms, confusion and negative publicity to our otherwise very positive brand. The pattern is one where the NOSB makes recommendations… but the NOP does not act with sufficient speed or provide enough guidance or regulatory clarity to certifiers, on where to draw the line. So, in effect it is left up to individual interpretations that become embedded across a growingly wide organic certification spectrum. This leads to... inconsistency of enforcement and consumer and farmer frustrations and confusion. Hydroponics, aquaculture and animal welfare/access to the outdoors are three very different examples where this “gray” area between OFPA, NOSB recommendations and NOP formal regulations has led to multiple interpretations across our organic guarantee system, all with very deleterious results. New genetic techniques could also fall prey to this pitfall.”
Many concerns discussed in Denver will see continued discussion, with proposals ready for the next meeting, October 31 through November 2 in Jacksonville FL. Future NOSB work also will consider greenhouse and container production, contamination issues in farm inputs (ex: manure), anaerobic digestate - food waste, many new materials petitions, an organic poultry task force, and a proposal on excluded methods terminology.
As we looked forward, Harriet Behar closed the meeting with some poignant words from Dave Engel. Dave memorably sung these words, to a Stan Rogers tune, at an NOSB meeting in 2003.
Leopold and Carson both wrote and warned about stuff like this,
That the web of life and silent spring simply cannot co-exist.
And still we’re so dang wrapped up in our technology and greed.
We think we’re cool but we are fools to play God with the seed…
And so it is our time will come, our time will come just so.
For each of us one by one, our time will come to go.
And when we meet St. Pete he’ll ring that bell and he will say,
Dear friend, you farmed organic. You did very well. Let us pray
That more folks will take the time to farm organic
And see the hand of Howard reaching for the horizon.
Then it will be so fine, there will not be all this panic
In sweat and mud with tears and blood.
This truth we set our eyes on.