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Thursday was the fourth and final day of the 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.

High Drama: Synthetic Methionine Approved at Higher Levels of Administration

The independent block of NOSB members, farmers and academics courageously led a fight to try to constrain the use of the synthetic amino acid, methionine, in poultry use.

Organic laying hens and meat birds need methionine, an essential amino acid, as part of their diet but they can get it from natural sources, being afforded legitimate outdoor access and a diet more suited to their species (as omnivores).

Intrepidly led by public interest representative Dr. Calvin Walker, the independents on the board tried and failed to convince their colleagues to both restrain methionine use and create a date certain for its removal from organic production.

Dr. Walker cited numerous past votes by the NOSB, working to reduce methionine use, and prevent its increased application, and asked the board colleagues to respect the history, and investment, of past NOSB members — to no avail. The livestock subcommittee chair, who was facilitating the debate, even cut Dr. Walker off before he could finish.

“Vote Early and Often”

That was a long-term slogan in the old days of Chicago electoral politics. When they looked at voting registrations it wasn’t unusual to find all the residents of a nearby cemetery on the voting rolls.

Well, that didn’t happen at the NOSB meeting, but it came close.

In a sad accident, NOSB handler-member Harold Austin fell in the bathroom on Monday, at the Marriott where we were staying, and fractured his hip. He ended up having surgery (we sincerely wish him a speedy recovery).

Since the majority block members of the board needed his vote to approve methionine use, at a higher level, they arranged for him to vote via Skype from his hospital bed, presumably highly medicated after surgery (although he seemed perfectly cogent to me).

Based on a question of parliamentary procedure, NOSB farmer-member Colehour Bondera challenged the propriety of someone voting by phone when there was no provision for that in the board’s Policy Procedure Manual (and doing so violated Robert’s Rules of Order which governs the conduct of the meetings). His appeal was rejected by board chair Dr. Jean Richardson.  Mr. Austin had also missed the extensive discussion of methionine that occurred Tuesday afternoon during the public testimony period.

It should be noted that, if I recall correctly, there is some history of not allowing votes by members not present. At one juncture in the past NOSB farmer-member Kevin Engelbert (now a member of Cornucopia’s board of directors) asked to participate in an NOSB meeting by phone. That request was denied and he was prevented from participating. (Of course, at the time Kevin served in a similar role as a conservative voice defending the integrity of organics.)

When the methionine vote finally took place, in a dramatic move, farmer-member Nick Maravell stated he was going to leave the room and not vote. His gesture was intended to give Mr. Austin the ability to withdraw from voting as well (they both knew well that they were on opposite sides of this issue).

Mr. Austin, an official of one of the nation’s largest conventional/organic apple producers, from Washington State, remained on the call and voted with the majority to approve the switch to lifetime averaging for methionine limits.

Those seeking this result had successfully – and questionably – manipulated the voting process to achieve their end.  (Cornucopia was neutral on the proposal that was approved, but strongly supported an expiration date to the continued use of synthetic methionine in poultry production.)

We All Love Organics

All the lobbyists, certifiers, nonprofit representatives in the audience, and the various members on the NOSB all are at these meetings because they care about organics. They just care about organics differently.

Some industrial representatives are fixated on “growth.” It really doesn’t matter whether the organic commodities come from a giant factory farm or China, or might be produced with an inappropriate chemical. As long as the industry is growing we should all be happy.

Others passionately care about maintaining the true meaning of organics (and they want to see growth within those parameters).

As the meeting ended the board chair waxed philosophical about the organic industry. And no one could argue with anything she had to say. But there are plenty who would argue with some of the votes that she and others cast this week, and whether all NOSB members, and all members of the audience, were treated in a fair and evenhanded manner.

Also, at the close of the meeting, “farmer-member” Ashley Swaffar, who came to the board while working for a conventional/organic egg company, Arkansas Egg, and now works for another conventional/organic business, Vital Farms, urged a number of public interest groups, including Cornucopia, Center for Food Safety, Beyond Pesticides, and others, to more vocally support organics.

What does she think our staff, board of directors, policy advisors (one of whom, Jim Gerritsen, was present at the entire meeting and helping us), and especially the thousands of members who support these groups, are doing? None of us have any profit motives for attending these meetings (it cost us thousands). We are here because we are promoting real organics. And we hope the business representatives on the board will recognize, and give us some respect, for what motivates us (whether they agree with our positions or not on any particular issue).

That’s all, folks! Numerous Cornucopia staff members worked a number of consecutive weekends, and late nights, preparing our formal written comments, the recap of comments from all individuals and organizations, and oral testimony prior to the meeting. We’re going to take a few days off and recharge our batteries but we’ll be back at it next week. I’m still in San Diego and have a few meetings today but I am looking forward to being back at home, in Wisconsin, on the farm.

A special thank you to Cornucopia members who volunteered as “citizen lobbyists” this week at the NOSB meeting in helping us present oral testimony. NOSB members were highly complimentary in terms of your individual contributions.

And thanks to Cornucopia members, NOSB members and allies from other important groups who attended our reception last night. We really enjoyed the opportunity to share some hors d’oeuvres and donated organic wine (thank you, Ocean Beach Co-op!).

And finally, thanks to all our members for the nice comments and responses concerning our coverage of the National Organic Standards Board meeting here in the Golden State. Your kind words keep us motivated and we are humbled by your continued confidence and financial contributions that funded our presence here in California.

Mark A. Kastel
The Cornucopia Institute

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