On June 17, a coalition of 20 organic farm and consumer groups, objecting to recent changes to the National Organic Standards Board’s (NOSB) charter, filed a legal petition with U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack seeking to protect the independent authority of the board, as well as its permanent status as established by Congress, which are both now under threat by the USDA.
New changes to the board’s charter, which was renewed on May 8, “undermine the mandatory and continuing duties of the Board as established by Congress under the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) of 1990,” according to the coalition’s point of view as expressed in its press release.
The NOSB is a diverse 15-member stakeholder body that was put in place to safeguard the integrity of the organic food label, and was created by Congress with independent authorities that operate outside the discretion of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA, whose name is on the ubiquitous green and white organic label).
The board is comprised of a large cross-section of diverse organic interests, including farmers, consumers, environmentalists, processors, a retailer, and a certifier, and appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture.
Its duties include establishing and renewing the list of synthetic and non-organic materials allowed to be used in organic production, known as the National List, among other specific duties.
But according to the legal petition, the USDA has “mistakenly” re-categorized the board as a limited-time Advisory Board that is now subject to their own discretion, with fewer responsibilities as well.
Organic Board’s Integrity “Seriously Jeopardized”
This change comes as a result of the board’s charter being renewed under the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA), the press release said, but the change could threaten the integrity of the board and lead to changes to organic standards that could be bad news for the consumer.
“Congress created the Board so that a balance of organic interests, from consumer to industry, would have an irrevocable seat at the table in defining, maintaining and enhancing organic standards. That independent voice is now seriously jeopardized,” noted Paige Tomaselli, senior attorney at the Center for Food Safety.
Tomaselli’s group is one of the following 20 signing the petition: Beyond Pesticides, Center for Food Safety, Cornucopia Institute, Food & Water Watch, Equal Exchange, La Montanita Co-op (New Mexico), Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service, Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance, Northwest Organic Farming Association (NOFA) Interstate Council, NOFA Connecticut, NOFA Massachusetts, NOFA New Hampshire, NOFA New Jersey, NOFA New York, NOFA Vermont, Organic Consumers Association, Organically Grown Company, Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association, and PCC Natural Markets.
The legal petition urges the USDA to reverse what they consider missteps. In order to comply with organic law, the USDA must now immediately revise the NOSB Charter to accurately reflect the board’s mandatory, non-discretionary duties and permanent status.
“The independence of the NOSB is the backbone of the system of organic governance that Congress set up to prevent the industry from being corrupted by undue agribusiness lobbying influence, a dynamic all too common in Washington,” stated Will Fantle, Research Director at The Cornucopia Institute. “It is questionable whether the law being debated in the 1990s would have received overwhelming organic community support if the powerful NOSB buffer, to prevent future corruption by moneyed interests, was not established.”
Considering that the petition is being submitted Vilsack, a former Iowa governor who was once named ‘Governor of the Year’ by the Biotechnology Industry Organization, the biggest biotechnology organization in the U.S., and a founder and former chair of the Governor’s Biotechnology Partnership with a long history of supporting biotechnology and GMOs, it’s natural to wonder if it will be treated and addressed properly and fairly.
The OFPA’s original authors, Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Representative Peter DeFazio of Oregon, also strongly criticized the USDA’s actions and asked for a reversal according to the press release.
Patty Lovera of Food & Water Watch is concerned about consumers being disempowered by the change.
“One of the most unique things about organic is that consumers can get involved in setting the standards behind the label. For that to remain true, we need to have a strong National Organic Standards Board process,” she said.
Farmers are also calling on Vilsack and the USDA to respect the integrity of organic and to reverse the change.
“We have made our living from selling certified organic seed and food for over thirty years,” said Jim Gerritsen, an organic farmer in Maine and President of Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association.
“NOSB integrity and fulfillment of its unique legal responsibility to represent the interests of the organic community is critical to maintaining consumer confidence in organic food and to the success of organic farming.”
Further reading: Press release, via The Cornucopia Institute