Organic Regulatory Theater?July 14th, 2015
NOSB’s Spring 2015 Meeting Marked by Brutal Workload, Controversy
by Will Fantle
The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) held its semi-annual meeting in La Jolla, California, April 27–30. The board’s four-day meeting was dominated by the discussion surrounding the 200 synthetic and non-organic materials allowed for use in organics and scheduled for their periodic review under the “sunset” process.
The weight of such an extensive review clearly strains the capacity of the 15 volunteer members to assess, in any meaningful way, the balance of human and environmental impacts of the substances plus their essentiality, or necessity, in organic food and agriculture.
Cornucopia’s staff had spent more than two months intensely analyzing the materials and providing the board with a scientific analysis of the substances. Yet even having competent full-time staff engaged in this work, plus several temporary contractors, exceeded our organizational ability to fully review the majority of these substances.
The National Organic Program (NOP) was similarly strained by the task as several Technical Reviews requested by the board from the NOP were not finished and available for board or public review.
The staggering workload led some observers to call the meeting “organic regulatory theater,” perhaps more show than substance.
For much of the first two days, the NOSB heard public testimony on the materials under review as well as a number of other important policy items facing their deliberations.
Board members frequently cite the importance and value of public testimony in helping them conduct their work. Still, each individual’s time allotted for a public presentation to the board has been reduced in recent years. Board chair Jean Richardson said they are looking at limiting the time for public testimony even further for the fall meeting or perhaps routing a portion of it through some as yet to be defined web-based system independent of the actual meeting.
A considerable portion of the public discussion focused on several controversies: the allowance of hydroponic systems receiving organic certification, nanotechnology and its potential uses in organics, the contamination of seeds and crops/foods by unwanted drift from GMOs, and the continued used of a synthetic amino acid, methionine, in egg and poultry production.
Lurking in the background of this meeting and the micro discussions that occurred at it were larger issues that overhang the USDA’s overall handling and governance of the federal organic program and the NOSB.
One of these, the arbitrary changes to the sunset process, is discussed in this issue’s cover story.
Another, the NOP’s commandeering of the board’s agenda and its deciding what is proper for discussion, remains an outstanding concern.
Additionally, two of the four board seats designated by Congress for farmers remain filled by corporate agribusiness employees who don’t appear to “own or operate” an organic farm, as the law stipulates. Their voices and votes remain decidedly in the pro-corporate faction of the board that has come to dominate NOSB decision making.
Perhaps the most surreal moment of the meeting occurred when the board approached a vote on raising the allowable amount of synthetic methionine in poultry feed. It was known to be a razor thin vote, with 10 of the 15 members required to support the measure. But on the meeting’s first day, one of the measure’s supporters, Harold Austin, unfortunately fell in his hotel room, fracturing his hip. He was hospitalized from that point on and took no part in the proceedings.
Days later, however, during the board’s public deliberations, Austin was brought into the meeting via a computer Skype connection for his participation. This move was challenged as being out of order by Colehour Bondera, one of the farmer-members of the board and former chair of the Policy and Procedures Subcommittee. Bondera argued that there were no provisions for such participation in Robert’s Rules of Order (governing board conduct) nor had the board publicly discussed such an allowance that would let someone not physically present vote at a meeting.
Board chair Richardson had prepared for just such a challenge, rejecting it in a brief prepared statement. Farmer-member Nick Maravell announced he would not participate further in the process and left the meeting prior to the vote. Without Austin’s vote, the measure would have failed. But the process manipulation worked and the measure squeaked by thanks to Austin’s computer-aided presence. This delighted the many giant egg and poultry producers in the audience, who pushed hard for the change in usage levels of synthetic methionine to help their high-production management practices.
The Cornucopia Institute remains steadfast in its support for organic integrity, ethics, and transparency. We will keep prodding the USDA, the NOSB, and organic stakeholders to uphold these values. Consumers seeking the highest quality organic foods are encouraged to access our website for our brand-ranking scorecards.
This story was previously published in the Summer 2015 Cultivator, Cornucopia’s quarterly newsletter.