USDA Secretary Asked to Clean Up Organic Mess

September 8th, 2005

WASHINGTON DC: A letter addressed to USDA Secretary Mike Johanns, from The Cornucopia Institute, today asked the Secretary to personally intervene in rebuilding the once promising collaborative environment that existed between the organic community and its regulators.

In its letter, the Cornucopia Institute called the current working relationship between the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) and industry stakeholders, farmers, consumers, and processors “very unhealthy” and asked that Secretary Johanns intercede, bringing in new management from outside of the Department, to correct what the group has previously labeled a poisoned environment.

The Cornucopia Institute’s letter comes on the heels of two highly critical reviews of the USDA’s oversight of the organic program that were conducted by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and the Department’s own Office of the Inspector General. Both audits strongly criticized management and called for widespread changes in policies and operations.

The letter to Secretary Johanns is contained within.

September 8, 2005

Mike Johanns, Secretary
United States Department of Agriculture
1400 Independence Ave SW
Whitten Building – Suite 200A
Washington, D.C. 20250

Dear Secretary Johanns,

Many of us in the organic community welcomed your appointment as Secretary of Agriculture. Your background as governor of Nebraska and as a product of an Iowa dairy farm means that you are fully equipped to understand the challenges of family-scale farming. A change in leadership at the USDA comes at a very opportune time.

One program in particular that we are calling on you to reassess is the USDA’s National Organic Program. The history of the organic program at the USDA is mixed, at best. What started out as an experiment in collaborative governance has run into bureaucratic roadblocks at a number of critical junctures over the past decade and a half.

It was obvious that many career agency officials during the Clinton administration and the first term of the current President Bush were ambivalent at best, and commonly obstructionist, when it came to helping encourage the growth in the budding organic farming and food sector. It was never clear whether the hostile environment was promulgated by political appointees at the department, but it was condoned or ignored nonetheless.

The initial draft organic rules, written during the Clinton administration, were an abomination and ignored much of the consensus that the organic community had worked so hard to reach during the long process. The response, through comments of almost 300,000 farmers and consumers, should have demonstrated that passions run deep in the organic community and are a force to be reckoned with.

Nonetheless, subsequent actions by Clinton and Bush administration officials, even if well intentioned, never seemed to change the “culture” at the National Organic Program (NOP). Here are a few, recent, poignant examples:

      1. In the spring of 2004 the NOP disrespected organic stakeholders by disseminating a number of “guidance documents” that would have allowed practices, such as loosening up the prohibition on the use of antibiotics on organic farms, that are widely considered anathema in the organic community. They did this without collaborating with the organic community or the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), which has statutory authority to advise them on such matters.

This dramatic misstep, by NOP staff, resulted in an outpouring of negative comments to the agency and high-profile national news coverage, including in-depth articles in the San Francisco Chronicle and New York Times. Last summer, Secretary Veneman quickly interceded, assuring the public and members of the NOSB that a new, more responsive orientation at the USDA was in the offing, and rescinding the controversial and precedent-setting guidance documents.

2. That new and collaborative environment, mandated by the Secretary, was short lived, if it even occurred at all. Last month, at the semiannual NOSB meeting, members of the board and the public were blindsided by the USDA’s rejection of the language of a proposed rule change that was passed unanimously by the NOSB at their spring meeting and received overwhelming support from the organic community, organic farmers–including the biggest organic producer groups–the NOSB’s own livestock subcommittee, and consumers. This rule change would have tightened loopholes that are currently being exploited by large confinement dairy farms operating without pasturing their lactating cows, as intended by the current regulations.

This rejection and the resultant delay that will now occur in addressing this controversy (which has actually languished at the NOP since first being addressed by the NOSB in 2001) will cause an unfortunate and needless holdup in enforcement activity. It was, again, disrespectful not to inform NOSB members that their proposed language was so flawed that the NOP staff would tell them at the meeting, without forewarning, to start over. If the intent was to respect the wishes of the board and organic community, the NOP could have certainly redrafted the proposed language, retaining its meaning, and presented it to the board during the week of the meeting for their potential ratification in preparation for publishing in the Federal Register. They did not take advantage of that option, and thus, because of other pressing matters before the department and board (fallout from the Harvey v Veneman legal decision), action on the pasture rule change could be delayed for another six months. Remember, the first recommendation from the board went unaddressed from 2001 until this year–justice delayed is justice denied!

3. The organic dairy community is about to lose five of the most knowledgeable and well-spoken leaders on the NOSB who have been addressing this and other critical issues. In the past, the organic community worked in concert with the USDA in order to recruit and retain the highest possible caliber members for NOSB–this is a nonpartisan body of exemplary quality. The Department, although I understand not required by law, previously released the names of candidates for the NOSB, one of the gestures that truly resulted in its earning good will from the industry’s diverse stakeholders. This resulted in highly qualified candidates being appointed.

Serving on the NOSB is a tough job requiring quite a time commitment, with much more authority than the average USDA advisory panel. Last year, a large pool of candidates was nominated for open board positions, but unfortunately the entire process was done behind closed doors, breaking the precedent of transparency in the process.

Engaged members of the organic community want to be involved and want to help the USDA Secretary make the best possible choices. We call on you to intervene and have the names of all current candidates released publicly so that organic farmers, processors, marketers, and consumers can participate in the appointment process.

4. Two authoritative reports released this year offer an extremely troubling appraisal of the performance of the NOP heretofore. In January, as a mandated peer review, the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) issued a critique highly critical of the Department’s accreditation procedures, the most important responsibilities of the NOP. And in July, a very critical audit of the program’s performance was issued by the USDA Office of the Inspector General, profiling deficiencies in the protocol the department has for working with the NOSB, Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) management, oversight, and procedures including acting on complaints and reviewing and adjudicating appeals of noncompliance decisions.

Mr. Secretary, again, we look forward to your tenure at the Department and view your fresh involvement as a new beginning. Please look to us if there is any way possible that we could bring you and your staff up to speed on issues facing the organic farming and food marketing industries. We would be also more than happy to help put together a meeting between yourself and key members representing organic farmers, processors, and consumers. We hope that you will immediately address the issue areas that we have enumerated.

Most critically, from a timing standpoint, we hope that you will intervene in the appointment of a new director at the NOP. This should be someone from outside of the department thoroughly versed with the most exciting and potentially remunerative options for family-scale farmers today: grass-based livestock production, low-input sustainable farming practices, and certified organic management. There are many good people who currently work in the program, but there is something very unhealthy with departmental “culture” and the relationship the NOP has with the organic community. We need someone appointed who is universally respected by the organic community and who respects the collaborative process that has resulted in this rapidly growing agricultural sector. This could be your opportunity to leave a legacy at the Department in an area that is increasingly playing an important role in the economic future of so many family-scale farmers.

This is the most promising trend in agriculture today–families make a decent living while protecting the environment and providing products in great demand. The fact that organic food marketing has grown to a $15 billion industry, with tremendous export potential, validates our level of our concern and justifies your intervention.

We welcome your leadership role at the USDA and invite you to meet with members of the organic community in an attempt to craft a National Organic Program that we can all truly be proud of. You have a track record of looking at potential avenues for growth in the agricultural sector. We are riding an up-escalator and we invite you to jump aboard. Your leadership could be key in delivering to farmers, and their rural communities, a wonderful, economically viable alternative that will deliver dividends for generations to come.

We hope you will take advantage of our invitation.

Sincerely yours,

Mark A. Kastel
Co-Director
The Cornucopia Institute

P.S.: Mr. Secretary, in reference to point #2, since originally drafting this letter, we contacted NOSB Board Chairman Jim Riddle after learning that the NOP has scheduled a special board meeting, this November, to address the sunsetting of materials approved in organic production/processing. When inquiring about whether or not the NOSB would vote to approve an updated version of their pasture rule recommendations, we were told that the acting program director was resistant to placing anything on the agenda other than the sunsetting materials. However, Mr. Riddle added that the board was quite amenable to address this time-critical issue at their November meeting, and stated, “If scheduled, we will be prepared to take final action on the rule change at the November meeting.”

Having started in 2000, this process has gone on too long! We respectfully request that you intervene in this matter and have this important issue placed on November’s agenda so that this controversy, which threatens to irrevocably damage the reputation and economic potential of organic farming, can finally be put to rest.

cc.
Co-chairs: House Organic Caucus
Senator Patrick Leahy
Senator Russell Feingold
Senator Olympia Snowe
Senator Tom Harkin
Senator Saxby Chambliss
Senator Thad Cochrane
Members: National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture
Lloyd Day, Administrator, USDA, Agricultural Marketing Service,
Barbara Robinson, Acting Director, USDA, National Organic Program

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