Cornucopia’s Take: Natural Grocers’ Alan Lewis recently visited Capitol Hill to discuss the upcoming Farm Bill with lawmakers. He shares his experience, insight, and disturbing commentary below about what this may mean for organic food and agriculture.
Will Coming “Reforms” at the USDA Spell the End of Organic?
by Alan Lewis
Back Room “Reform” of the National Organic Standards Board May Be a Direct Threat to Organic Integrity.
I spent a week on Capitol Hill recently, during which I spoke with over two dozen congressional staffers and lawmakers about the upcoming 2018 Farm Bill. With about 400 days to go before the 2012 Farm Bill funding ends, everyone in the food/agriculture/nutrition arena is focused on negotiating to protect their favorite programs. Senator Roberts (R-KS), the dean of farming in the Senate, has stated there will be no added funding. If you want something new, then first find something someone else can do without. The Trump Administration has, of course, threatened a budget with hefty reductions in spending for both rural safety net (crop insurance, price supports) and urban safety net (SNAP, school nutrition) spending.
In May, the USDA began an agency reform initiative to cut out unnecessary spending and streamline regulation. These appear to be a code phrases for dismantling many longstanding programs that big agriculture can do without, but that smallholders are too disorganized and powerless to fight for. As previous Ag Secretary Vilsack reminded everyone, he just finished cutting nearly $2 billion from the USDA budget during the Obama years.
One of my Hill meetings was with a senior staffer for Senator Roberts who works on the Senate Agriculture Committee staff. The discussion was fairly normal until, towards the end, with my hand on the door knob, he stated that his people would be “reforming the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB).” Taken aback, I asked him what that meant. Rather than walking back the statement, he doubled down: he was going to put a stop to Cornucopia Institute’s habit of using the NOSB for its fundraising by riling up consumers about the practices of large scale industrial chicken, egg and dairy farms.
Note that within this staffer’s milieu, reforming the NOSB is seen as a de facto policy initiative. It is not an idea, or a bee-in-the-bonnet, or a wish. They simply intend to undertake these reforms during the next 400 days. This assumption would explain why the National Organic Program’s (NOP’s) Animal Welfare Final Rule on livestock production practices was suspended in January just before it was to take effect. They do not agree with it and will not allow it to be implemented in its current iteration. To this end, they have Senator Stabenow (D-MI and ranking member of Senate Ag) on their side. She is an outspoken protector of her certified organic industrial egg producers in Michigan, who will likely be inconvenienced by the new animal welfare standards. Most other states have industrial organic operators as well. They seem to have won the day.
Briefly, the key problem with industrial organic is that it lowers the cost and retail price of eggs, chicken and other animal products that bear the same organic seal as those produced in accordance with the spirit of the National Organic Foods Production Act. Industrial producers thus compete unfairly. True organic products are forced to justify their higher cost and price with up-claims like “cage free”, “free range”, “pastured”, and “grassfed.” In addition, consumer confusion increases — and consumer confidence erodes — when two very different production systems are allowed to carry the same seal.
The idea of reforming the NOSB to protect industrial producers is nothing new. The USDA has doggedly protected large organic producers (including hydroponic growers) by carefully wording rules or avoiding making certain rules altogether. Whether one agrees with this outcome or not, the NOSB has largely been left to function as it was intended: a diverse group of members are charged with considering all stakeholders’ views and technical information to make the best possible improvements to organic standardswithout too much disruption to any certified operator or group of operators. The industrial organic and big-brand trade group, called the Organic Trade Association (OTA), has diligently protected large organic operators as well. After all, many large corporations sit on the association’s board of directors and the companies they work for pay a disproportionate share of OTA’s expenses. The other organic advocacy and producer groups have chimed in, on principle, but have been largely ineffective at reigning in the big producers, the big brands and the OTA. Farmers in particular feel under served by OTA, choosing instead to start their own group, the Organic Farmers Association.
What is happening behind the scenes in Washington that so emboldens the Senate Agriculture Committee to “reform the NOSB?” Why do staffers already treat it like adone deal? Why are they not anticipating push-back? Where is the usual outreach to stakeholders to reassure and placate them? For answers, we should probably look to the recent GMO labeling fiasco. The OTA, large brands and industrial organic producers all talked up a storm about their support for mandatory labeling of GMO’s, but behind the scenes many worked actively with the Just Label It group to promote the essentially voluntary labeling compromise that hides behind scannable codes on retail packaging. An OTA board member could vocally oppose the DARK Act* during the OTA’s public policy conference while privately haranguing members of Congress to vote for it. Is the same thing happening with OTA in regard to NOSB “reforms”?
Oddly, three issues were entirely absent from the 2017 Organic Trade Association policy conference: GMOs, the Organic Checkoff (marketing program funded by levies on producers) and NOSB reforms. OTA’s guilt around GMO labeling is understandable. Avoiding open discussion of the checkoff was less so, because industry stakeholders still have to vote in a USDA referendum — drumming up support would seem prudent. But not talking about the slated NOSB reforms? That issue should have been front and center in open sessions, working groups, and lobbying materials. Alas, only silence.
The environmental protection laws of the 1970’s and the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 have something curious in common: they both require continuous improvement of best practices based on newly developed technologies. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created to make sure economic output could continue apace while reducing its negative environmental impact on land, air and water. Congress commanded the department to promote research into new ways to clean pollutants from power plant exhaust, reduce automobile emissions, decrease energy loss from homes and buildings, etc. Note that the core statutes have not been significantly amended. Science and research continue to improve, and the law demands that new commercially viable technology, practices and systems be implemented to help reach pollution reduction targets.
Similarly, the mission of the National Organic Program is to continually remove synthetic and non-sustainable inputs, processes and practices over time when commercially viable alternatives become available. The substance of the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) has not changed since it became law 1990, but organic practices have evolved considerably as new knowledge and technologies are deployed to comply with the program’s statutory goals.
It’s clear that the “reform” of the National Organic Standards Board is intended to remove the requirement of continual improvement from the National Organic Program.
Senate Agriculture Committee members and staffers have said as much: if someone is certified organic, they should not be threatened with loss of certification just because they don’t want to conform to new, current best practices. If large scale industrial practices work for the mainstream livestock, commodity grain, and specialty crop economy, then they can force them to fit the organic industry as well. (Except, of course, they don’t fit.)
Early in 2017, a group purported to represent the Freedom Caucus (Tea Party) in congress floated a memo through an agricultural industry lobbying group. The memo stated in plain terms that the National Organic Program was a sham that produced food identical to conventional and genetically modified (GMO) foods. It claimed the NOP is just a marketing scheme designed to make organic farmers look better to consumers, and to make conventional food (and GMO food in particular) appear suspect. The fix, said the memo, was to silence the “ideologues” from among the NOSB board members and replace them with scientists from industry who could better make policy and rules without cluttering the debate with silly talk about values. Community, rural vitality, soil health, fair trade, and sustainable practices should be excluded from the discussion. “Scientific” measures of lower costs, efficiency, standardization and higher yields should be left in. (It was apparently lost on the memo’s authors that industrial production practices are equally value driven; it’s just that the “value” of economic gain by externalizing costs is so deeply embedded as to be invisible.)
One likely method to reform the NOP is to change the composition of the NOSB board. Adding three or four seats controlled by ag industry scientists would tip every vote and virtually eliminate effective debate. Other methods are, as we have seen, to postpone or withdraw existing rules. The ostensible independence of the board could be withdrawn: the USDA could simply control all organic policy directly. Rather than attempting to inform policy making, the NOSB members and organic community stakeholders would be allowed to comment (complain, really) about already completed initiatives (like now happens under many other USDA offices). The big players control the outcome behind the scenes, while the hoi polloi hold hands and hum Kum Bah Yah in the hallway.
As I was told on the Hill, the controlling narrative of NOSB reform – “It’s being used as a fundraising tool” – is as laughable as it is dangerous. Insiders at Cornucopia know the group runs on a shoestring and always has. In contrast, the Beef Checkoff alone extracts $80 million per year in industry levies, yet is seemingly impervious to the most obvious reforms or even basic transparency. The fundraising narrative clearly comes from the hurt feelings of the large producers of eggs, chicken and dairy whose operations often just barely comply with the letter of the OFPA while skirting the spirit of continual improvement and, equally important, scoffing at consumer expectations about how their organic products are actually produced.
What the USDA reformers and their allies don’t understand is that the Cornucopia’s of the world are not going away.
Cornucopia has done an outstanding job of documenting and describing in detail industrial organic practices, and asking this question of the USDA, NOP, NOSB, and organic stakeholders: “Is this really what we mean by Organic?” In short, Cornucopia is upholding the core tenets of the Organic Foods Production Act by matching congressional intent to how the NOP rules are actually being drafted, interpreted and applied. What the USDA reformers and their allies don’t understand is that the Cornucopia’s of the world are not going to go away. And neither will consumer expectations about organic production practices. The “reformers” can permanently legalize industrial organic, and dismember the NOSB, but that alone will not make industrial organic practices acceptable to the ultimate judges: informed American consumers.
Just five years ago, many of my meetings on Capitol Hill had to begin with explaining what organic agriculture is and why it is valuable: improved nutrition, diversified family farms, sustainable economics, carbon sequestration in healthy soil, reduced chemical residues and reinvigorated rural communities. These days, it seems everyone on the Hill eats organic whenever they can. The connections between human, animal and environmental health are now obvious and settled. Yet, the Organic Trade Association brought its members to the Hill this spring with a simplistic message about protecting the organic program funding in the 2018 Farm Bill. There is no way the OTA — a major policy organization — is not aware that the NOP and NOSB are under attack. Yet, silence.
When the organic “reforms” now being crafted in secret behind closed doors suddenly appear in an amendment to the 2018 Farm Bill, we can watch with amusement as the OTA gallantly raises the alarm, far too late to matter, to protect the integrity of the organic program.
Now is the time to rise to the defense of the National Organic Program and the National Organic Standards Board. We have 400 days left to take a stand. If only we could find the battlefield. Or our generals.
*DARK Act (Deny Americans the Right to Know) refers to the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015.