Secretary Vilsack Asked to Balance Public’s Interest with Corporate Involvement

CORNUCOPIA, WI: In a move to protect the growing organic industry from undue corporate influence, a leading organic watchdog group released a letter, dated June 7, calling on the USDA to collaborate with the organic community on pending appointments to the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB).

The Cornucopia Institute, and other organic advocates, have long been concerned that representatives from corporate agribusiness have obtained a disproportionate influence on rulemaking at the USDA.

“During the Bush administration we saw crass politics, at its worst, in play during the NOSB appointment process,” said Will Fantle, Codirector of The Cornucopia Institute.

In one instance, an employee of General Mills was nominated to fill a slot on the board that Congress had earmarked for a consumer representative. “Abuses of this nature are repugnant to the organic community and certainly betray the letter and spirit of the Organic Foods Production Act, the law passed by Congress giving the USDA authority to oversee the industry,” added Fantle.

Although Cornucopia and other independent industry observers have been overwhelmingly satisfied with the new direction the Obama administration has taken in staffing the National Organic Program, and responding to criticism over past ethical lapses in management, including a recent audit by the Inspector General’s office, not all stakeholders have been pleased with the NOSB nominating/appointment process.

In 2009, the first time the Obama/Vilsack administration at the USDA named new NOSB members, they continued the Bush administration policy of keeping secret the nominees and the related corporations or organizations they work for or represent.

Some in the organic community feel that the lack of openness in the appointment process has resulted in some important missteps that have hurt the credibility of the board and its work. “Keeping nominees and their affiliations secret raises questions of the process that is a slap in the face to organic principles,” said Rebecca Goodman, a certified organic dairy farmer from Wonewoc, Wisconsin.

Goodman had been nominated to the farmer-slot on the board. But instead of choosing one of the legitimate certified organic farmers, widely respected and viewed as qualified and who were under consideration at the time, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack chose an animal husbandry specialist employed by one of the largest organic livestock product marketers in the country.

While this appointee had grown up on a conventional farm, her immediate occupation is not that of an active organic farmer.

“The PhD scientist chosen for that NOSB producer-slot certainly can add an important perspective, but her appointment reduces the voice of actual organic farmers on the board who are, arguably, the most important stakeholders in the industry,” lamented Fantle.

There is widespread concern that these appointments marginalize the voices of consumers and farmers who have built this industry, and places a disproportionate control of national organic policy in the hands of board members working for multinational for-profit enterprises like Whole Foods, Earthbound Farms, Quality Assurance International, Organic Valley, Philips Mushrooms and Campbell Soup.

“Those serving on the NOSB would most ideally be producers and consumers who are on the front line of implementing and reviewing the rules, not those who would appear to have a financial interest in the outcome of the rules implemented,” said Goodman.

“Many of the corporate organizations that are represented on the board sell just a few percentage points of their product lines as organic,” said Fantle. “Other marketers and farmers, whose livelihoods are dependent upon the effort to maintain the integrity of the organic label, might view this as a conflict of interest.”

The Cornucopia Institute’s letter to Secretary Vilsack said the reason they are calling on the USDA to make these nominations public is because they, and many other stakeholders in the industry, know that many eminently qualified candidates have in the past been passed over because they did not have the political clout to be appointed.

“We simply want the organic community to be able to help Secretary Vilsack choose the very best candidates available for the NOSB,” added Fantle.

Cornucopia’s letter went on to say that although they are an aggressive governmental and corporate watchdog they are in no way “anticorporate.” They state there are many examples of larger corporations that subscribe to the ethical foundation of the organic movement. But both the Bush and Obama administrations have given disproportionate prominence on the NOSB to major corporate players. “Without denigrating Whole Foods, and their commitment to organics, you have to question why this giant corporation again has a seat on the board, whereas the approximately 275 consumer-owned cooperatives, with hundreds of thousands of members and shoppers, have again been shut out,” Goodman said.

In a side note, The Cornucopia Institute also called upon Secretary Vilsack to consider providing a modest stipend for NOSB members who are not affiliated with a corporate entity or well-funded nonprofit organization.

“There are many working farmers, and other citizens, who cannot afford the extraordinary amount of time away from work necessary for NOSB meetings, committees and the reading of important materials necessary to help advise the Secretary, as Congress had intended, on managing the complex, $25 billion organic industry,” said Fantle. “The corporate representatives sitting on the Board are collecting their salaries. It’s a shame that some of our most qualified potential candidates are so economically disadvantaged.”

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