Organic Farmers, Nonprofits Maligned by Government Officials/Corporate Lobbyists

[This article was previously published in the summer issue of The Cultivator, Cornucopia’s quarterly newsletter.]

Mark Kastel

by Mark Kastel, Codirector at The Cornucopia Institute

I’m not sure what is worse; being dubbed an organic “hooligan” or an organic “purist.” There’s no doubt that the recent semiannual meeting of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) in Washington, D.C. was uncomfortable for many organic stakeholders present, for different reasons.

As six new members of the NOSB took their seats for the first time at a public meeting, having been screened by the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) Staff Director Miles McEvoy and appointed by Secretary Thomas Vilsack, the question was: “Would the balance on the board continue to be skewed towards favoring corporate agribusiness, or shift towards true organic integrity?”

A voting litmus test came up quickly on the agenda following public testimony. The Cornucopia Institute, with board spokesperson Dr. Barry Flamm (a former NOSB chairman), was a leading voice in the effort to table wholesale changes to the Policy and Procedures Manual (PPM), a document that acts as the
de facto operating manual for how the NOSB conducts its business.

In the past the NOSB itself, representing the organic community, deliberated in collaboration with the public to set rules on voting and procedures.

However, during the last couple of years, Mr. McEvoy issued a number of unilateral edicts and took control of key NOSB procedures, weakening the power of the board Congress created as a buffer against corporate influence (e.g., the radical change regarding the Sunsetting of synthetic materials).

In addition to Cornucopia’s leadership and investment in a whitepaper analyzing the countless changes being proposed in the PPM (the USDA tried to bury these changes in an unintelligible document), our organization was joined by other public interest groups, all recommending that the NOSB not “rubber stamp” the hijacking of organic policy by USDA political appointees/bureaucrats.

These groups included Beyond Pesticides, Consumer Reports, Food and Water Watch, Center for Food Safety, and The National Organic Coalition.

The only industry group on the record supporting this agribusiness-friendly coup was a lobby representing wholesale produce distributors.

Standing with Cornucopia were a majority of the Agrarian Elders, led by iconic organic pioneer Eliot Coleman, who sent a letter (also read into public testimony by Cornucopia Policy Advisor Jim Gerritsen) urging, especially the new board members, to pay attention to Cornucopia scientists and experts, and
other NGOs, when listening to the preponderance of testimony coming from corporate lobbyists.

And the vote? When the dust settled, only two of the 15 NOSB members voted against the new PPM that
undermines their own authority and minimizes input from the public (both were farmers: new board member Emily Oakley and Francis Thicke).

New public interest representative Dan Seitz asked challenging questions during the debate and ended up abstaining because of the complexity of the issue and compressed timeframe.

Zea Sonnabend, a scientist directly compensated to sit on the board by CCOF, the country’s largest certifier, abstained because she felt her financial relationship with CCOF could be viewed as an unethical conflict of interest under the new language (other than her personal entanglements, she expressed no reservations with the document).

So where do hooligans come in?

It’s a new pejorative being used by the agribusiness sector to describe Cornucopia staff members and their ilk. “Hooligans” became public in a blog post by Melody Meyer, chief lobbyist for multibillion-dollar organic distributor United Natural Foods, Inc. and former chair of the Organic Trade Association, the industry’s powerful lobby group.

Previously, corporate bigwigs accused us of being “organic purists.” Now let me ask you, how pure do you want your organic food?

However, in this case, Ms. Meyer and others didn’t like our challenge of the new government-corporate
leadership running the USDA program. While Cornucopia has called for Secretary Vilsack to remove Mr. McEvoy, other powerful forces (some at his encouragement) have written public and private statements of support. One prominent certifier said, “It’s the best NOP we’ve ever had!” We can see how they like the current trajectory.

Not only did Meyer have the arrogance to coin a new pejorative in an effort to demean farmers and consumers who hold fundamentally different views of what constitutes true “organic integrity,” she also insulted and denigrated the Agrarian Elders and other senior organic growers who came out to testify.

She stated it “raised her dander” that they would come in and testify and not stay for the entire meeting (many stayed for two of the three days and others for many hours).

She obviously discounted the fact that these working farmers drove into Washington, D.C. during the height of the spring planting season so they could petition our government.

NOSB member Tom Chapman, an employee of Clif Bar, championed the new corporate-friendly PPM in an extended, well-prepared presentation. Like Meyer, they both have their expenses paid and receive salaries from their respective employers, enabling them to attend a full week of meetings (the “deal” the USDA negotiated on hotel rooms cost almost $300 a night).

And why are so many certifiers and nonprofits involved in organics silent when the corporate-
government hijacking of organics is so apparent? Could that have anything to do with the millions of dollars that are coming from prominent donors that wouldn’t want anybody to upset the organic applecart (e.g., Clif Bar, WhiteWave Foods, Farm Aid, UNFI, etc.)?

Mr. McEvoy himself, at the USDA, has a slush fund, and has handed out hundreds of thousands of dollars to organic certifiers and NGOs to help him with “research and education” as well. Better not bite the hand that feeds you!

So I, for one, will be proud to stand with other hooligans, those hard-working farmers who get their hands dirty for a living and crack a sweat, who dug into their own pockets to attend as much of this past NOSB meeting as they could afford. After the disrespectful way they have been treated, and the dishonor their perspective garnered by board members ignoring their passion and appeals, it shouldn’t be any surprise that the number of working farmers attending these meetings has dwindled over the years.

I will be back, along with other Cornucopia staff members, because it is our job. But look to our organization to shift some of our resources into more industry product sector reports and scorecards. If the USDA is not willing to protect ethical industry participants or the interest of consumers who want superior, authentic organic food, we will differentiate organic brands between the true heroes in organics and the charlatans.

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