Cornucopia News Archive

Cornucopia: USDA Maintains Pattern of Corporate Appointments

Thursday, September 18th, 2014

Organic Governance Undermined by
Cozy Relationship with Agribusiness Lobbyists

One of the nation’s preeminent organic industry watchdogs, The Cornucopia Institute, expressed renewed criticism of the process used for the selection of four new appointees to the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board (NOSB).  The NOSB is a 15-member volunteer board composed of various organic stakeholders that makes decisions regarding any synthetic materials allowed for use in organic agriculture and food production and also advises the USDA Secretary on policy.

cornucopia-we-own-it-button“The selection process was conducted in secrecy despite requests to cast sunlight on the decision making and solicit input from a very engaged community of organic farmers, businesses, and consumers,” said Will Fantle, Cornucopia’s Codirector. “We think a more transparent process would ensure the selection of the best and brightest for the various vacancies on the board — instead of, once again, appeasing the organic corporate lobby.”

Cornucopia has been critical of past appointments that were more representative of the agribusiness sector than meeting requirements detailed in the federal law that created the board, the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA).  As powerful food processing interests have increasingly sought to add synthetic and non-organic materials to foods, the NOSB has become a focal point of controversy over what some deem a watering down of organic integrity.

Under both the Bush and Obama administrations the USDA has violated OFPA by appointing agribusiness executives, instead of those “owning or operating” a certified organic farm, to sit in seats intended to represent farmers. Currently, two of the four “farmers” on the board were employees of large agribusinesses when appointed.

“Congress deliberately set aside the majority of seats for independent organic stakeholders as a way to prevent the kind of unseemly corporate influence we have witnessed in recent years on the NOSB,” Fantle lamented.

Arkansas Egg CAFO

The new farmer-appointee, Ashley Swaffer, is an employee of Arkansas Egg Company, a large industrial-scale, vertically-integrated producer of eggs based in Summers, Arkansas.

“Although Ms. Swaffer may technically meet the qualification set forth by Congress, in that she is involved in managing Arkansas Egg’s operation, I doubt if Congress had in mind stacking the board with agribusinesses historically operating ‘factory farms’ as representing the nation’s organic producers,” Fantle added.

When learning she had been passed over for an appointment to the NOSB, Wisconsin dairy farmer Rebecca Goodman said, “I am a hands-on organic dairy farmer working with my animals and land every day. I guess I am not suave enough to serve my fellow organic farmers. After three attempts, I will not be applying again.”

At least four other experienced, family-scale farmers had applied for the vacancy on the board in addition to Ms. Goodman.

A seat reserved for an organic “handler” manufacturer was filled by Tom Chapman, a purchasing manager with Clif Bar in Emeryville, California.

Unlike the appointment to the farmer seat, which Cornucopia challenged, the farm policy research group articulated disappointment in the appointment of an employee of Clif Bar, a company that sells a minimal amount of their product line as certified organic.

“The USDA Secretary could have chosen a representative of a company that sells 100% organic products, rather than a company that offers manufacturers less than 20% of their product line in a certified organic form,” stated Mark A. Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst for The Cornucopia Institute.

The balance of Clif Bar’s other products either do not qualify for any organic labeling or are labeled “made with organic ingredients.”

Many companies in the natural foods marketplace can qualify for “made with organic” labeling by choosing organic for the majority of their cheaper ingredients (such as oats in a food bar) while sourcing more expensive ingredients in conventional form or adding synthetic materials that would not be allowed in products labeled certified organic.

In addition to conventional ingredients many Clif Bar products contain synthetic and non-organic materials such as soy protein isolate and milk protein concentrate (MPCs).

“Maybe it’s a general conflict of interest to have companies that are primarily involved in non–certified organic manufacturing, sitting on the National Organic Standards Board,” Kastel added. “Clif Bar’s product line is basically competing with companies, at a higher price point, that are truly organic. If they are using lots of ingredients that are not presently approved for organics, will they be predisposed to open up organic production for increased use of synthetics?”

In addition to Chapman and Swaffer, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack also appointed Lisa de Lima, of Grandville, Maryland, with MOM’s Organic Market, to fill the retailer seat. The Secretary appointed Paula Daniels, a Los Angeles lawyer who sits on a number of public panels, to serve in the environmentalist/conservationist slot.

Both Fantle and Kastel emphasized that their current concerns and disappointments are aimed at the USDA Secretary and the appointment process rather than the individual appointees.

“We look forward to working with all these individuals, and unless proven otherwise, we will assume, that their motivation to serve on the board is in the interest of all,” said Kastel. “We will support their volunteer efforts, just as we have supported all board members, with research materials enabling them to make good judgment calls on behalf of the organic community.”

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“I have been waiting to hear from the NOP [National Organic Program] at the USDA about their next selections for the NOSB since September 1,” said Rebecca Goodman, a Wonewoc, Wisconsin, dairy farmer.  “I never dreamed that I would hear through The Cornucopia Institute.”

In 2008 and 2009, while converting their 800,000-bird operation to organic production, Arkansas Egg was the subject of enforcement actions by the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Last year they signed a consent decree with the state of Arkansas and the EPA related to remediating problems concerning manure and liquid waste.

If there is a common thread in the new appointments it is the Organic Trade Association (OTA), the industry’s business lobby.  Three of the four appointees work for operations that are OTA members.

“For a volunteer board, the work of the NOSB is quite demanding, consuming 8-12 hours a week, and much more during the twice yearly full meetings of the board,” observed Fantle.  “We respect anyone who wants to take on this responsibility.  It is our hope that the new appointees will rise above any biases in their backgrounds and work in good faith for the entirety of the organic community and organic food and agriculture.”

Cornucopia recently released a scorecard of the voting records of NOSB members.  The analysis seeks to capture voting patterns over the past five years that encourage or weaken organic integrity, and it notes distinct tendencies from various stakeholder interests.   It illustrated a decisive split between legitimate farmers, representatives of nonprofit organizations, and other independent stakeholders, as opposed to members of the NOSB representing corporate agribusiness. It can be found at: http://www.cornucopia.org/nosb-voting-scorecard/.

Monarch Butterflies Dying — and Roundup Is a Suspect

Wednesday, September 10th, 2014

The Des Moines Register
by Mike Klein

Credit: Susannah Rogers, USDA Forest Service

The monarch butterfly weighs a fourth of a gram, yet migrates thousands of miles every September through Iowa to overwintering grounds in Mexico.

The iconic orange-and-black butterfly marks changing seasons. Chasing it is a rite of Iowa early childhood and watching its life transformations in classrooms is a thrilling memory, as it was for two school groups this week.

But earlier in the week, a leading monarch scientist announced that the monarch may be heading closer to its death. Lincoln Brower joined three nonprofit groups in a petition of the government to save the monarch from steep population decline, saying the main cause is agricultural practices in fields — the same fields Iowa children see out their schoolroom windows. Read Full Article »

Mark Kastel at The National Heirloom Expo

Monday, September 8th, 2014

CI_KastelHeirloomExpo

Mark Kastel of The Cornucopia Institute will speak at The National Heirloom Exposition at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa, California on September 11th.

The National Heirloom Exposition is a not-for-profit event centered around the pure food movement, heirloom vegetables, and anti-GMO activism. Read Full Article »

Rebuttal of The Country Hen

Friday, August 29th, 2014

The Real Chicken Poop

egg_report_pageOn May 19, 2014 The Country Hen, a vertically integrated egg producer based in Hubbardston, Massachusetts, wrote a letter to a customer explaining their animal husbandry and egg production practices while also attempting to discredit The Cornucopia Institute’s Egg research and Scorecard project. Here we share with you what The Country Hen said and what The Cornucopia Institute believes to be the facts. Points of clarification will be in italic.

“In their [Cornucopia Institute] pursuit to promote small family farming, they target the commercially sized operations that are able to provide the quantities of organic foods necessary to meet consumer demand and remain reasonably priced in the retail market.”

The facts:

  • The Cornucopia Institute looks at the enforcement of federal organic standards as “scale neutral.” We fight for economic justice for family farmers. Some family farmers operate large operations while others operate very small operations along with everything in between. If operated in compliance with the spirit and letter of the law, are all valid and important to the organic community.
  • Small- and mid-scale egg producers can certainly be considered “commercially sized” operations if they earn a profit. It is not true that only large and very large egg operations are commercially viable. The Cornucopia Institute does not “target” commercial operations; rather, we hope that all farms can be profitable and operated in accordance to the law. Large corporations try to portray family-scale farms as having 20-100 chickens scratching around in the barnyard. And although some are on that small scale (producing wonderful eggs for their local community), we would not consider those commercial operations in the wholesale marketplace.
  • Hundreds of smaller-scale farms can provide the same number of eggs as a handful of very large ”factory farms.” For illustration, 300 farms with 3,000 hens each (the maximum legal size in Europe for organic production) could produce over 18 million dozen eggs or the same could be said for one very large CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation) that raises 900,000 hens in confinement. If the organic regulations were enforced, particularly the requirement for outdoor access for laying hens, then many of these very large operations would not be able to legally operate as certified organic.

Read Full Article »

NOSB Voting Scorecard Released – Lobbyists/Influence Peddlers Eroding Organic Standards

Tuesday, August 19th, 2014

Analysis Illustrates USDA/Agribusiness Collusion

CORNUCOPIA, WIS: A comprehensive voting analysis of members of the National Organic Standards Board, an expert body formed by Congress to insulate the governance of the industry from undue corporate influence, clearly illustrates how illegal appointments to the board by current and past USDA Secretaries have subverted congressional intent.

GoToScorecardbutton The study, produced by The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based farm policy research group, analyzed the voting record of each individual board member over the past five years, including corporate representatives who were placed on the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) filling seats that were specifically set aside for farmers and other independent organic industry stakeholders.

CI_NOSB_Scorecard_1“In recent years, just as with the polarized U.S. Supreme Court, many critical issues were decided by one-vote margins,” said Mark A. Kastel, Codirector and Senior Farm Policy Analyst at Cornucopia. “Almost universally, the NOSB is split along ideological lines (corporate agribusiness versus farmers and consumers) on whether to allow controversial synthetic and non-organic additives in organic food or weak animal husbandry standards utilizing the ‘factory farm’ production model of organic meat, eggs and dairy products.”

Cornucopia’s analysis comes two years after the policy group released a white paper entitled The Organic Watergate. That report documented how a number of risky and/or gimmicky synthetic or non-organic materials were approved for use in organics. It highlighted a couple of board members, appointed as “farmers,” who did not meet the intent and legal qualifications that Congress had set out for composition of the board.

“We have two members of the current board, both sitting in seats that Congress had designated for someone who must ‘own or operate an organic farming operation’ but who were actually agribusiness employees when appointed to the five-year term on the NOSB,” said Kastel.

Of the four seats reserved for farmers on the current board, one is held by an employee of the giant California berry marketing firm, Driscoll’s (which does not grow organic strawberries but rather relies on contract farmers), and one by an individual who, when appointed, worked for the country’s largest organic marketing cooperative, CROPP ($928 million in annual revenue).  The voting records of these two agribusiness employees are significantly lower than those of the actual farmer members of the NOSB.

Voting records for the current 15-member NOSB board members include three independent members with a history of voting over 90% of the time to block practices eroding organic integrity.  These board members are Jennifer Taylor, public interest/consumer representative and academic; Jay Feldman, environmentalist and executive director of Beyond Pesticides; and Colehour Bondera, a certified organic farmer from Hawaii.

Voting scores of NOSB agribusiness representatives include those of Harold Austin (10% — handler with Zirkle Fruit), John Foster (16% — handler with WhiteWave/Earthbound Farms), Carmela Beck (17% — “farmer” with Driscoll’s) and Wendy Fulwider (34% — “farmer” with Organic Valley/Whole Foods-GAP).

The study’s analysis was based on Cornucopia’s policy positions over the past five years, prepared by experienced organic farmers, policy experts, former certification officials, and staff scientists with doctorates in related agricultural disciplines.

“The policy positions Cornucopia has publicly taken (and used for the scoring criteria) are clearly in the mainstream of thought within the organic community and are consistent with those taken by the vast majority of other consumer, environmental and farmer-supported organizations,” Kastel affirmed. Read Full Article »