Sparks Fly on Day One of NOSB Meeting in San Diego – ReportApril 28th, 2015
Instead of looking at the legal and ethical concerns articulated by The Cornucopia Institute’s call on the Obama/Vilsack administration for a change of leadership at the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP), numerous speakers yesterday, most of them financially benefiting from the status quo in Washington, praised Miles McEvoy, the current head of the NOP.
The praise for the USDA’s organic program and leadership was far from universal as a number of working farmers, public interest groups and consumers expressed grave reservations in how the program is undercutting the authority of the NOSB and undermining the integrity and reputation of organics.
A Question of Fairness
The meeting usually opens with reports from the head of the NOP (Mr. McEvoy) and a brief reading/opening statement by the chair of the NOSB (Jean Richardson).
The most newsworthy aspect of the NOP report was the release, yesterday, of the long-awaited draft “origin of livestock rule.” Mr. McEvoy identified this as a top priority in 2010. Many of us believe that the USDA has historically misread the regulations allowing conventional cattle, mostly on factory dairy farms, to be brought into organic operations. Factory farms have operated with a competitive advantage. Cornucopia will be out soon with an analysis and there will be a 90-day opportunity for public comment.
Although Dr. Richardson, in her opening remarks, specifically praised Cornucopia’s research work she was critical of our organization’s call to remove current leadership at the NOP.
We find it troublesome that the current chair would choose to politicize her position, which should be one of neutrality. The NOSB is split, as is the organic community/industry, on whether the actions of the current NOP represent violations of the intent of Congress in terms of running the program and in terms of the ethics and performance of its current management.
Basing Organic Decision-Making on Science — Conflicts of Interest
My opening remarks focused on the “Organic Regulatory Theater” with around 200 different synthetic and non-organic materials needing to be reviewed along with some other policy issues. It has not been humanly possible for this volunteer board and stakeholder groups, like Cornucopia, to perform proper, in-depth analysis of these substances.
One of the problems is we lack current Technical Reviews. The USDA has either decided they aren’t needed (Congress gave this power to the NOSB, not the USDA staff), or they are woefully late, and in some cases they’ve contracted with organizations that have an appearance of a conflict of interest (and they have allowed the scientists performing the analysis to remain anonymous).
I blasted the secrecy and the conflicts of interest and used as an example The Organic Center, which is part of the Organic Trade Association. I said it was “the fox guarding the organic henhouse.”
NOSB Chair Richardson later read, verbatim, an email from an OTA staff person claiming my testimony was inaccurate with The Organic Center/OTA no longer doing technical reviews and trying to distance themselves from responsibility, inferring that was old history and the OTA had nothing to do with the formation of TOC.
Although we have verified that they are no longer doing reviews, the TOC has done reviews as recently as the last 2-3 years and, like much of what is secretive at the NOP, the current list of contractors was never publicly updated. In its last technical review, The Organic Center/OTA did disclose the identity of the author of their studies (an individual with a PhD in agricultural economics rather than the biological sciences that would perhaps better qualify him for such a position).
Furthermore, the OTA had not just recently become involved with The Organic Center as their spin, read by Dr. Richardson, inferred. In reality, OTA leadership founded the TOC as a nonprofit arm so they could raise money for organic research. They’ve always had interrelated Board of Directors and, currently, the OTA appoints the board of TOC and it is housed in the OTA’s offices.
But the OTA didn’t say that, and Dr. Richardson was unwilling to give us the same opportunity for a brief rebuttal as she gave the powerful industry lobby group. We take great exception when our organization, and its 10,000 members (working organic farmers being our primary constituency), are treated as second class citizens at a meeting sponsored by the federal government.
We hope Dr. Richardson will reconsider giving us equal time and read our brief statement to the board and audience today.
It should be noted that at least one more “nonprofit,” that gets the vast majority of their funding from corporate agribusiness and government, Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI), that is also doing technical reviews for the NOSB, praised Mr. McEvoy in testimony —the government official who is responsible for underwriting part of their paychecks.
There are more conflicts of interest in this process than Carter’s got pills.
Certifiers Acting as Industry Trade Groups Rather than Independent Arbiters
We have been concerned for some time about the propriety of the accredited certifying organizations, who are acting as agents of the federal government, lobbying the NOSB regarding materials or practices. A number of them have directly rejected our concerns.
It has the appearance of a conflict of interest when certifiers represent the interest of their paying clients. The claim that they are just doing survey work doesn’t negate the concerns.
Furthermore, it doesn’t matter whether 200 or 2,000 farmers or handlers are using a particular synthetic material. This is not a popularity contest. The law requires the NOSB to judge synthetic materials by three criteria: safety to the environment, safety in terms of human health and the essentiality/necessity of the products. They need to meet all three.
Just because the clients of the certifier want a product (maybe it’s the cheapest alternative) doesn’t mean it passes muster for use in organics. Furthermore, these are not scientific surveys. There might be an equal or greater number of farmers/handlers that have never used the product or find it unnecessary because of their superior management skill and commitment to organic philosophy — like California farmer Phil McGrath testifying on behalf of The Cornucopia Institute.
Who’s a farmer?
Just like some of the vertically integrated industrial livestock companies that sit on the phony-baloney “Farmer Advisory Council” at the OTA and touted in their testimony yesterday (this would be like General Motors having their own hand-picked worker council representatives and calling it a “union”), at least one individual testified in front of the board for the continued use of synthetic methionine and represented himself as a “Farmer.”
What does an organic farm look like? And what does it mean to be a farmer? Here is a photo of the operation owned by the Kreher family.
This is just one of the facilities operated by this split operation (organic and conventional). They are currently under investigation by the USDA after a formal legal complaint was filed by The Cornucopia Institute, along with 13 other “factory farms,” that aerial photography indicated were not allowing their chickens and cattle legal access to the outdoors for pasture:
Consultants to corporate agribusiness continued to testify in front of the NOSB without being asked to disclose their clients/who they are working for.
One such consultant stated he used to serve on boards in Washington with Mr. McEvoy, and denigrated Cornucopia by saying we were encouraging the NOSB to vote against “all” materials. And then he said he was going to be canceling his Cornucopia Institute membership in making no further financial contributions.
Well, as we like to say, “You are welcome to your own opinion but you are not welcome to your own facts.”
This gentleman has never been a member of The Cornucopia Institute and it’s ironic that he was testifying in favor of retaining copper and sulfur (two materials that can cause pollution even though they are naturally-based) as organic compliant crop materials. Both of these materials are supported by The Cornucopia Institute to be retained on the National List (with restrictions to protect the environment).
Is Hydroponics Organic?
Again, the question is, what does an organic farm look like? Some of the hydroponic installations are now investing tens of millions of dollars in giant industrial complexes, in urban areas, growing food and water and a nutrient solution, under artificial lighting, and suggesting they have the same nutritional value as food grown in healthy organic soil with a complex microbiota that converts organic matter in the soil into vitamins, antioxidants and other diverse, immune-enhancing and flavorful compounds.
This is somewhat controversial because one of the issues the NOP is charged with is disrespecting the will of the NOSB and unilaterally allowing hydroponic farms to proliferate.
More news from the organic circus in San Diego later. In the interim, please see updates, in real-time, at www.cornucopia.org or on Cornucopia’s Twitter feed which you can sign up for on our website.
Mark A. Kastel
The Cornucopia Institute