Organic at a crossroads
by Joel Preston Smith
This article was originally published in October 2017
Organic is at a crossroads. It has become a $47 billion industry with a very good process in place for setting standards that are strong, consistent and meaningful. But U.S. production of organic food is not keeping pace with demand, which means more organic food is imported to fill the gap.
Organic advocates argue that Congress should be focused on providing support to help U.S. farms shift to organic production to meet the growing demand, and to strengthen enforcement of the standards. Instead, numerous leaders in the organic community say they’re worried Congress will make changes to weaken organic standards and the process for setting those standards. They say that as the organic market has grown, it has attracted constituents who want things changed to make it easier for their operations to make organic claims.
For example, some currently certified organic poultry producers don’t want a high bar for meat and dairy, prompting the Department of Agriculture to delay (and threaten) organic animal welfare rules. Some organic growers wanted to keep antibiotics for organic apple and pear production. Now, some hydroponic producers want to keep allowing hydroponic products to be labeled “organic” — even though there are no specific rules for hydroponic systems and the Organic Food Production Act (OFPA) does not allow soilless systems.
Some of these stakeholders are suggesting that in order to grow the organic industry, we should allow the organic standards process to be friendlier to their particular interests, perhaps more amenable to practices and inputs now prohibited under the National Organic Program (NOP). These stakeholders are lobbying the highest levels of government to redefine the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB).
Abby Youngblood, executive director of the National Organic Coalition (NOC), says, “We could face an attack on the label as early as this fall. We want to alert the organic community that this is happening and is very serious.”
The congressional committees in charge — where legislative changes to OFPA could occur — are the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, chaired by Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kansas), and the House Committee on Agriculture, chaired by Rep. Mike Conaway, (R-Texas). Neither has been a friend to organic in the past.
On July 13, the Senate committee held a hearing on organic agriculture and specialty crops. During his opening statement, chairman Roberts declared that the NOSB — and organic regulations — are plagued by “uncertainty and dysfunction … These problems,” he claimed, “create an unreliable regulatory environment and prevent farmers that choose organics from utilizing advancements in technology and operating their businesses in an efficient and effective manner.”
NOSB members — past and present — say otherwise. The basis of their arguments highlights the fundamental divide between consumer and farmer expectations of what organic is, or ought to be, and a desire to commandeer the NOSB for production and profit.
Beyond questions about what regulations, substances and farming practices should survive into the future of organic, the debate also is about whether additional seats should be added to the 15 now allotted for the board, and whether those seats should be set aside for those who serve the interests of specific high-earning crops or segments of the industry.
A balanced NOSB
In talking with farmers and nonprofit staff who have served on the NOSB, they share a common interest in healing the earth, forestalling further pollution, and working for a higher standard of authenticity, ethics and safety in food production.
Jay Feldman, who served on the NOSB from 2009-2015, notes his interest in environmental health was sparked by a stint running public health surveys among mineworkers in West Virginia and then farmworkers in Florida, Texas and California in the ’70s. Feldman is a cofounder of Beyond Pesticides and continues to work on health policy issues in food and farming.
Like others, Feldman is concerned that any effort to expand special influence or achieve a kind of “majority stakeholder” control over the NOSB directly conflicts with the spirit of OFPA, which mandated the board and led to the creation of the National Organic Program.
“Any party that sits on that board (NOSB),” Feldman argues, “must uphold the statutory requirements, protect against adverse impacts to health and the environment, and ensure [that approved materials and processes protect] compatibility with organic production standards. All of those elements must be adhered to. It’s not a pick and choose situation.”
This is irksome to industrial agriculture interests, which are driven by different values and goals. Any rules that undermine the ability to maximize profit over investment is viewed by them as unwise, if not outright foolhardy.
Jim Riddle, who served on the NOSB from 2001-2006 (including a stint as chairman), believes the organic market is in a precarious position when corporate interests lobby for greater influence, especially for the purpose of weakening the standards that protect the integrity of the organic label.
“The market has grown 80 percent in the last six years and now stands at [roughly] $47 billion annually,” Riddle, now chair of the Organic Farmer’s Association’s Steering Committee, observes. “The NOSB certainly is not obstructing the market growth.”
Organic is thriving
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “Organic products now are available in nearly 20,000 natural food stores and nearly three out of four conventional grocery stores.”
Feldman argues that a board and a process that created the industry could not reasonably be called “dysfunctional,” nor a market barrier. Should the board be reorganized in order to weaken organic standards, consumers and farmers may rebel. Since the NOSB was founded in 1992, he notes, there have been consistent efforts by lobbyists to allow a growing list of pesticides and synthetic inputs and processes (such as hydroponic systems) that blur the boundary between organic and conventional agriculture.
“Once we allow materials that facilitate industrial agriculture,” Feldman says, “we will be undermining the meaning of the label.”
Youngblood, on behalf of the National Organics Coalition, says, “We strongly oppose any efforts to dilute the authority of the board and we strongly oppose any statutory change that would change the balance of stakeholders on the board.”
The NOSB, in its present form, divides its 15 seats among four farmers, three consumer or public interest advocates, three environmentalists, two processors, one retailer, one scientist, and one organic certifying representative.
“Would consumer groups want to have more than three slots?” Youngblood asks. “Sure. Any of these groups would want more slots. But the point is, it’s set up so no stakeholder group can dominate.”
Youngblood, along with others, believes the focus right now in Congress should be on programs that help more U.S. farmers grow organically, not on weakening the fundamental structure of the organic standards process. “What we do want,” says Youngblood, “is to see Congress provide resources, such as organic research and certification cost share, that truly would help organic producers as they transition through the three-year certification process.”
While some groups are criticizing the makeup and structure of the NOSB, Driscoll’s, General Mills, Campbell Soup, and other major brands have been represented on the NOSB and are likely to hold seats in the future.
Riddle says, “I don’t think anyone can say the interests of large-scale corporations aren’t being heard.”
Lee Frankel, executive director of the lobbying group, Coalition for Sustainable Organics, says it’s not enough. Frankel believes additional seats should be created for each crop category — one for grains, for tropical fruits, for vegetables …
Frankel points out for example that Costco (which surpassed $4 billion in organic sales in 2013, according to the Huffington Post), does not have a seat on the NOSB and this, presumably, is evidence that the NOSB is ill-formed.
In essence, his argument suggests that those with the most money, or who produce the most profit, should be awarded the power of a vote. Or, in its most extreme form, dominance over a representative system. It’s an argument that doesn’t sit well with those who believe farmers themselves are underrepresented in a system that is, in its essence, about farming.
“You’ve got all this pressure to weaken the statutes,” Feldman argues, “but given what we’ve accomplished, with the growth of the industry, the democratic process we’ve defined, and our commitment to values in sustainability, we are not going to stand for any administration, or any member of Congress, undermining those standards. We have too much invested in it.”