Seeing Both Sides, Now
Seeing Both Sides, Now
Stephen Walker, MOSA Operations Manager
Since summer, I’ve had several opportunities to engage with organic leaders face-to-face, to hear perspectives around organic values, struggles and regulations. Through difficult times, this organic community proceeds with passion and intent. We discern the best path for continuous improvement, while sympathetic toward conflicting perspectives. Sometimes organic policy discussion shows democracy at its best. Other times it exhibits the limitations and failures of bureaucracy, politics, and humans. This work is like something I heard on a Sunday morning a few weeks ago: we must live through what is temporary without losing what is eternal.
In late October, with MOSA’s Policy Manager, Jackie DeMinter, I again represented MOSA at the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) meeting, in Pittsburgh. We participated in discussion around diverse topics like organic’s impact on climate, paper pots in organic production, cultural diversity in our organic community, and impact of NOSB decisions on human health. This was the 56th NOSB meeting, with votes on seven proposals, and consideration of several discussion documents and 50 “sunset” materials. MOSA and other stakeholders submitted over 10,000 written comments. Jackie and I were part of 14 hours of oral testimony. Thoughtful Board members pressed for clear information. Beyond the agenda, we considered gene editing, frustration with the pace of rulemaking, and needed clarity in livestock and container growing regulations. We also heard from an expert panel on marine materials, as the Board considers review environmental impact of harvesting seaweeds used as fertilizers.
NOSB Chair Harriet Behar provided strong opening remarks, speaking to conflicts, organic values, bureaucracy, and, well, not losing site of the eternal:
“I see the many benefits organic agriculture has on local, regional and global ecosystems, the economic security it provides to individual families and larger rural communities… While there may be different viewpoints and needs of the various stakeholders which results in lively conversations within the NOSB and with all of you, we all share the same desire to protect the value and meaning of the organic label in the marketplace. Participating in organic certification is a conscious and voluntary act. I understand that the National Organic Program works within the constraints of the larger U.S. government, and political process and slow is the work of rulemaking. But I do see organics at a crossroads where many issues need immediate attention and solutions... Too many of our recommendations are in limbo, and as time passes, the need becomes more urgent.”
She provided numerous examples where delay enables harm: not implementing the recommendation to protect native ecosystems from destruction and then immediate organic certification; delayed origin of livestock recommendation implementation, causing great financial stress for dairy operations; lack of consistent, strict pasture regulation enforcement; a need for strengthening certifier oversite; and, hydroponic issues, where the NOP has not allowed further work although NOSB’s 2017 vote was frustratingly indecisive. She added, “The organic community will keep talking about these issues until they are solved. We are passionate and tenacious. I think the USDA already knows that.”
The public-private partnership
Behar’s opening remarks indicated symptoms of organic’s troubled public-private partnership. In the past 10 years, the USDA has not completed rulemaking on any of 20 consensus recommendations for organic standards improvement. Organic innovation has outpaced regulation, and NOP’s failure to keep up creates fragmentation and harm. At the National Organic Coalition’s Pre-NOSB meeting, we heard about the Organic Trade Association’s white paper on the subject, which argues that advancing the voluntary organic standards is essential to farmers’ future. OTA proposes some new framework for accountability. “USDA should rely on NOSB consensus recommendations as the will of the industry.” The paper says standards for this voluntary, opt-in organic program should advance differently than for than mandatory regulations. Proposals include:
- Including NOSB consensus recommendations on the Unified Regulatory Agenda with a published timeline for action.
- Removal from the Unified Agenda must require public and congressional notification with rationale why widely supported standards questions aren’t moving forward.
- The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) review must consider the costs when standards are inconsistent or insufficient to meet market demand.
- Economically insignificant rulemaking, based on a consensus NOSB recommendation, should not be designated a “novel policy” requiring OMB review. This would significantly shorten the standards implementation timeline.
The white paper notes that continuous improvement, an organic bedrock, should be defined in the regulations AND law, to foster soil health, biodiversity, and natural resource conservation.
Vaccines from excluded methods
Among meeting highlights, the NOSB closed an exception that’s allowed some GMO vaccines. Our regulations have always prevented excluded methods, except for livestock vaccines. But, that has been inconsistently regulated. Going forward, vaccines from excluded methods will be allowed only when an equivalent non-GMO vaccine isn’t commercially available.
MOSA comments stressed vaccines’ importance in the organic farmer’s toolbox. To date, we have simply allowed the use of vaccines. But, we can support the change to require commercial availability assessment, given adequate resource development for review accuracy and efficiency.
One evening, we witnessed one NOSB member’s vehement reaction to a conflicting opinion on vaccines. Earlier that day, a colleague testified with their opinion that vaccines shouldn’t be restricted by the non-GMO commercial availability requirement. Their comment had received little reaction during the meeting. But, at a reception that evening, the NOSB member heatedly and closely expressed disagreement, even expectorating as they ranted. The NOSB milieu is a democratic, not dictatorial, respectful forum which typically encourages diverse perspectives. So, this was an unusual and inappropriate display. But, fueled by fear about implicit GMO acceptance plus uncertainty over upcoming USDA appointments of new NOSB members, perhaps in this firebrand Board member’s view (as a MOSA staff person quipped) “the ends justify the mist.” I see both sides, but then, no one spit in my eye.
Other GMO issues
In June, before the House Agriculture Subcommittee, Under Secretary Greg Ibach controversially suggested there should be more discussion around gene editing within organic. This was a troubling comment; Secretary Perdue has been friendly toward biotechnology. Organized opposition followed Ibach’s comments. Since 2016, the NOSB’s Excluded Methods Terminology recommendation has given framework and criteria for determining which genetic manipulations must be prohibited in the NOP regulations. Gene editing techniques were unanimously defined as prohibited. In Pittsburgh, NOP Deputy Administrator Dr. Jenny Tucker affirmed that gene editing is prohibited under the current regulatory definitions, that changing the definition of excluded methods is not on the agenda, and said USDA has encouraged a “robust dialogue” about the role of new technologies and innovations in organic agriculture. Board member Dave Mortenson cautioned that further “robust dialogue” could be a slippery slope.
The NOSB continued its GMO definitions work. Induced mutagenesis produced via in vitro nucleic acid techniques was classified as an excluded method (prohibited), and livestock embryo transfer was classified as allowed, if the recipient animal is not treated with hormones.
The NOSB also made a recommendation regarding Genetic Integrity Transparency of Seed Grown on Organic Land. Certifiers should instruct producers to ask seed suppliers for levels of inadvertent GMO content in seed, to encourage awareness, data collection, and choice. MOSA’s comments stressed that the GMO contamination prevention burden must be shared with conventional producers. In my testimony, I said, “Our community is united in opposition to genetic engineering in organic systems. We’re sort of done talking about it. But, with ongoing outside threats, our thoughtful discussion must be heard elsewhere. Beyond preaching to the choir, we must be heard on the street, to protect our interests. USDA must invest in a more functional coexistence.” I noted the need for more transparency from biotech developers, reminding of a Lutheran “Genetics, Faith and Responsibility” statement I’d brought to 2014 NOSB discussion. That says, human beings are innovative stewards called to be responsible to the Golden Rule, and must respect and promote the community of life with justice and wisdom. I added, “This imperative should be used to direct genetic research and knowledge in agriculture and other arenas. It’s a moral requirement for those with expertise to share knowledge with policy developers. Our robust conversation shows we’re honoring our side of the coexistence concept. We need more fairness and transparency from USDA.”
Need for clarity on container production
We’ve been awaiting more transparent clarification on whether all organic container production sites must wait three years following any prohibited substance application. Dr. Tucker had sent certifiers a June memo stating “(This) clarifies that the legal requirements related to the three-year transition period apply to all container systems built and maintained on land.”
MOSA and others have struggled to interpret whether “on land” includes systems like a greenhouse on a concrete pad, or a warehouse. Many public comments, and NOSB’s Emily Oakley, pushed for clarity whether the three-year transition applies to every organic operation, without exception. But Tucker sidestepped, noting she’d make a statement after public comments concluded. Her statement simply reiterated the June memo, saying all container-based production systems must meet existing regulatory requirements, and it’s certifiers’ responsibility to evaluate land use histories for compliance. I found this to be very frustrating, not clarifying the scope of “on land.” But, certifiers are charged with making a decision.
One evening in Pittsburgh, over 30 certifiers and other supporters of the Accredited Certifiers Association (ACA) met and shared our uncertainty and varying stances on interpretation. ACA members now agree to create a container production best practices document, and encourage NOP to address this issue at our training in San Antonio in January. MOSA also advocates for enabling the NOSB to again take up container production discussion, which was dropped since being left on the table after the 2017 hydroponic vote.
At the ACA meeting, I recognized NOP’s precarious position in this discussion. Perhaps they support reasonable exceptions, but are pressed to satisfy an oppositional, vocal portion of the organic community. And NOP must operate within the regulations as written. As I write this, I’m not sure whether my desk is on land. I see both sides.
The NOSB passed a recommendation to continue to allow non-organic celery powder in organic products, since organic forms are not yet commercially available. Celery powder contains natural nitrate, functioning as a curing agent, when added to high-demand organic meat products like bacon and hot dogs. However, the nitrates are converted to nitrosamines in processing, which may be carcinogenic. This sparked debate whether the NOSB should consider end use when reapproving the celery powder listing. Demand and the lack of an organic form of celery powder show a need for an organic alternative. To that end, the OTA, Organic Center and University of Wisconsin were awarded nearly $2 million in research funds to develop an organic celery powder alternative.
Other meeting outcomes
All proposals considered by the NOSB passed, and are now referred to the USDA. Other approvals included allowing fatty alcohols for sucker control in tobacco production. (This also raised concern about end use and health, but discussion from the other side spoke to consumer choice, and showed how tobacco sales enable financial viability as farms grow other crops.) Potassium hypochlorite was approved for use as irrigation water treatment. And proposed research priorities updates to the NOSB Policy and Procedures Manual were approved. The NOSB also completed the 2021 Sunset Review process for over 50 currently allowed inputs, with alginic acid and dairy cultures recommended for removal from the National List. Cultures’ allowance continues under the broader Microorganisms listing.
Work to be done
After quoting some Joni Mitchell lyrics - “You don’t know what you got, till it’s gone”- Harriet Behar also cautioned that we not lose organic’s promise as we persist with regulatory struggles.
“We have all experienced and know of the effects of human-caused climate change, with weather events becoming more extreme and negatively affecting agricultural production of all types… Our quality of life, our livelihoods, and our futures are at stake. Organic agriculture provides concrete solutions to many environmental crises. The carbon we sequester in our sod crops and use of cover crops can slow climate change and as more farmers around the world adopt organic production methods, can even work to heal the damage humans have caused. Our reliance on naturally based inputs instead of fossil fuel-based chemicals, illustrates organic is a viable and productive way of farming. Our dismissal that toxic materials and genetic engineering have no place on our land or in our food, offers a practical and proven pathway to healthier practices for the production of food and fiber, that support other forms of life rather than endangering them. Organic agriculture can feed the world. In fact, we must be THE path of the agricultural future - if we plan to have one.
“We must keep improving the implementation and meaning of our organic regulations. We cannot take short cuts, we cannot ignore the difficult issues, we cannot let those that are powerful overtake the organic label for their own economic gain... It is difficult to take a complex system like organics and put it into a regulation that has no loopholes and mandates certifiers and operators be consistently good to excellent in their regulatory implementation. We all have to be committed to the path of organic integrity and continue our work, however difficult, to do what needs to be done.”
Optimism and dreams
It’s been some hard times here in the dairyland. I’ve sometimes struggled to remain optimistic about organic, in the face of a struggling agricultural economy, regulatory frustration, and pervasive divisiveness. And sometimes we’re picked up by others. In a couple recent conversations, MOSA Certification Specialist Stephanie Leahy drew helpful attention to enthusiasm for our work and values, shown in the passion in other members of our review team, or the skilled encouragement from her certification team leader. I was reminded that moving forward takes a community and sometimes a nudge.
In September in Baltimore, we both got a good dose of optimism at the Organic Trade Association’s Leadership Awards Celebration. Israel Morales Sr., OTA’s Farmer of the Year, stressed organic’s importance toward the next generation. “We have to do organic for the future, and we have to do it for the kids.” His two sons, one grandson and two great-granddaughters looked on. Nate Powell-Palm, honored with the Rising Star Award, said “How exciting is it that as young people we can make a living in agriculture again and stay in our home communities… and make our dreams of stewarding the land a reality.” And, Lynn Coody was honored with the Growing the Organic Community Award. An inspiring organic community leader since the 1970’s, Lynn helped pass Oregon’s Organic Food Law in the late 1980s and gave technical advice as the Organic Foods Production Act was written. And, she’s attended most if not all of the 56 NOSB meetings, usually taking copious meeting notes from the front row.
Lynn said “When people ask me what I do, telling them I’m a food analyst for the organic trade leaves them perplexed. I should tell them my job is making my own dreams come true because, over my 45 years of work in the organic community, that’s what I have been doing. My dream was oh so simple...to reform the American food production system so that it would be based on the principles of the natural world and so it would provide real support for farmers... It definitely required dedication and persistence, and as soon as I saw that a project was on a firm footing, I looked for ways to make myself obsolete, in order to take the next step towards my next big dream. The joy of this path has been working with the creative and innovative environments with incredibly thoughtful and dynamic colleagues. The organic trade has come a long way, but there… are still many opportunities for each of us to make our organic dreams come true.
We still have chances to sort out some big topics that have lingered without resolution for decades. We still have opportunities to address issues related to the growth and evolution of the organic trade. We have opportunities to tout the environmental and societal benefits of organic systems;a message that is much needed as we suffer the impacts of climate change. We still have opportunities to improve a critical piece of organic infrastructure, the NOP’s accreditation system—which has been largely unexamined but a powerful tool for fostering fairness, promoting transparency, reinforcing excellence, and repairing the public-private partnership at the core of our relationship with the NOP. There is still a lot to do, and I hope all of you will continue to dream on and dream big.”