[Read Cornucopia’s formal Citizen Petition to the USDA for new regulations to prohibit the use of oil and gas wastewater in organic production.]
Fracking Water, Synthetic Ingredients on Agenda at This Week’s USDA Meetings
On the eve of the biannual meeting of the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), in St. Paul, Minnesota, The Cornucopia Institute has formally submitted a citizen’s petition requesting the USDA ban the use of wastewater from the oil and gas industry in organic crop production.
Cornucopia, a farm policy research group based in Wisconsin, is requesting that the NOSB prohibit the practice as water that has been used in fracking and other energy production has been found to be contaminated with hydrocarbons, other toxic and carcinogenic chemicals like benzene, and heavy metals.
“Organic regulations already prohibit using sewage sludge because of contamination with toxins and heavy metals,” said Mark A. Kastel, Cornucopia’s executive director. “A loophole has existed whereas potentially contaminated wastewater from sewage treatment plants is being used to irrigate land in drought prone areas like California, as is processed fracking water. Both should be banned on an immediate basis.”
The NOSB is a 15-member expert advisory panel set up by Congress to advise the Secretary of Agriculture on the implementation of the Organic Foods Production Act. It also oversees the use of any synthetic or non-organic materials allowed for use in organic farming or food processing.
In addition to submitting their wastewater petition, Cornucopia policy staff are commenting on three non-organic materials designed as antimicrobial processing aids (such as washing produce after harvest) and to fumigate soil: silver dihydrogen citrate (an antimicrobial), allyl isothiocyanate, and natamycin (an antifungal drug).
“The foundational philosophies in organic management call for creating a healthy and diverse environment, through crop rotation and nurturing the microbiota in the soil–rather than resorting to chemical fixes,” stated Marie Burcham, a Cornucopia farm policy analyst and attorney with a certificate in environmental and natural resource law. She added that in terms of disinfectants, “While food safety is important, better sanitation should arise from production and handling practices instead of trying to clean up contamination on harvested produce after the fact. Producers can also do their part by raising livestock in high welfare systems so that they are not living in close contact with their own wastes.”
At the St. Paul meeting, Cornucopia’s Anne Ross will be appealing to the Board to promulgate regulations that will prevent unaddressed conflicts of interest where the revolving door in Washington can allow former USDA officials, charged with overseeing the independent organic certification agencies, to immediately go to work for the certifiers that might have benefited from their favorable rulings.
“In addition to government officials, we also want to address employment transfers, in both directions, between certified operations and certifiers,” said Ross, who holds an advanced legal degree in agricultural law.
Ross continued, “We want to prevent even the impression of improprieties that exist today when certifiers and regulators can be rewarded with lucrative jobs in the private sector or stand in judgment over their former employers.”
In other current developments, Cornucopia also announced that one of its two cofounders has retired to “emeritus” status.
“I have known and worked with our codirector, my good friend, Will Fantle for almost 30 years,” said Kastel. “I’m delighted that he will be staying on, on a part-time basis, continuing to instill his knowledge and commitment in our mission to make sure that the organic movement continues to represent an alternative social/economic justice vehicle when it comes to food and farming.”
As Fantle steps back, The Cornucopia Institute Board of Directors has unanimously elected three prominent leaders in the organic farming movement to its formal Policy Advisory Panel. All three are former members of the National Organic Standards Board: Dr. Frederick Kirschenmann, Dr. Jennifer Taylor, and Dr. Joan Dye Gussow.
“We are honored to have these three esteemed experts who have committed much of their professional lives to the advancement of truly ecological agriculture among our seasoned leadership,” said Fantle.
Organic industry stakeholders who are interested in monitoring the proceedings of the National Organic Standards Board in real time this Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, can tune in on Cornucopia’s website and social media channels (Facebook and Twitter).
In addition, The Cornucopia Institute just announced their biannual update to the NOSB member voting scorecard. Cornucopia, which acts as a corporate and governmental watchdog, has long claimed that the intent of Congress to develop a broad-based stakeholder platform has been legally undermined under both Democratic and Republican administrations. “The board has been stacked with corporate members of the industry lobby group, the Organic Trade Association, and that has reflected in the erosion of scores by individual members over the last four and a half years,” said Kastel.
In ranking NOSB members, Cornucopia uses the consensus position of the nonprofit public interest groups that engage with the board through written comments and oral testimony.
“There is a sharp divide on the board. It used to be evenly split among farmers, representatives advocating on behalf of the public, and corporate players,” continued Kastel. “Today, lobbyists and influence peddlers are eroding organic standards on behalf of agribusinesses that have invested in the organic industry.”
Kastel further opined, “Just like federal law bans the use of sewage sludge in organic food production, the NOSB was supposed to be a buffer insulating organic rulemaking from the stench of politics as usual in Washington. One of our goals is to restore the power Congress vested in this body to protect the true integrity of the organic label.”
In discussing the organization’s concerns about the effluent from sewage treatment plants, the Cornucopia’s Kastel additionally stated, “A few years ago, while I was surveilling factory dairies operating in Western states, I observed heifers – young replacement cows – owned by Rockview Dairy grazing on land owned by the Modesto, California sewage treatment plant and irrigated by its wastewater. This dairy is certified by the nation’s largest certifier, CCOF.”
Cornucopia said it will be consulting with NOP officials to determine whether new rulemaking would be required to ban water from sewage processing plants and, if so, will likely be submitting an additional formal citizen’s petition to spark the process.