NOSB in St. Louis
The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) met in mid-November for its Fall 2016 meeting, in St. Louis, MO. Nearly 2800 written comments from various organic stakeholders were considered, and the NOSB heard around 200 more comments at the meeting - over 13 hours of testimony. MOSA sent five staff to the meeting. Again, we heard a lot of passionate and eloquent words, brought forth by agenda discussion items including: hydroponics; defining newly-developing genetic engineering technologies and preventing their entry into organic systems; strengthening organic seed requirements; and removing the organic food allowance for carrageenan, and the allowance for ivermectin in organic livestock production. The Board took action on 19 proposals, considered eight discussion documents and reports, and voted on National List inputs up for their 2018 sunset review. Highlights, with some words of passion, are below.
Hydroponics, and other container production
There was drama and an elevated air of gravity throughout the week as farmers and entrepreneurs presented a range of opinions on consistency, or not, between organic principles and hydroponics and other contained production systems.
MOSA presented written and oral comments on these and several other meeting issues. In a webinar ahead of the St. Louis meeting, Certification Specialist Kristen Adams spoke to organic principles. “We support the continued expansion of the organic industry into new systems that are sustainable and in line with organic principles. The standards are rooted in improving and maintaining our whole environment. The backbone of organic production is about complex natural interactions and symbiotic relationships. While we’re traditionally focused on soil ecology, we recognize that life and all of its diversity exists in a continuum of living conditions, not just those reliant on soil. An organic producer’s role is to nurture and steward the complex interactions found in nature, to foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Soil is a part, but holistic thinking is the heart.”
MOSA sponsored the National Organic Coalition (NOC) Pre-NOSB meeting, where an effort to gather opinion on more traditional container production led to more opinions about the hydroponic end of the production continuum. In its written comments, NOC stated, “Although there exists a continuum of methods used in greenhouses and utilizing various ‘containers,’ we believe that the distinction between the ends of the continuum… is clear enough for the NOSB to vote on whether hydroponics/aquaponics/bioponics should be eligible to be certified organic. We fully support the... separation of hydroponics/aquaponics/bioponics from other containerized methods for the purpose of NOSB deliberation, and we support the process of addressing the other containerized methods through a discussion document.”
Many comments considered lack of biologic activity and carbon sequestration in hydroponic systems. In his oral comments at the meeting, organic farmer and Hydroponic and Aquaponic Task Force member Dave Chapman showed a coco coir doormat as a comparison to the lifeless coir substrate used to anchor plant roots in some hydroponic systems. NOC comments pointed out J.I. Rodale’s definition of organic as "a system whereby a fertile soil is maintained by applying nature's own law of replenishing it – that is, by adding organic matter to preserve humus rather than using chemical fertilizers,” and reiterated Chapman’s written comments, “There is the belief that organic should be solely defined by the use of approved ‘natural’ fertilizers, pesticides, and other inputs, and the ‘growing medium’ becomes unimportant. This perspective favors the approach of conventional agriculture: ‘Feed the plant, not the soil.’ By this logic, a tomato grown in coconut husks can be organic as long as it is fed approved fertilizers and is only sprayed with approved pesticides. By this logic, a chicken can live all its life in a factory and still be organic, as long as it is fed organic grain and is only treated with approved medicines.” NOC comments added,“We believe that proponents of bioponics have muddied the definition… by claiming that soil ecology operates in bioponics. Bioponics may rely on biological activity in the nutrient solution to break down complex molecules and make them available to the plants. And the nutrient solution in bioponics has an ecology –as all biological systems do. But to call this a ‘soil ecology’ is incorrect. It does not involve soil organisms that interact with crops in the symbiotic fashion of an ecological community.”
Discussion also considered alternative growing systems’ benefits for changing times. Organic consumer Beth Walker Stephenson, of Viroqua, gave testimony illustrating these implications. “I think a lot about my family’s food. I never thought I’d be debating raising our food other than in the soil. But... I am making comment today because of a feeling in my bones that we must carefully consider the implications of closing the door on organic alternatives to growing in soil. Key concerns for me are food security and safety, in our uncertain world... The morning after the election, I hugged (my daughter) close, placed my hand over her heart and said, ‘Don’t ever forget you were born at this time for a reason.’ In my 53 years, I’ve learned that life presents many shades of gray. There are fewer absolutes. I see both sides. An open mind can make decisions difficult. At the National Organic Coalition meeting I heard elders’ deep concern about impacting economics and principles if we open organic production beyond soil. But now, more than ever, we must consider new ideas and ways.”
With recognition of the contentiousness in the room, ahead of Crops Subcommittee discussion and voting, National Organic Program Deputy Administrator Miles McEvoy paused to read Wendell Berry’s “Peace of Wild Things.”
When despair grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
For all the gravity and divisions of opinion, comments and discussion were notably respectful. After some challenging wordsmithing via Robert’s Rules, which NOSB Chair Tracy Favre compared to “making sausage in public,” the NOSB passed a resolution reaffirming a prohibition on systems with entirely water based substrates.
“The NOSB respects the efforts of the former NOSB that led to their 2010 recommendation on terrestrial plants in greenhouses. The NOSB recognizes that the foundation of organic agriculture is based upon a systems approach to producing food in the natural environment, which respects the complex dynamic interaction between soil, water, air, sunlight and animals needed to produce a thriving agro-ecosystem. At the heart of the organic philosophy is the belief that our responsibilities of good stewardship go beyond production of healthy food and include protection of natural resources, biodiversity and the ecosystem services upon which we all depend. We encourage future NOSB to consider this wider perspective as the board undertakes the challenges of assessing and defining innovations in agriculture that may be compatible in a system of organic production. In the case of the hydroponic/aquaponic issue, it is the majority (opinion) of the current members of the NOSB to prohibit hydroponic systems that have an entirely water based substrate. Although that was the original intent of the proposal before us today, the current proposal as structured does not achieve this objective. While the majority of NOSB does not believe that the liquid substrate systems should be sold under the USDA organic label, these growers deserve the chance to promote their very commendable qualities and objectives in their own right.”
The resolution passed with near consensus. Some objected to not calling out other systems wholly dependent on liquid fertility inputs. The Crops Subcommittee will work on formal proposals around hydroponics and crops grown in containers and in greenhouses.
Updating Genetic Engineering definitions
The National Organic Standards prohibit the use of “excluded methods,” based on a 1995 definition which still works fairly well, but needs updating. We’ve seen rapid synthetic biology development since 1995. New definitions have been under discussion since 2013.
Crops Subcommittee Chair Zea Sonnabend summarized the proposal and many public comments on the subject. Starting her remarks, she welcomed to the meeting any representatives from Monsanto - headquartered in St. Louis. She also responded to some opinions that the proposal needed more discussion, simply saying "4 years, 7 comment periods; we're ready.” She stated it could not be more clear that now is the time to pass the proposal to clarify GMO methods prohibited in organic.
Among the many comments received on the issue, Sonnabend highlighted some words from Demeter Association’s Co-Director Jim Fullmer. “An important line in the sand is drawn in the current 1st sentence of the NOP definition of excluded methods: ‘A variety of methods used to genetically modify organisms or influence their growth and development by means that are not possible under natural conditions or processes and are not considered compatible with organic production…” It is important to not lose this core scaffold branch when pondering the myriad of new and old genetic modification techniques finding their way through the organic decision tree… This still provides a key foundation that should continue to be referenced as this discussion progresses towards future decisions. We feel CRISPR-case.9, manipulated gene drives, cytoplasmic male sterility and a myriad of processes of so called ‘synthetic biology’ should be excluded from NOP organic production. Methods used to genetically modify organisms, or influence their growth, in an organic farming system should reflect the wisdom and inherent methods of the natural world that has evolved the very existence of plants and animals over thousands of years. While this might sound simplistic, or even Luddite, in fact it is the opposite. The natural world, or the life of the Earth herself as a living organism- if you will- is based on complex biological diversity, living interconnected dynamics and self-regulation. There is tremendous technological benefit in observing, understanding and implementing these facts of the living world as agronomic tools.”
The NOSB unanimously passed the excluded methods terminology recommendation, naming specific prohibited technologies on a chart to be revised as needed to keep pace with scientific development, and including definitions and principles to guide assessment of new technologies.
Strengthened Seed Guidance
The NOSB heard more feedback on maintaining organic seed purity, including preventing GMO incursion into organic systems. Recent NOSB meetings included a couple GMO discussion documents, a report, GMO prevention strategies discussion, and an expert panel. The NOSB will send a report to the Secretary of Agriculture summarizing their progress in preventing GMO incursion, while urging further USDA GMO discussion and prioritizing organic protections. Meanwhile, the organic community is united in favor of a seed purity standard, but there’s concern that setting a GMO tolerance threshold without strong data may unfairly penalize organic farmers for others’ genetic trespass. The Crops Subcommittee will draft a proposal to strengthen NOP Guidance 5029 for organic seed.
At MOSA, we’re investigating increasing reports of GMO contamination in organic seed and feed, and struggle with reasonable enforcement. I presented our midwestern perspective on the seed purity issue. “We applaud strengthened guidance to aid organic seed supply, usage, and enforcement. But, we also question the overall efficacy of enforcement in the face of ongoing GMO incursion. The report to Secretary Vilsack needs ears. Clearly, the public expects organic to be GMO-free. Organic operators are doing their part, but without meaningful shared responsibility, coexistence cannot work, and our organic label is harmed. USDA leadership must promote fairness. Unfortunately, today, planting organic seed may not stop further GMO incursion. Until we get our organic seed house in order, it’ll be nearly impossible for an organic farmer to produce truly non-GMO at risk crops. So, this gets at a moral question of who should be responsible. We won’t meet consumers’ organic purity expectations unless we have USDA support, beyond the NOP. We continue this good fight, but it can’t just be our organic community making the effort. Otherwise, coexistence is a fantasy, especially right here in your breadbasket.”
We also heard an organic seed status report from Kiki Hubbard of the Organic Seed Alliance. Most organic farmers still rely on conventional seed. Only 27% of organic growers use all organic seed. And organic seed use is lower on larger acreages. Vegetable growers with under 10 acres have about 75% of their acreage planted in organic seed, but growers with over 480 acres had on average only 30% of their acreage planted in organic seed. Hubbard echoed strengthening NOP seed guidance, increasing certifier vigilance in enforcing organic seed usage, developing an organic seed database, and addressing GMO issues.
Ivermectin is an emergency use parasiticide that’s been allowed in organic livestock production. A recent sunset review garnered strong support for removing ivermectin from the National List, but it was reluctantly relisted, with further review making changes to the restrictions for other emergency-use parasiticides, moxidectin and fenbendazole. With this secondary proposal, the NOSB unanimously voted to remove Ivermectin’s National List allowance, due to the availability of alternatives and its negative impact on dung beetles. This change would affect some MOSA-certified livestock producers. But, we’ll have to wait on rulemaking, and NOP and NOC meeting discussion noted the limited “pipeline” for regulatory changes, and an uncertain future for organic rulemaking prioritization after January. For now, ivermectin will remain allowed with its restrictions until if and when rulemaking is complete. However, organic livestock producers should start thinking about managing parasites without use of ivermectin.
Carrageenan is a seaweed-derived food additive commonly used as a thickener or stabilizer, which gained a lot of sunset review attention. Food processors spoke in favor of maintaining carrageenan’s availability for use in organic foods, noting its usefulness and safety. But, consumer groups, social media posts, and public comments warned of human health concerns, including industry-funded research showing links to gastrointestinal inflammation and ulcerative colitis. Epidemiological studies of this food sensitivity were not in their reviewed literature, but the Subcommittee acknowledged the food sensitivity concerns’ legitimacy, yet also noted that carrageenan usually must be listed on food labels.
Comments also illustrated the global impact of NOSB decisions. An Indonesian government representative delivered a petition signed by 6500 seaweed farmers to keep carrageenan on National List. Carrageenan provides a significant income for fishermen around the world and is essential for livelihood of small farmers. Discussion also raised the possibility that carrageenan can be produced organically. The NOSB voted to remove carrageenan as an allowed ingredient in organic food, beginning in 2018, primarily due to the availability of alternatives.
MOSA has been outspoken on requirements of NOP Instruction 2027 on annual performance evaluations for inspectors. The instruction says every inspector should be evaluated in the field every year. We’ve been able to accomplish this, and see the benefits of on-site evaluations, but it’s been expensive and logistically challenging. The NOSB sought feedback on benefits, costs, logistics, and collaboration challenges. MOSA’s Executive Director Cori Skolaski presented comment including, “MOSA’s recommended solution is to perform onsite evaluations on a three-year cycle combined with a risk-based approach... in the current year when a new inspector is hired... when a new scope is added... and/or when a concern is noted by operator or reviewer feedback. Our goal for personnel performance evaluations is to promote the professional development and continuous quality improvement of inspectors. Unfortunately, complying with NOP 2027 has almost completely erased our ability to be thoughtful and strategic.”
The Certification and Compliance Subcommittee will develop a proposal for revising instruction based on public comment.
Many decisions on allowed inputs
The NOP voted against all nine petitions to add synthetic inputs to the National List. This continues a no growth trend for the List over the last 10 years.
Among petitions, we considered soy wax for use as inoculant plugs in mushroom production. MOSA Policy Manager Jackie DeMinter suggested more clarity in the proposed annotation to require wax be from non-GMO soybeans, when organic beans were not available. This would have set a new precedents. “We suggest the complete production of soy wax be considered and encourage the NOSB to require the soy oil be organic as well. That would seem more in line with organic principles. If we exclude the production of the soy oil, then it seems the intent to require organic is negated. Would a soy wax manufacturer be motivated to search out soy oil produced from organic soybeans? Lack of commercial availability seems as if it would be the standard. We are not concerned regarding verification when organic soybeans are used, but we do have questions about oversight and appropriate verification when nonorganic soybeans are used.”
The petition was rejected because there was not enough producer support submitted in the comment period.
Other denied petitions included: Oat Protein Concentrate (protein and amino acid source); 1-Methylcyclopropene (post-harvest treatment to delay apple aging); Ammonium Citrate and Ammonium Glycinate (chelating agents); Potassium Cellulose Glycolate (water filtration aid during irrigation); and Aluminum Sulfate, Sodium Bisulfate and Acid Activated Bentonite (animal litter treatments).
Two discussions were referred back for more work: a petition for Sodium Chlorite for making chlorine dioxide gas used as an antimicrobial pesticide, sanitizer, or disinfectant in direct contact with fruits and vegetables; and, a proposal to change the current annotation for tocopherols - vitamin E compounds that preserve freshness in products with fats and oils - to give more preference for nonsynthetic or organic tocopherols.
Except for Carrageenan, all inputs up for their 2018 sunset review were re-approved and will remain on the National List for another five years. Re-approved Handling materials include: Agar-agar; animal enzymes; Calcium Sulfate; Glucono delta-lactone; Tartaric acid - made from grape wine; cellulose; potassium hydroxide; Silicon dioxide; and, Beta-carotene extract color. Re-listed crop materials include: Copper sulfate used in aquatic rice production to control algae or tadpole shrimp; Ozone gas for use as an irrigation system cleaner only; Peracetic acid for use in disinfecting equipment, seed, and asexually propagated planting material and to control fire blight bacteria; EPA List 3 inerts of unknown toxicity for use in passive pheromone dispensers; and Calcium chloride, prohibited for use except as a foliar spray to treat a physiological disorder associated with calcium uptake.
We heard a report on NOP accomplishments and new rules under development. Of 178 NOSB recommendations over the past 20 years, the NOP has addressed 149, 24 are in process, and just five are outstanding. Although the election leaves open questions on timelines, we expect the following developments as we head into 2017: issuance of final rules on Origin of Livestock and Livestock and Poultry practices; proposed rules on Aquaculture, Apiculture, Pet Food and Import Certificates; policy developments on Compost, Improving oversight and control of organic trade (including: Eliminating exclusions for brokers and importers, Expiration dates on certificates, Unannounced inspections, Clarification of compliance procedures, and Identification of nonretail organic products); final guidance on Classification of Materials; draft guidance on Grower Groups, Calculation of Organic Ingredients, and Materials Used in Livestock Production.
In addition to the above, we also expect more instruction to improve USDA oversight and capacity for regulating imported organic products. This was a hot topic at the NOC meeting, as the NOP’s Miles McEvoy responded to concerns about oversight of organic grains coming to the US from Eastern Europe by way of Turkey. The Organic Farmers’ Agency for Relationship Marketing (OFARM) reports that during the first six months of 2016, there was a 36-fold increase in the dollar value of organic imports from Turkey compared to the same time period in 2015. OFARM Director John Bobbe emphatically raised alarms about incentive and potential for fraud when growing organic markets create supply shortages for various commodities. “These long international supply chains increase the opportunities for breaks in the chain of recordkeeping, organic certification and verification that the USDA organic seal is built upon… We need the USDA to make sure that organic imports are meeting the same organic standards that U.S. producers do.”
The NOSB also established research priorities for 2016, including: methionine evaluation for organic poultry, with a systems approach; parasites management; biodegradable biobased mulch film; alternatives to copper for disease and algae control; plant disease management; mitigating residues in compost; chlorine materials and alternatives; celery powder; alternatives to Bisphenol A (BPA); consumer demand; fate of genetically engineered plant material in compost; and, breeding lines’ integrity and ways to mitigate small amounts of GMO contamination.
NOSB committee work plans are extensive. Highlights include ongoing work on hydroponics, container and greenhouse production, anaerobic digestate - food waste and other maure issues, organic seed requirements, packaging substances including BPA, annotation changes for phosphates and for nutrient vitamins and minerals, marine algae listings, defining emergency treatment for livestock parasites, and ongoing work on seed purity and excluded methods terminology.
This work will be taken up by a Board including five new members, who begin their terms on January 24th. New appointees include: Dr. Asa Bradman, Berkeley, CA (environmental protection and resource conservation expert); Steve Ela, Hotchkiss, CO, (organic producer); Dr. David Mortensen, State College, PA, (toxicology, ecology, or biochemistry expert); Joelle Mosso, Fresno, CA, (organic handler), and Sue Baird, Bunceton, MO, (public or consumer interest group representative). Sue currently also serves on MOSA’s Board. New NOSB officers are Tom Chapman (Chair), Ashley Swaffar (Vice-Chair) and Jesse Buie (Secretary).
After Fall meeting work is concluded, parting NOSB members have the floor, to offer final reflections. Ahead of these poignant closing moments, Miles McEvoy honored members’ work with one more poem, “To Be of Use” by Marge Piercy. An excerpt...
“...I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.
I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out…”
I’ve paraphrased some NOSB members’ parting words below. Outgoing Chair Tracy Favre said, “This has been the most rewarding professional experience of my life… There are very few easy decisions that come to this Board, many shades of gray….Our discussion ends up with a stronger outcome, and there’s rarely one single right answer.” Jean Richardson said “Always strive for consensus, always, always… And work to make the organic pie bigger, so that there is a piece for everyone… And, be kind and loving and very forgiving toward each other all the time.” Through some tears, Carmela Beck shared her hope for the organic community, that it focusses on being inclusive, collegial and welcoming diversity of all colors. Harold Austin noted, “Hearing both sides of the debate helps us to grow… For those Board members sunsetting with me, I love you guys to death… I hope those that take our place understand there are two sides to every issue, and the decisions we make impact livelihoods. We’ve worked too hard to go back too far.” And Zea Sonnabend said anyone doing this work needs passion and a muse or two. She credited her muses - Bob Dylan, and Jerry Garcia - cited some Grateful Dead song lyrics (from “Throwing Stones,” “Playin’ in the Band,” “Saint of Circumstance,” “Terrapin Station” and “Box of Rain”), and concluded by singing Dylan’s “Forever Young,” including...
“May your hands always be busy
May your feet always be swift
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift”
Before our relatively short trip home, we had a little time to check out some of our Central West End neighborhood, including the 1371 acre civic center across the street, Forest Park, and, several blocks away, the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis, which has one of the largest mosaic collections in the world - 41.5 million glass tiles covering 83000 square feet. Let’s say, “awesome.” I also was taken with the Angel of Harmony statue on the Basilica grounds. Its theme - harmony, peace, and racial justice. It was a nice way to end a provocative meeting week, and to help digest this time of change.
For this season, dona nobis pacem.