Thinking Forward, Embracing Change
So, how’s your 2020 going? These are interesting times, with rapid change. At the February MOSES Organic Farming Conference in La Crosse, WI, we gathered together as COVID-19 was gaining attention on the coasts. That same week, Natural Products Expo West, a major organic industry event, was cancelled. Many other events followed suit as the crisis moved from backdrop concern, to life changing. As we moved from our office to our homes, and various organic community meetings moved to online forums, MOSA worked with other certifiers to develop contingency plans for continuing our essential inspections and ongoing compliance verification. We saw a bloom of communications toward assisting organic producers, and heard a lot of talk about our “new normal.”
National Organic Standards Board Meeting
Thinking forward is always part of NOSB work. In late April, MOSA joined upwards of 180 stakeholders as the NOSB held its spring meeting in a virtual format. We got a good view of what’s needed as we look toward the fall NOSB meeting, in Iowa.
Bruce Summers, USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service Administrator, said some employees can work remotely, but most work on-site within the food system, collecting critical information. They’re maintaining service while following safety protocols. In a novel approach aimed at fixing supply chain disruptions, AMS will purchase $300 million of food, monthly, and collaborate on logistics to procure, pack, and deliver food to nonprofits. AMS is also working across departments on CARES Act direct payments to all types of producers. In response to Summers’ report, NOSB Chair Steve Ela stressed that farmer’s markets and specialty crops producers offer a supply chain alternative which must stay open. Summers noted AMS is looking at grants, cooperative agreements, and university best practices research, for rapid responses.
National Organic Program Deputy Administrator Dr. Jennifer Tucker gave a brief update at the meeting, and drew attention to a more detailed presentation available in the Organic Integrity Learning Center. (See “Looking Forward…” in this Organic Cultivator.) She noted that the latest COVID relief information is available at usda.gov/coronavirus. With certifiers’ critical thinking in contingency planning and the regulations driving compliance, the public-private partnership is resilient and robust. Organic control systems continue to operate. She noted how certifiers and community organizations are helping to connect farmers and with buyers as markets change. For example, our website has a helpful, searchable database of MOSA-certified operations and products.
Containers, hydroponics and work plans
In March, the Center for Food Safety (CFS), along with a coalition of organic farms and stakeholders, filed a lawsuit against USDA. It claims that hydroponic operations violate organic standards, and asks the Court to stop allowance of hydroponically-produced crops sold under the USDA Organic label. Unresolved hydroponic and container production issues continue to arise in public comments, but not on the NOSB work plan.
Joel Kelly, Live Local Organic, testified he chose container production for growing out of season in Portland’s climate. With current food security concerns, he said container certification clarity is more important now than ever. Dave Mortensen, NOSB Scientist, replied that NOSB would need a stronger signal from the NOP that this is something squarely on their work document. Kate Mendenhall, Organic Farmers Association Director, said OFA members’ top concerns include prohibition of hydroponic production. Since NOP declared that hydroponic is allowed, she said certifiers creating their own standards undercuts the organic label. Dave Chapman, one of six farmer co-plaintiffs with the CFS lawsuit, said if we accept that organic does not really stand for healthy soil and we allow hydroponic production to be certified, the organic label will die. When asked about labeling production as hydroponic, Chapman said his dream would be that hydroponic producers create their own bio-ponic label.
Several NOSB members pushed Tucker to clarify requirements. Emily Oakley, NOSB Organic Producer, noted continuing confusion whether all container systems require a three-year transition. Tucker replied that certifiers are implementing the three-year requirement. Dan Seitz, NOSB Consumer/Public Interest Advocate, noted that container production has been very divisive. He understands that NOP wanted to wait to work on guidance, but thinks NOSB work on standards could help to heal the divide. Tucker said the current lawsuit may provide clarity. She said NOSB has discussed container production at length, and NOP is hearing more about fraud concerns. Mortensen countered that there’s been no coordinated discussion addressing the criteria we’d like to see farmers follow in soil and liquid-based production. There has not been sufficient discussion or vetting of hydroponic methods since the allowance. He’s not comfortable with the notion that producers are not concerned with the issue of container production. He said NOSB could take on container clarification work enthusiastically and without overwhelming other work.
This exchange fed continuing criticism around NOSB’s inability to influence its own work plan. In meeting testimony, Patty Lovera, Organic Farmers Association, noted among OFA’s top priorities is ensuring that - as an advisory panel “to assist in the development of standards for substances… and to advise the USDA Secretary on any other aspects of the implementation of this chapter” (Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) §6518(a)) - the NOSB needs more ability to set their own work agenda. The Organic Insider said “the original intent and spirit of the NOSB is that the board would serve as an expert panel to guide the decision-making of the agency. However, nowhere in OFPA does it state the NOP can control the work agenda.” However, the NOSB charter says “NOSB and subcommittee work agendas are developed in coordination with the NOSB and approved by the NOP Deputy Administrator.” That charter is up for renewal in 2020, but changing it is not easy. In 2018, USDA filed the charter renewal without an NOSB vote of approval. The Organic Insider opines that it’s an absolute imperative for NOSB to take back full control over its agenda, but, that could take another legal action, similar to 2014, when over 20 groups filed a petition when USDA made unilateral changes to the charter that gave the USDA the ability to potentially terminate the NOSB and changed the statutory responsibility of the NOSB as approved by OFPA.
Report from the NOSB Chair
Steve Ela drew attention to five open NOSB seats for terms starting in 2021, and said that Board members must represent the diversity of the organic community, including underserved communities. He also said the NOP must look at organic’s big picture, not just being focused on what materials should be allowed. He also noted the importance of face-to-face meetings, but acknowledged this virtual meeting’s accessibility benefits. He said organic agriculture is based on resiliency, but there’s a tremendous amount of insecurity in the marketplace. He asked the NOP and AMS to continue to support organic producers. Ela also noted that comments on the rule-making process make a big difference; he encouraged community participation.
Research Priorities 2020
The NOSB received 27 comments on research priorities, including a written comment from MOSA. Many stakeholders identified ecosystem service assessment as important. Folks would like to see expansion of discussion of soil health. There were some concerns about the length of the research priority document and prioritization.
MOSA also offered written comments on wild, native fish for liquid fish fertilizers, and an annotation change for fish oil. We and others asked for considering marine materials’ uses as a group. That’s feasible, but it’s hugely complex.
The 2018 sunset review for liquid fish products indicated some fish harvests exclusively for fertilizer. Further review showed fish are harvested for meal, oil, and solubles—but not exclusively for fertilizer. Some public comments noted that use of waste for liquid fish products could make harvesting fish for other purposes more profitable; we should not degrade the marine ecosystem to enrich the agro-ecosystem. NOSB may explore the feasibility of an annotation to restrict the exclusive use of meal, oil, and solubles.
Paper pots are particularly useful to farmers by reducing labor costs. “Paper” is a synthetic fiber; it’s also a bio–based product but not extremely biodegradable. NOSB intends that the fiber be cellulose based, but recognizes that impacts hemp and cotton alternatives. Comments said NOSB should specify additives, however, different products use different adhesives. NOSB is committed to working on these challenges.
MOSA has commented on this issue over several NOSB meetings. In her testimony, MOSA’s Policy Manager Jackie DeMinter pointed to the complexities: “We continue to support listing of paper for use as a plant production aid, however, with this proposal we have some new questions. Does the new definition include production aids beyond those listed? Is the intention to allow materials composed primarily of paper, with up to 15% of other materials like adhesives and fibers? To require biobased testing for the entire product or testing for just the fibers? What is meant by cellulose-based? This new language and addition of biobased testing is confusing and needs further discussion. So does commercial availability documentation specifically pinpointing the biobased content of the fibers.”
The petition was sent back for more subcommittee work. A vote will occur in the fall. NOP will continue to allow paper pots during this deliberation period.
Biodegradable Biobased Mulch (BBM) Film Annotation Change
BBM is a plastic alternative to polyethylene used for weed and pest control. There is much organic demand for use of films, but organic community ambivalence regarding BBM’s allowance. Many comments implore the Board and NOP to allow use of these materials. Beyond Pesticides commented that synthetic mulches should not replace organic mulch. MOSA commented that we receive many requests for its use, but there are no products on the market that can meet the 100% biobased requirement. MOSA and others noted we should step away from requiring 100% biologically sourced material. Organic operations’ plastic use would obviously decrease with a National List annotation aligning with available biodegradable products. Otherwise, we’d suggest that BBM should be removed from allowance. There are also some concerns that degradable plastics are produced from GMO, concerns about whether BBM fully degrades (depending on climate), and concerns residues may be left in soil and could end up in waterways.
Inertia on EPA List 4 – Inerts of minimal concern
The Standards allow certain inert ingredients in pesticide formulations, through an outdated EPA list. The current situation is dissatisfying, and stifles innovation. Work with the Safer Choice program may help develop a list of materials acceptable for pesticide formulations and meeting OFPA. There’s hope the NOP will establish an agenda item to enable work with EPA. Delisting inerts would reduce availability and increase cost of many materials essential for organic production. MOSA noted we’ve recorded 90 different ingredients allowed per acceptable inert lists. These ingredients are included in 50 different MOSA-approved products used by 355 crop and livestock producers. With proposals to work with EPA and develop a new list, it’s likely many currently used inerts would remain, and many formulations would not change. With organic’s scale and the importance of less toxic pest controls, we need a system that works. Tucker said NOP is intently aware of the problematic nature of the very outdated reference. When a lot of thought was put into this a few years ago, changes would have been significant economically; other priorities were advanced. But now the landscape might be ripe for rulemaking. However, OFPA doesn’t allow adding synthetic materials to the National List without a Board recommendation. So, a vote to delist inerts would need to be accompanied by another proposal. Scott Rice, NOSB Certifier, noted that a new NOP National List Manager could assist moving forward; this is an ideal case to draw on the Program’s strength and other agencies’ expertise. A-dae Romero-Briones, NOSB Consumer/Public Interest Advocate, said this warrants some discussion of NOSB recommendations’ importance compared to interagency power dynamics. We have to consider future political rollbacks.
L-malic acid reclassification
The NOSB is considering changing L-malic acid’s classification from agricultural (nonsynthetic) to nonagricultural (synthetic). Documentation may state it’s produced naturally, but that refers only to the second part of its formulation process. The first part can involve non-synthetic fermentation of carbohydrates, but more typically it’s from petroleum origin. Reclassification could also affect listing of other allowed materials using fermentation. In her testimony, Gwendolyn Wyard, Organic Trade Association, said as long as you view two-step production of malic acid as one process, and focus on the starting material, then there shouldn’t be an impact on other material listings. In no other example is the final product a petroleum product. The issue is what constitutes a “source material” for products of fermentation. Substrates may include multiple inputs, which complicates things. MOSA said that calling l-malic acid synthetic could affect citric acid, lactic acid, enzymes, dairy cultures, etc. We noted that yeast has specific prohibition on petrochemical substrate and sulfite waste liquor. If the NOSB decides additional review criteria are needed for -malic acid substrate materials, we’d look for an annotation. Rice said the most straightforward option is to classify it as synthetic and annotate that the nonsynthetic source is required when available. To dive into fermentation boundaries would be a larger conversation.
Waxes – nonsynthetic (Wood resin)
Wax used for fruit coating keeps apples shiny for longer than just polishing the naturally occurring pectin. NOSB members will have a few things to consider. Relisting is supported by most commenters. Some comments suggest volatile synthetic solvents may be part of production. Some have concerns that wax on fruit can’t be removed, so it’s an unlabeled ingredient. But, to require labeling would be challenging.
For natural colors, more comments are needed for the fall meeting. Ela noted colors have a lot of nuance. For some colors, crops have to be specifically grown; it is not just a byproduct. The incentive is based on price. There’s conflicting color availability data from multiple manufacturers. NOSB will continue to explore the supply of each and possibly de-list some. Bradman noted that colors are not essential, although they have a lot of purposes. Comments also noted that some organic sources don’t have the same quality or hue as conventional.
Discussion document: Fenbendazole – petitioned 2022 (for use in poultry):
Fenbendazole is currently listed for emergency treatment for dairy breeder stock only during specific life stages. An annotation amendment is requested for laying hens. FDA establishes the amount safe for use over an animal’s lifetime, and determined that 2.4 ppm is a safe residue of Fenbendazole in eggs. It’s typically administered to conventional layers before they receive outdoor access and again after they contact the soil. Some large organic flocks with outdoor access have higher parasite infection rates than conventional, resulting in 9-18% mortality. High liquid oregano doses improve prevention, but don’t eliminate infestation. Worms in eggs would affect consumer trust in the organic label. Commenters noted concerns regarding residue in eggs, potential parasite resistance to Fenbendazole in humans, and that birds can end up as slaughter hens and all parasiticides are prohibited in slaughter stock.
In her NOSB testimony, Jackie DeMinter also highlighted MOSA’s written comments on Fenbendazole: “The addition should not be a replacement for good management practices. We request additional guidance on what is meant by “emergency” for a poultry flock. We understand that emergencies are urgent and nonroutine, and exist only when all other measures have been exhausted. Can the NOSB provide situations that would lead up to whole flock treatment? We requested this same basic guidance for all species of livestock during the NOSB’s work on defining ‘emergency.’ With little or no withholding period for milk, meat, or eggs, we would expect to see the use of parasiticides increase.” Mortensen noted he’s bothered by the notion that this is organic IPM for chickens. The argument was this needs to be a routine kind of cleansing of the birds, raising questions about the foundational cultural management system. We cannot have an emergency every time there is a new flock in the hen house.
At the close of the NOSB meeting, there was satisfaction with how well the meeting went despite difficult circumstances. Jenny Tucker noted “we all came together for this community ritual of collaborative engagement.”
Looking Forward - Here’s what’s coming from NOP
Here’s some of what’s in the NOP Program Update as prepared for the NOSB meeting. See the full presentation in the Organic Integrity Learning Center.
NOP’s goals include Strong Organic Control Systems, Farm to Market Traceability, Robust Enforcement, and Support the Standards; Collaborate with Community. The video presentation includes many familiar NOP faces as staff share details on their work.
The Strengthening Organic Enforcement Proposed Rule will strengthen supply chain oversight, require more types of businesses to be certified, require electronic import certificates (now optional; system updates are needed for full implementation), improve traceability, and inspections’ consistency. This proposed rule is in the final step of clearance, back with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) after NOP had responded to OMB questions. Publication is expected this spring, then comes a period for absolutely necessary comments from organic stakeholders. Stay tuned.
The Origin of Livestock Final Rule covers a proper one-time organic conversion for nonorganic dairy animals. It’s moving through the clearance process, soon on to the final step. OMB has 90 days to review it and Jenny Tucker expressed confidence it will move quickly. The proposed rule received over 2100 comments, since 2015.
A final rule and two proposed rules cover NOSB materials recommendations from 2018 and 2019. These are expected this summer.