Policy report

This article was originally published in September 2019

Making our voices heard

Sometimes it can be challenging to find common ground on organic policy and standards. This is one of the many reasons why the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) plays such a valuable role in the organic program, providing a platform for diverse stakeholder voices to be represented and heard, from certifiers and farmers to retailers like PCC.

At the NOSB’s spring meeting in Seattle, while there were plenty of issues on which organic stakeholders differed, we also saw the value of coming together as a unified voice.

The unifying issue involved farms using container production methods and the “transition period” (the amount of time a farm seeking organic certification must wait before receiving it). The idea behind this waiting period is to ensure that enough time passes without application of prohibited-in-organic materials (such as glyphosate), to allow for the breakdown and dispersal of these materials in the environment and prevent organic crop contamination. If asked how long the organic standards require for this transition period, all in the organic community would respond the same—three years. Or, at least we thought we all would.

Unverified reports from before that spring meeting claimed some container-based farms (meaning those growing crops not in the ground) had received organic certification with a much shorter transitional period. There were also concerns about prohibited materials like glyphosates being used on areas and land around the containers in preparation for the container systems.

Throughout the meeting, nearly all organic stakeholders were on the same page about these reports and concerns, verified or not. People wanted clarity and assurances from the National Organic Program (NOP) that the three-year transition period was being enforced and prohibited materials were not being used. Period.

Unfortunately, Dr. Jennifer Tucker, NOP’s deputy administrator, did not deliver either clarity or assurances in her statements concerning these issues. The organic voices grew louder in response. Throughout the meeting, from certifier to farmer, there was a unified message to NOP—make these standards clear to all.

It would not be the first time that a message like this was delivered to NOP nor the first time that many in the organic community felt frustrated by a lack of responsiveness from NOP. However, on June 3, 2019 (not even two months later), NOP released a memo clarifying its expectations on certification of organic crop container systems. Among other statements, the memo stated that “certifiers must confirm that organic crops have been produced and handled without the use of synthetic substances…and must not be produced on land to which prohibited substances have been applied during the three years immediately preceding the harvest of agricultural crops.”

The memo leaves some issues unanswered, such as “What does ‘on land’ include” and “What about the substrate used in the container?” It also ignores a related but divisive issue—many people with an interest in organics, PCC included, believe container and hydroponic production should not be classified as organic under any circumstances. Every once in a while, though, it is good to take a moment and, from the questions, identify a success and recognize the value of coming together to make our voices heard.


Aimee Simpson, J.D., is PCC’s director of advocacy and product sustainability.

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