NATIONAL ORGANIC STANDARDS BOARD (NOSB)
To guide its important activities, the Board developed the Policy and Procedures Manual (PPM). Policies were developed with public review and comment before Board vote. As the Board’s work matured or issues arose, there was a need for revisions, which was done transparently. Some proposed changes came directly from public comment.
At the time of my appointment, Dr. Robinson was the Deputy Admin. for Transportation and Marketing in AMS, which was buried in the NOP w/ a staff of 7 and budget of 1.5 million. Dr. Robinson was not an “organic person” and in conflict with OFPA, particularly did not believe in materials’ sunset.
Then in 2008, with political change, support for organics substantially increased financially and in attitude.
We (the Board) worked with the new Deputy Administrator Miles McEvoy to help make this a reality. Working with Mr. McEvoy, procedures for improved NOSB/NOP collaboration was developed by PDC and approved by full Board at the 10/2010 meeting. At the same meeting, to strengthen organic integrity, the PDC proposed a revision of the PPM sunset procedures to better achieve the mandates of OFPA. These changes had the support of Mr. McEvoy, and he expressed the view that since they were the responsibility of the NOSB as mandated in the law, therefore sunset review procedures should also be determined by the Board.
My direct involvement with the Board and these issues ended when my term expired in January, 2013.
No stronger condemnation of the NOP’s Sunset action could be stated than that of the principal authors of OFPA, Senator Patrick Leahy and Representative Peter DeFazio. On 10/24/14 they wrote Secretary Vilsack to raise concerns about the sunset policy, “…which we believe to be in conflict with the letter and intent of the statute. We are particularly concerned that such a substantive change was without the benefit of full public notice and comment.” Leahy and DeFazio stated that the agency action, “…turns the sunset policy on its head to create a presumption that all synthetic materials on the National List will be automatically renewed at the 5 year sunset mark and to establish a high hurdle 2/3 vote to remove from the List.” They strongly stated, “WE ARE URGING YOU TO REVERSE THIS POLICY CHANGE.”
I am very concerned with the effect this sunset change will have on organic integrity.
Consumer Union, the widely respected consumer watchdog, downgraded the organic seal. This action was triggered by the sunset changes. Integrity must be a fact, not rhetoric.
What do I recommend to remedy the slipping of organic integrity and the de-valuing of the seal?
The first step would be to restore the PPM (August 2012 version) including the sunset procedures. Of course revisions will be needed. But follow the transparent public process that had been used.
Second, restore the authority of the NOSB and push NOP to take the action implied by the slogans.
You can also visit MOA’s Facebook page to get involved in the discussion.
FEATURE ARTICLE: Demise of the National Organic Standards Board?
The original and current purpose of the Organic Food Production Act of 1990 (OFPA) is to bring integrity and order to organic food production and marketing by establishing uniform standards. The Act, established by the U.S. Congress, and the implementing regulations, adopted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is driven by the organic community’s desire to ensure that “organic” is something special and help assure a continuing organic community role in the process. Under the Act, the Congress established the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) and gave it very important duties. In its Report (1990) on the bill, the Senate Agriculture Committee stated that, “ The Committee regards this Board as an essential advisor to the Secretary (of Agriculture) on all issues concerning this bill and anticipates that many of the key standards will result from recommendations by this Board….(it) is generally responsible for advising the Secretary on all aspects of the implementation of OFPA, specifically, the Board is responsible for evaluating substances for inclusion on the Proposed National List.”
These were extraordinary events with valuable information and interactions that led to better decisions. Unquestionably, Board members put in many hours of hard, difficult work over their five-year terms in service to the organic community.
The National Organic Program (NOP) was established in the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) within USDA to administer the OFPA requirements. Its staff was very small for many years until political change occurred in 2008, when a substantial increase occurred along with newly declared USDA support for organic and a pledge to “organic integrity from farm to table—consumers trust the organic label.” Collaboration and working relations between NOSB and NOP grew with apparent benefits to the organic community.
The fall 2013 NOSB public meeting was cancelled during the federal government shutdown, thus the public did not have that opportunity to express concerns in person on these actions by the NOP. At the April 2014 meeting, the Deputy Administrator announced that he was co-chairing the meeting, thus intruding on the independence and authority of the NOSB and limiting discussion on the serious changes that had been made.
No stronger condemnation of NOP’s “sunset” action could be stated than that of the principal authors of the Organic Food Production Act. On April 24, 2014, Senator Patrick Leahy and Representative Peter De Fazio wrote Secretary Vilsack to raise concerns about the sunset policy change “which we believe to be in conflict with the letter and intent of the statute. We are particularly concerned that such a substantive change was made without the benefit of full notice and comment.” They reminded the Secretary that OFPA “establishes the overall principle that, in order for any product to be labeled as organic it must be produced and handled without the use of synthetic chemicals.” The law recognizes there may be a need for temporary exemptions, thus it provided for a very thorough review process whereby certain synthetic chemicals could be permitted for use, but would sunset after five years. The process requires the NOSB to review the material based on a stringent list of scientific and market considerations and analyze its impact on human health and the environment, compatibility with organic principles and the availability of alternatives. They also pointed out that “the law specifies that two thirds of the full NOSB must vote in favor of allowing the synthetic material to be used.”
Leahy and De Fazio expressed “great concern that we learned about a policy change implemented by your agency (USDA) which turns the sunset policy of OFPA on its head to create a presumption that all synthetic materials on the National List will be automatically renewed at the five year sunset mark and to establish a high hurdle (two thirds vote) to remove from the list.” They strongly stated, “We are urging you to reverse this policy change.”
Also on April 24, 2014, former past chairs of the National Organic Standards Board, Jim Riddle - Chair ’05, Jeff Moyer - Chair ’09, and myself - Chair ’12, wrote Secretary Vilsack to express “grave concerns regarding recent changes unilaterally enacted by the USDA’s NOP that significantly erode the authority, independence and input of the NOSB.”
We appealed to the Secretary to intervene in this matter and suspend the policies enacted by Miles McEvoy.
Instead of addressing the concerns of Senator Leahy and Representative De Fazio, the former NOSB Chairs and others, USDA/ NOP tried to cement the radical changes on May 8, 2014, through an amendment to the NOSB Federal Advisory Board Charter, which also improperly assigns authorities to the USDA to terminate NOSB, a statutory Board with duties clearly enunciated.
In response to these USDA actions, twenty organizations have, pursuant to the Administrative Procedures Act, petitioned amendments to the 2014 NOSB Charter that: 1) accurately reflect the continuing and non-discretionary duties of the NOSB and (2) accurately reflect the mandatory, continuing and interminable status of the NOSB.
The 11-page petition explains the need for the amendments and concludes by stating that, “ recent actions on the part of the USDA have undermined the carefully crafted and contemplated OFPA framework and balance of community representation…” The signatories to the petition are: Beyond Pesticides, Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association, Center for Food Safety, Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service, Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners, The Cornucopia Institute, Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance, La Montanita Coop NM, Food and Water Watch,
The issues may sound complicated, but it really boils down to two questions: 1) Does the organic community and public want a strong NOSB as prescribed by OFPA? 2) Does the organic community and the public believe and want the implementation of the overall principle of OFPA that for any product to be labeled organic it must be produced and handled without the use of chemicals with only temporary exemptions allowed and then only after stringent review?
Will there now be a community uproar as occurred in the nineties when USDA tried to push through unsuitable regulations?
We hope to hear your voices loud and clear.
Jay Feldman (Executive Director of Beyond Pesticides, NOSB member 2010-2014, chair of NOSB Crops Committee, 2012-2013) comments that past and future success of the organic label and related food production practices relies on a strong collaboration among all the stakeholders. It is absolutely critical that concerned organizations and individuals make their views known to their elected representatives in Congress and the Secretary of Agriculture. Beyond Pesticides has set up a ‘Save Our Organic’ webpage that makes it easier to send a letter to members of Congress and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. While we encourage everyone to send their own personal message through this webpage, a form letter can be sent from the site at http://beyondpesticides.org/SaveOurOrganic.
We’re seeking through the petition an acknowledgment by the Secretary of Agriculture that Congress set up the NOSB to operate with clear statutory mandates that supersede USDA authority. In this respect, the petition addresses a narrow issue of the Board’s charter and Congress’ determination that it exist as a permanent body, not subject to the discretion of the Secretary of Agriculture. This is a clear legal requirement that is undermined by the 2014 charter language, which misrepresents (and contradicts previous charters) the Board as a time-limited body with narrowed responsibilities subject to the Secretary’s discretion. The petition, citing legal requirements, requests that the Secretary correct the charter language to reflect the ongoing and permanent nature of the Board. However, the limited issues of the petition represent the larger USDA disregard for a range of mandatory duties of the Board that are established by the Organic Foods Production Act and may require further legal action.
The organic sector requires committed organic consumers to thrive or, in fact, exist. That is why the NOSB has recognized historically in its Policy and Procedures Manual that organic consumer expectations are critical to the viability of the organic label. The organic standards, rigor of review of allowed materials (including synthetic substances), independence of the National Organic Standards Board, transparency of the decision-making process, and public involvement are key elements of organic label integrity and consumer trust in the organic seal as a meaningful symbol.
Organic consumers first must understand how important their voice is in the organic policy arena. While people can get alienated from governmental decision making, organic consumers must recognize that the organic label and the history of policy that supports it was formed with critical consumer influence, which forced the prohibition of genetically engineered organisms, irradiation, and sewage sludge –practices USDA originally proposed allowing. Unless consumers make their voice heard by contacting their members of Congress and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack (see above) to express their opposition to changes (announced in the September 16, 2013 Federal Register (78 FR 56811, National Organic Program-Sunset Process) and in the USDA Organic Insider on March 6, 2014), ultimately the organic choice in the marketplace will not mean as much as it means today and could mean in the future. People need to spread the word. Food coops and retailers should speak out on behalf of their members and customers by contacting decision makers and educating shoppers.
Jim Gerritsen (President of the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association and owner/operator of Wood Prairie Farm in Maine commented that organic farmers and organizations need to educate each other and the public about the issues that have led to the erosion of the integrity of the NOSB. He emphasizes that the organic community needs to hold those agencies and individuals responsible and demand accountability. He also urges each of us to get involved and have our voices heard or we risk losing our livelihood and community.
Gerritsen sites the farmer, novelist and poet, Wendell Berry, quote: "We don't have a right to question whether we're going to succeed or not. The only question we have a right to ask is what's the right thing to do? What does this earth require of us if we want to continue to live on it?"
Liana Hoodes (Director of the National Organic Coalition (NOC)) shared several items about sunset and other items related to the issue of USDA not honoring the mandate of the NOSB.
1. Two letters we sent to Miles McEvoy last fall following the "sunset decision"
I think it is fair to say that many or most agree that there was something not working with implementation of sunset policy in the past. What NOC and others believe is that the wholesale change by USDA/NOP does nothing to fix the problems, and may make them worse, while setting a foundational policy (how synthetics are continuously reviewed) on its head.
Nathan Brown (Almatheia Dairy in Belgrade, MT and Chairman of the Board MT Organic Assn (MOA)) would like to see the changes made by USDA on the Sunset Policy reversed and the five-year review of prohibited synthetic substances put back into place. This is an issue that our (MOA) membership should be aware of and I will do my best to keep myself and our membership
Mary-Howell Martens of Lakeview Organic Grain comments poses: The most important question we in the organic community should be asking ourselves is - when are YOU going to run for NOSB?
What I see is a precipitously declining faith in NOSB among organic leaders, plus the impossible amount of bureaucratic nit-picky work required, and the inevitable attacks/criticism by organic activists, makes any involvement in THE PROCESS really quite unappealing. Once we wanted to be involved, but now, certification/regulatory doesn't seem like a worthwhile way to invest our very limited time. I don't think you could pay us enough to want to be on NOSB now!
So the question, unfortunately, comes down to - if we don't want to be involved, do we have a right to criticize? If we don't want to be involved, can we trust those who still do to speak for us? And if they don't, are we being disingenuous in our outrage?
Having served on AC21 with as much integrity and effective representation of organic interests as I possibly could, only to see our work - which veered in a distinctly different and decidedly more organic direction than we were first chartered to do - be roundly criticized by organic activists, after weathering rather strong-arm manipulation attempts by organic groups to direct my comments, I really have little interest in going back in the line of that friendly fire. It simply isn't worth it. I have better things to do with my time!
The ONLY way NOSB can be strong is to have a full slate of solidly organic members with experience and integrity, plus the unconditional support/trust/respect of the organic community.
We can't ask the USDA to give the NOSB the strength/ authority/support that our own community won't give the NOSB members.
You can also visit MOA’s Facebook page to get involved in the discussion.
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