marked the beginning of the semi-annual meeting of the USDA’s
National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). After the initial
turmoil subsided its members wrestled with the implications of
widely criticized changes to its authority and procedures that
have been imposed by USDA leadership without the customary public
discussion or review.
Meeting for the first time since the governance and process
changes were unilaterally announced last year, the NOSB's San
Antonio, Texas meeting saw the board defer many of its agenda
items to its Fall 2014 meeting and an outright challenge to USDA
authority on the part of some NOSB board members.
The National Organic Standards Board was established by Congress
as part of the landmark Organic Foods Production Act of 1990
(OFPA). The 15-member board is composed of organic farmers,
consumers, organic food processors/retailers, environmentalists,
a scientist and an organic certification representative. Congress
gave the board the authority to review and approve materials used
in organic agriculture and food, as well as mandating the USDA
Secretary seek their advice and counsel on policies important to
the organic community.
"The NOSB is a prime example of the desire to build partnership
and collaboration, as established by OFPA," explains Will Fantle,
codirector of The Cornucopia Institute, an organic industry
watchdog. "It was supposed to be a buffer to prevent total
control of the organic sector by the USDA and big agribusiness
When the NOSB meeting began, it was opened by its new co-chair,
USDA's Miles McEvoy, who directs the staff of the National
Organic Program. The prominent role of the USDA bureaucrat,
claiming the right to co-chair the NOSB meeting, was a first and
part of the changes implemented by the USDA.
Almost immediately this "power grab" was challenged by
demonstrators from the Organic Consumers Association (OCA). A
number of their members moved in front of the podium and began
chanting "Don't change Sunset," a reference to another
controversial change made by the USDA that lowers the threshold
for re-approval of synthetic materials allowed for temporary use
in organic food and agriculture. Ultimately, following a quick
adjournment of the meeting, OCA's political director Alexis
Baden-Meyer was arrested and removed
from the room.
As the meeting resumed, NOSB member Jay Feldman, executive
director of Beyond Pesticides, called for a point of order to
contest the co-chairing of the meeting by USDA's McEvoy. Feldman,
who occupies one of the NOSB seats reserved for environmentalist/
conservationists, was seeking to restore the authority of the
board's duly elected chair.
Beyond Pesticides, The Cornucopia Institute, and most other
public interest groups involved in organics contend that the
language of OFPA is clear in mandating that the board, "shall
select a Chairperson for the Board."
Even before the NOSB's Texas meeting began, USDA Secretary Tom
Vilsack was receiving a steady stream of criticism regarding what
some described as a power grab
and a guttingof OFPA. Three former and widely respected chairs of the NOSB
sent a joint letter to Vilsack outlining their grave concerns. And, dramatically, just dys before the opening of the meeting, two of the prime authors of
OFPA, Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy and Representative Peter
DeFazio of Oregon, contacted Vilsack
urging a reversal of the changes made to the "Sunset" process,
noting the move was made "in conflict with both the letter and
intent of the statute."
Ultimately, the board turned its attention to the numerous agenda
items requiring discussion, votes and decisions at its four-day
meeting. But before that process began, McEvoy offered that the
USDA had "heard" the comments on Sunset changes and taking of
power from the NOSB. He encouraged anyone with concerns to
contact him. To date the USDA has made no indication that they
will back down on the widely unpopular moves that have generated
the impassioned protests as well as a threat by The Cornucopia
Institute to challenge the moves in court.
"Under the old Sunset rules that the NOSB had historically
operated under, this measure likely would have passed with the
board having confidence that they would have the power to revisit
this issue in the future," Cornucopia’s Fantle observed.
A similar fate befell numerous aquaculture materials being
reviewed by the board. Discussion revolved around the lack of
organic aquaculture standards, with a general sentiment that it
was premature to approve materials for use in aquaculture without
a full understanding of the system they would be used in. "How
can we evaluate without standards?" asked consumer representative
The USDA had been criticized over the past few years for pushing
synthetic and non-organic materials for use in aquaculture,
presumably at the request of corporate agribusiness, when they
have ignored recommendations from the NOSB on how to structure
the industry to protect human health and the environment.
With the potential for dramatically different approaches between
land-based pond systems and ocean net pens (which in conventional
aquaculture have resulted in catastrophic environmental
table further review of all aquaculture materials until the USDA
promulgates draft aquaculture standards.
During his organic status report given earlier in the meeting,
the USDA's Miles McEvoy said that aquaculture standards had
passed clearance and review by other federal officials and would
be forthcoming. McEvoy also mentioned that long-promised
regulations concerning origin of livestock had similarly been
given clearance. Organic dairy farmers have long complained that
this loophole was allowing organic “factory farms” to continue to
bring in conventional replacement animals. The pending rule
change is expected to prevent the practice.
Other agenda items discussed by the NOSB included:
- An update on a genetic purity standard for seed
- Added magnesium oxide to the National List as a synthetic for
use in organic crop production
- Adopted a resolution encouraging increased research into fire
blight disease control practices
- Approved the proposal to modify the policy on confidential
The Fall meeting of the NOSB is scheduled for October 28-30 in
Read this article with images and links at http://www.cornucopia.org/