NOP Deputy Administrator
Miles McEvoy
Source: USDA

Wednesday was the third day of the four-day National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) meeting in the La Jolla neighborhood of San Diego, California. At least twice a year the 15-member expert stakeholder panel meets at different locations around the country. The NOSB was created by Congress to represent the interests of the organic community, rather than allowing the industry to be dominated by corporate lobbyists, as is the custom in Washington.

Most of Wednesday was dominated by reviewing synthetic and non-organic materials that will “sunset” in 2017. For a few of them, comments were made by board members but most of the 140 materials were listed along with their uses, but with little information pertaining to potential concerns.

According to disputed new USDA rules, organic stakeholders (such as The Cornucopia Institute) must enter into the record evidence of concerns surrounding 2017 Sunset materials before this meeting for the NOSB to consider them. Comments can be submitted prior to the next meeting, when the NOSB will take an actual vote on each 2017 Sunset material; however, those comments will be “untimely” for consideration.

Under its new edicts, USDA’s National Organic Program, led by Mr. Miles McEvoy, has effectively made it impossible for interested citizens to fully participate in the important sunset process:

  1. There are over 200 materials for review at this meeting. That’s why I referred to this as “organic regulatory theater.” The board, and organic stakeholders, cannot possibly do justice to this level of workload.
  1. Next, according to the edict from Mr. McEvoy, we were supposed to have (written or oral) comments in on all 2017 materials by this meeting. However, the USDA has not even released requested Technical Reviews (TRs) for some of the materials, which Congress has authorized for NOSB members and the public. Even with the Technical Reviews that were available, Cornucopia scientific staff spends hundreds of hours looking at these materials. Without all of the TRs needed this becomes a near impossibility.
  1. Our staff uses minutes of the NOSB subcommittees that drill down and look at these materials (Handling, Crops and Materials Subcommittees). Running up to the meeting in San Diego the most recent minutes available to the public were from February 2 even though six additional subcommittee meetings have taken place. The subcommittee notes help us understand what the potential concerns of NOSB members are, or who might be carrying water for corporate interests. This lack of transparency on the part of the NOP process is inexcusable.
  1. And finally, the entire sunset voting process has been turned on its head. Unless the board takes action, materials will stay on the List in perpetuity. They may never sunset (as the law passed by Congress requires). And if they decide to take a vote, in an arbitrary reversal to the entire history of the organic program, it will take a two-thirds supermajority to remove the material. The USDA is already being challenged in court on how they developed this cockamamie legal approach.

By now you might recognize how this process is so stacked in favor of chemical manufacturers and industrial-scale “organic” agricultural producers. One of the farmer-members of The Cornucopia Institute, testifying Monday, Phil McGrath, stated that if you really are good at your job, managing the quality and diversity of soil life, you don’t need a lot of commercial inputs to ensure healthy production.

Long live real organic farming and food production!

Incompetency, Spin or Outright Lying to the Public?

Cornucopia staff has uncovered numerous examples of some board members spinning the science in the favor of corporate interests. Here are just a few examples embedded in a couple of the debates yesterday:

Ferric Phosphate

Ferric phosphate is a material used as a slug and snail bait to protect crops from damage. Ferric phosphate itself doesn’t seem to be an objectionable material, and the products containing this active ingredient seem to be effective. However, there’s a catch: they are only effective if they include an “inert” chelating agent.  All the products on the market today contain the same chelating agent, called EDTA.

EDTA is highly toxic to soil microorganisms and non-target species including earthworms. The earthworms and microbes are our friends. They are needed in sustainable farming systems to help break down organic matter into usable nutrients for the plants (and nutrients for us in our food).

EDTA is not appropriate for use in organic farming and probably shouldn’t be used in conventional farming.

NOSB board member Ms. Zea Sonnabend justified keeping ferric phosphate on the National List of approved substances by stating there was “only one study” that showed EDTA killed earthworms. She went on to state that we shouldn’t consider this study because it has not been replicated. Many scientific studies have not yet been replicated, but that does not void the results of the peer-reviewed publication. Suggesting that it “hasn’t been replicated” sounds ominous. If scientists had tried and failed to replicate a study it might indicate that it could be fraudulent. But if scientists evaluated the study and felt comfortable with its findings they might not have an incentive or the funding to replicate the research. This was pure spin on the part of Ms. Sonnabend, the board’s scientist representative.

But what is even more troubling is that her presentation, and advice to other board members, was factually inaccurate.

One of Cornucopia’s researchers quickly fact-checked her statement and found two peer-reviewed, published papers on the subject, not one:

Edwards et al. (2009)

From line 341 of the 2012 TR: “Results from the OECD test in Edwards et al. (2009) showed that iron phosphate combined with either EDTA or EDDS had the greatest adverse effect on earthworm survival compared with the other treatments [emphasis added]. Estimated LD50 values were 78.16 mg/kg for iron phosphate combined with EDTA, 82.98 mg/kg for iron phosphate combined with EDDS, 156.46 mg/kg for EDTA, and 145.57 for EDDS.

From line 347 of the TR: Iron phosphate by itself was not toxic to earthworms in the OECD artificial soil test with a calculated LD50 value greater than 10,000 mg/kg. (This demonstrates that ferric phosphate doesn’t work, isn’t absorbed by worms/slugs without a chelating agent.)

Langan and Shaw (2006)

From line 373 of the TR: The study authors reported that iron phosphate pellets (Sluggo®) caused negative effects on earthworm survival and growth compared [emphasis added] to metaldehyde and control pellets (Langan and Shaw, 2006).

See Table 2 here:

In an example of twisted logic Ms. Sonnabend suggested that, somehow, over the next five years, before the next sunset review, these companies would voluntarily take EDTA out of their formulations. We don’t know why they would do so without any economic incentive to do so. Rather, the board could have voted to allow this material to sunset in 2017, due to the fact that all formulations contain EDTA (and it is ineffective without the addition of EDTA).  The sunset of ferric phosphate (formulated with EDTA) would have created a market for a safer alternative.

As we have frequently noted, the intent of the sunset provision in the organic law was to prod improvements, and incentivize the threat of a substance’s removal from the National List as a way to encourage the development of organic materials.

We encourage board members to reconsider their 11-3 vote, which keeps this chemical on the List, based on this misinformation.

Ethylene Gas

Another synthetic agent, ethylene gas, proved controversial.  The question is whether this material is “essential” for the production of organic pineapples.  NOSB farmer-member Colehour J. Bondera, from Hawaii, who actually grows pineapples, along with nearby neighbors, explicitly stated that this material is neither essential nor necessary for pineapple production.

Mr. Bondera stated that he and his neighbors have no problem growing pineapples without ethylene gas. Rather, it is used by industrial-scale growers as a ripening agent enabling year-round harvesting and marketing.

Is it proper in organics to use a synthetic strictly to expand the marketing season for a particular crop? Would we be better off having truly organic pineapples available for a shorter season? These are legitimate questions but Ms. Sonnabend postponed debate, instead suggesting the board needed to poll foreign growers.

The decisions made by this board should not be a popularity contest. Synthetic chemicals either are safe and meet the letter of the law or they are not.

Copper Sulfate/Fixed Copper

Copper-based materials are used for disease control on organic farms. The Cornucopia Institute and other public interest groups joined certifiers and industry lobby groups in supporting its retention on the List. But it needs to be used carefully because it can cause an unsafe buildup/pollution in the soil.

During discussion yesterday, Ms. Sonnabend stated definitively that it takes 10 years for copper to accumulate to potentially toxic levels in soil.

One of our researchers, Dr. Linley Dixon, has this response:

While that MAY be true for fruit tree production [which Ms. Sonnabend has first-hand experience with], I have first-hand experience from visiting large scale tomato farms.

Owners of these industrial organic operations directly stated to me that they have to stop using their acreage for tomato production after 3 years because of copper toxicity which develops within a few years at their usage rates.

These are “factory farm” producers of tomatoes that routinely use materials like copper as their primary means of disease control instead of more sustainable cultural practices, the kind that farmer Phil McGrath talked about in his testimony. This is an unfortunate example of an NOSB member (who also works for the country’s largest, multimillion-dollar organic certifier, CCOF), softening concerns regarding the use of an off-farm input.

Ms. Sonnabend is well regarded by her colleagues.  Our bringing up these discrepancies will, presumably, once again produce allegations that Cornucopia is “attacking” members of the USDA’s organic governance program.

We speak truth to power, on behalf of family-scale organic farmers, and their urban allies, who truly believe in the foundational precepts of organic agriculture. Our Codirector, Will Fantle, likes to call Cornucopia “an organic truth squad.”

We demand truth and transparency in this process.

The NOSB is filled with volunteers who truly believe in the merits of organic agriculture. But they need to be treated respectfully by the USDA management, provided timely, objective and accurate Technical Reviews, and they need everyone involved in the process to act in an honest and forthright manner.

More news from the organic circus in San Diego later. In the interim, please see updates, in real-time, at or on Cornucopia’s Twitter feed which you can sign up for on our website.

Mark A. Kastel
The Cornucopia Institute

DAMNING — LATE-BREAKING NEWS: The staff director at the National Organic Program, Miles McEvoy, was interviewed at the meeting here in San Diego by a reporter from the Washington Post. In the article, entitled Is Organic Food Safer and Healthier? The guy in charge of US organics won’t say, McEvoy refuses to outline any of the benefits to human health or the environment embodied in the organic farming and food movement:

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