Organic News and Views

by Goldie Caughlan, PCC Nutrition Education Manager

This article was originally published in January 2001

NOSB logo

My shiny crystal ball indicates that shortly before you read this, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) probably will have just published its second attempt to establish national organic standards. If so, the standards will appear in the Federal Register for public input and comment.

It seems likely that these long-awaited standards will be very high and quite detailed, as consumers and producers alike have demanded. At the same time, it’s also likely that the standards and timelines for full implementation will be realistically framed and therefore achievable by growers, producers and others within the organic industry. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that this will be the case. It would be great news for all of us who feel strongly that supporting organically produced foods (and fiber) makes great sense for our health and for our future!

Many will recall the shocking USDA proposal some three years ago and the sense of frustration and anger that reverberated through the organic community. At the time, we faced the prospect of seeing foods labeled “organic” despite being grown with untreated sewage sludge and genetically modified seeds and then zapped after harvest with ionizing irradiation!

Those possibilities and other serious defects in those proposed standards galvanized and rallied consumers and activists nationwide and they (we!) turned anger into action. The result — nearly 300,000 negative responses flooded the USDA offices, resoundingly rejecting such concepts. The public response successfully redirected the USDA’s National Organic Program (USDA-NOP).

Also to the credit of some very dedicated staff members working in the program, the USDA has done quite a turn-around in the past several years. It appears that it has taken serious account of the direction and advice of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), the volunteer citizen board whose responsibility it is to oversee the future of organic agriculture and to recommend standards and regulations to the government.

Of course, my crystal ball does fade out when it comes to the details, so we shall see what these new standards do say and whether they work for all of us. In the coming months of this column, we’ll look at some of them in close detail.

NOSB 2001 agenda

For now, I can tell you that in November 2000, I attended the last meeting of the year of the NOSB in Washington, D.C. Perhaps you’ll recall that I applied for appointment to the board last August, since two positions are available for consumer educators. Several of you kindly sent support letters to the USDA-NOP program, for which both PCC and I certainly thank you! These appointments have not been made yet, presumably because the USDA-NOP has been wholly focused on their first priority, the publication of the new proposed standards before the end of 2000. We understand that board appointments will take place before the next NOSB meeting, which will be in early March. Stay tuned!

I attended the meeting (as I have several others in years past) just as any member of the public is entitled to do, primarily to get a feel for the relationship with the USDA staff and a sense of its functioning as a board. Whether or not I receive a position on the board, I came away favorably impressed after observing its work for two and a half days, generally reflecting on the slogan “you’re in good hands with.” this group of folks.

In this new year, the NOSB’s priorities are to review systematically petitions made for the use of various substances not currently accepted under the initial Organic Food Production Act (OFPA) of 1990. Manufacturers of these substances have petitioned the board and awaited review for five years, but only recently did the USDA appropriate funds for professional review and study. Board decisions are reached in consultation with professional analyses and opinions by toxicologists and other scientists.

Of fertilizer and fish

For example, the board voted unanimously to continue to disallow the use of “leather meal,” a by-product of leather making, which a company sought to have added to the national list as acceptable for organic fertilizer. The board had done its homework and swift rejection was reached based on solid evidence of toxic substances in the production of the leather. Under the NOSB rules, “leather meal” could not come up for review for at least five more years and only if there would be new evidence compelling a change of status.

The board also is conducting an in-depth study of both wild caught and domestically produced fish, preparatory to reviewing petitions. The board ultimately must determine whether either system qualifies as “organic” according to the intent of the organic statute. This is an issue that will be written about widely and hotly debated no doubt, because there is much at stake for both camps — as well as the interests of consumers.

A grassroots success story

At the end of the November meeting, Keith Jones, director of the NOP, announced that the outgoing head of the USDA, Secretary Dan Glickman, “considers the successful publishing of these organic standards [and their acceptance by the organic community] to be the crowning achievement of his tenure with the USDA.” It’s likely that Mr. Glickman now does feel this way and will be stating so. That’s quite a remarkable statement, considering the events of the past few years.

Not to rain on anyone’s parade, but let’s be clear on who’s to credit for this “crowning achievement,” this setting of good organic standards. We do have excellent organic choices more widely available today, more affordable and higher in quality than ever. But this has not come to pass because of the government’s heroic efforts to champion organics. Indeed, for the most part it has been in spite of their early attempts to install weak standards!

Let’s applaud the clear vision and perseverance of the true organic heroes — the farmers and producers, the independent and state-run certification groups that crafted and maintained high standards and the food co-ops and independent retailers who stocked organic when it wasn’t the “in” thing and not always very pretty! Today, because of these grassroots heroes, organic foods are finding their way into mainstream supermarkets at a rapid clip. Let’s applaud ourselves too, we who continued to support those heroes, voting our choice in the marketplace, not waiting until we had an official sign from “on high.”

That said, certainly we welcome the existence of high, national organic standards, which will continue to be strengthened and clarified over time and which will benefit us all. Very grave challenges to organic production continue, most notably genetic contamination of organic crops from the pollen of genetically engineered field crops. It is, however, more likely that as consumers have greater access to organics, we will see more safeguards against such challenges.

Also in this issue