Defending Organics

June 25th, 2013

How Citizen Lobbyists Made a Difference at the recent National Organic Standards Board Meeting

By Charlotte Vallaeys, Director Farm and Farm Policy

At the most recent National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) meeting, in April in Portland, Oregon, The Cornucopia Institute helped force a careful review that resulted in blocking the approval for use in organics of every petitioned synthetic and conventional food additive or food processing aid. We even managed to help turn the unanimous subcommittee approvals of barley betafiber and sugar beet fiber into rejections by the full Board.

Shari Sirkin

Shari Sirkin, of Dancing Roots Farm, spoke on the issue of sugar beet fiber.

Barley betafiber is a supplement that can be added to processed foods and beverages, giving the food manufacturer a marketing advantage by allowing a health claim (“Now With More Fiber!”). One of Michael Pollan’s food rules is “never buy a food that makes a health claim.” Not only does it usually mean the food is highly processed, but the ingredient that allows for the health claim is often itself a highly processed—and not necessarily a healthy—additive.

Barley betafiber is produced by the conventional agribusiness giant Cargill, which produces the fiber supplement from conventionally grown barley and petitioned for its use in certified organic foods. Conventional barley is often sprayed with toxic pesticides in the field and treated with harmful fumigants in storage.

Should conventional barley betafiber be allowed in certified organic foods? To meet the legal criteria for approval, it needs to not be harmful to human health or the environment, consistent with organic farming and handling, and ‘essential’ for the production of organic foods.

We certainly did not think it met the legal threshold; but to our dismay, the NOSB’s Handling Subcommittee voted—unanimously, with one abstention—to recommend to the full board that conventional barley betafiber be permitted in organic foods.

The Handling Subcommittee also unanimously, with one abstention, recommended approval of conventional sugar beet fiber, another heavily processed fiber supplement from a conventionally grown and processed crop. The petitioner of sugar beet fiber even admitted, in writing, that its sugar beet seed is treated with a neonicotinoid pesticide—neonicotinoids are extremely toxic to honeybees and are believed to be largely responsible for the rapidly declining health of critical pollinator populations. At publication, European regulators had just banned this class of dangerous pesticides.

In many ways, these two fiber supplements epitomize the reason why consumers are turning to organics: as an alternative to foods with highly processed yet entirely unnecessary ingredients that have been sprayed and fumigated with toxic pesticides. Yet members of the Handling Subcommittee, including the NOSB members who are employees of Whole Foods Market, Driscoll’s and Earthbound Farm, apparently thought it would be appropriate to allow these conventional ingredients to be added to certified organic foods.

The organic movement rose from holistic thinking that rejects quick-fix solutions to nutritional deficiencies, in deference to nutrient-dense food production rooted in the soil rather than the factory. Yet some NOSB members appear to have adopted a severely reductionist approach to the organic industry with “market growth” as their predominant mantra. They seem to believe that the organic industry must grow, grow, grow—at any cost. In the conventional food business, nutraceuticals like barley betafiber are a current fad. They allow for health claims that can, and often do, boost sales.

Sadly, some corporate-affiliated NOSB members seem to apply the same thinking to the organic industry. But organics has grown because it offers an alternative to highly processed foods, which all too often mislead consumers with unproven health claims that boost sales rather than health.

Since unanimous subcommittee recommendations generally turn into approvals by the full Board, we took the task of fighting for the rejection of these materials very seriously. We asked our Portland-area members to help win this fight by volunteering to speak during the meeting and present their personal perspective while adding their voice to Cornucopia’s testimony.

Shari Sirkin, a farmer at Dancing Root Farm, 18 miles south of Portland, spoke against allowing conventional sugar beet fiber—treated with neonicotinoids—in organic foods. Organic consumer Charlotte Uris, who called herself the “canary in the coal mine,” because her body reacts strongly to exposure to pesticides and fumigants, spoke passionately about the importance of keeping conventional ingredients out of organic foods, especially Cargill’s betafiber, which is likely fumigated in storage with toxic pesticides and processed with genetically engineered enzymes.

And when the vote came down, NOSB rejected the petitions for barley betafiber and sugar beet fiber. In fact, the petition for sugar beet fiber was rejected unanimously—quite a turnaround from the unanimous approval by the subcommittee just weeks earlier.

Cornucopia—our staff and our volunteer-members—were an important counterbalance to the numerous corporate executives, lobbyists and consultants at the meeting.

The Board also rejected petitions for a synthetic and toxic antimicrobial compound to disinfect meat in slaughterhouses, a plant hormone that stimulates root formation, and the continued use of tetracycline, an antibiotic, on tree fruit.

In further good news, Cornucopia had earlier demanded a correction when we discovered that many of the non-organic ingredients approved for use in organics contain unapproved synthetic ingredients such as sweeteners, stabilizers and preservatives. In a major turnaround, the NOSB voted affirmatively to perform future reviews of all minor ingredients to ensure they meet the Organic Food Production Act’s criteria.

We are grateful to our members who volunteered. By the end of the meeting, 15 Cornucopia members had presented testimony, including farmer Rick Walsh, who drove four hours (each way) to help make sure that Cornucopia’s research findings were presented. When the NOSB decided to cut public comment from up to ten minutes for public interest group representatives to a mere three minutes (it has since been increased to four minutes), Cornucopia decided to draw on the passion of our members to help us present our testimony. Even though Cornucopia’s policy staff has grown over the past year, our focus on preserving the integrity of the organic label truly remains a grassroots and collaborative effort.

A big “thank you” goes out to all our members who took time out of their busy schedules to present testimony on behalf of the organic community. Thanks, too, to the 1,300 Cornucopia members and supporters who submitted comments to the USDA—your voice made a difference!


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