Passion and Tension: Organic Standards a Hot Topic

Passion and Some Tense Moments at the USDA National Organic Standards Board Meeting

Agribusiness and the Organic Community Come Together in the End on Most Issues

By Mark Kastel, Cornucopia Institute

The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) concluded its four-day semiannual meeting in Madison, Wisconsin on October 28 with votes and decisions on several issues impacting the organic industry.  The meeting began on October 25 with a comprehensive progress report by USDA deputy administrator Miles McEvoy who heads the National Organic Program (NOP).

“We continue to be impressed by the ambitious agenda McEvoy has put forward and the eminently qualified team he has assembled, of dedicated veterans and new recruits, in the rapidly growing program, “said Mark A. Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst at The Cornucopia Institute.

Cornucopia helped organize dozens of egg farmers and marketers, joined by retailers and consumers, who traveled to Madison, from as far away as Seattle, to passionately appeal to the NOSB and the NOP to aggressively enforce the requirement for access to the outdoors in the poultry industry.

In testimony, certified organic egg producer Loren Yoder, of Riverside, Iowa said, “My birds are outdoors 24/7.”  Yoder’s barn holds 9000 birds and he has a 14 foot door at one end that the birds use.

Matt  O’Hayer, of Vital Farms in Texas, criticized confinement egg-laying operations that place pretty images of birds outdoors on the consumer packaging.  “They should put pictures of their operations on the label,” he said.  “Any lies hurt us all,” he added.

The board, impressed and sympathetic, and especially respectful, of the farmers who traveled to testify, committed to refine their proposal by their next meeting for strict stocking densities and other benchmarks that will assure organic livestock production meets the letter of the law and consumer expectations.

On organic hops, the NOSB voted unanimously “to require organic beer to include 100% organic hops beginning January 1, 2013.”  Organic hops producers and brewers turned out a strong contingent arguing in favor of the resolution during two days of public hearings on various organic issues.

The NOSB also decided not to proceed with efforts to raise the profile of the “made with organic” label that is part of the USDA organic system.  Retailer and consumer groups strongly encouraged keeping the current organic labeling regime, and testified that more prominence for the made with organic label could lower consumer demand for products made with 95-100% organic ingredients.

“We were concerned that a more prominent, front label, message concerning made with organic ingredients, including the proposal for language that would say the products were ‘certified to USDA standards’ would have created a cheaper ‘organic light’  actually jeopardizing the continued growth of truly organic products, said Will Fantle, Codirector for The Cornucopia Institute.

Perhaps the most divisive issue was Corn Steep Liquor and determining whether or not the fertilizer component (for nitrogen) was a synthetic or non-synthetic material.  Members of the NOSB representing various food industry and commercial concerns were anxious to remove any clouds over its future use and ensure that Corn Steep Liquor would remain a part of organic production.  But the NOSB, after considerable debate, ultimately decided to seek additional technical information to make a more informed decision, possibly at its next meeting.

The fertilizer debate pretty much split clearly across a divide of agribusiness interests on the board and other members who work for nonprofit organic groups.

The NOSB also removed roadblocks to the use of organic yeast, an issue that had been debated for a number of years.  Yeast’s unique characteristics had led it to be considered a nonagricultural non-synthetic substance.  It is now been categorized as an agricultural product.

The board elected Tracey Miedema (of Earthbound Farms) as its next chair, over Jay Feldman (of Beyond Pesticides), and Joe Dixon (of Whole Foods Markets) as vice-chair.  The spring 2011 meeting of the NOSB will take place in Seattle, Washington on April 26-29.

More about The Cornucopia Institute here.

Copyright by and reprinted with permission from The Cornucopia Institute.