All Synthetic Chemicals in Organic Must be Examined—Including “Inerts”

This deadline precedes the upcoming public comment webinar on October 17 and 19 and deliberative hearings on October 24-26—concerning how organic food is produced. Sign up to speak at the webinar by September 29. Written comments must be submitted through Regulations.gov. by 11:59 pm EDT, September 28. Links to the virtual comment webinars and the public meeting will be posted on this webpage in early October. 

The NOSB is responsible for guiding the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in its administration of the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA), including the materials (substances) allowed to be used in organic production and handling. The role of the NOSB is especially important as we depend on organic production to protect our ecosystem, mitigate climate change, and enhance our health. 

The NOSB plays an important role in bringing the views of organic producers and consumers to bear on USDA, which is not always in sync with organic principles. There are many important issues on the NOSB agenda this Fall. We encourage you to use the Beyond Pesticides organic webpage and comment on as many issues as you can. For a complete discussion, see Keeping Organic Strong and the Fall 2023 issues page. see Keeping Organic Strong and the Fall 2023 issues page. USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) and the NOSB have relied on allowable lists of “inert” ingredients that are no longer maintained by the U.S. Environmental Protection (EPA), Lists 4A and 4B. While most of these materials are not of toxicological concern and are natural, many are synthetic and must undergo NOSB review under its responsibility to evaluate allowable synthetic substances on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances in OFPA. Beyond Pesticides has advocated that the NOSB break down the hundred or so “inerts” of potential concern into groups of chemical families and common toxicological mechanisms to conduct its review over several years. For example, the ethoxylated compounds could be evaluated together. In fact, they are not permitted in EPA’s Safer Choice labeling program. (For a more in-depth discussion of the “inerts” in organics, please see “Inert” Ingredients Used in Organic Production.) 

This is not a new issue for the NOSB and NOP, but one that needs resolution now.  

Some crucial facts must be acknowledged by USDA:

  • “Inert” ingredients are not necessarily biologically or chemically inert. The Beyond Pesticides report  ”Inert Ingredients in Organic Production compares the toxicity of active substances and “inert” substances used in organic production. In almost every category, there are more harmful “inerts” than active substances. 

  • OFPA allows the use of a synthetic substance in organic production only if it is listed on the National List “by specific use or application” based on a recommendation by the NOSB, following procedures in OFPA. 

  • The NOSB has repeatedly passed recommendations telling the NOP to evaluate individual “inerts.” 

We urge you to submit comments to the docket on the NOSB/NOP “Inerts Pre-Discussion Document” (under consideration at the upcoming NOSB meeting in October), incorporating the following points (feel free to cut-and-paste these comments you submit in the docket): 

No issue is more important than the need for the NOSB to evaluate so-called “inert” ingredients in the products used in organic production to ensure that they meet the criteria in the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA). The NOSB, which is responsible for giving direction to the National Organic Program (NOP), has passed repeated recommendations instructing NOP to replace the generic listings for EPA Lists 3, 4A, and 4B “inerts” with specific substances approved for the use. NOP must allocate resources for this project. Recent appropriations have increased for NOP, and some of this money must be used for the evaluation of “inert” ingredients to ensure compliance with the law and to maintain the integrity of the USDA organic label. 
OFPA provides stringent criteria for allowing synthetic materials to be used in organic production. In short, the NOSB must judge—by a supermajority—that the material would not be harmful to human health or the environment, is necessary to the production or handling of agricultural products, and is consistent with organic farming and handling. These criteria have been applied to “active” ingredients but not to “inert” ingredients, which make up the largest part of pesticide products—up to 90% or more. 
A comparison of the hazards posed by active and “inert” ingredients used in organic production reveals that in seven of 11 categories of harm, more “inerts” than actives pose the hazard.  
As a result, NOP and the NOSB have been allowing unknown toxic mixtures to be applied to organic crops and livestock. They are applied not only in products containing approved National List synthetic materials but also in products in which the active ingredient is nonsynthetic, which do not require NOSB review.  
The NOSB and NOP must address this fatal threat to organic integrity by immediately compiling and posting in the Federal Register a list of all “inert” ingredients used in organic production, as recommended by the NOSB in 1999. They must develop a process for beginning the evaluation of those “inerts” before the next sunset date.
The value of organic in eliminating hazardous pesticides and fertilizers has been widely documented as the most effective alternative to chemical-intensive agriculture and land management. These “inert” ingredients, and many even more hazardous, are used in chemical-intensive or conventional food production that consumers buy and feed to their families every day. The continued use of hazardous “inerts” is an anomaly in organic and must be corrected now. Ignoring this issue will undermine public trust in the USDA organic label. 

Submit Comments Now. 

Need help in submitting comments? Regulations.gov requires more than a single click, but it is not difficult. Please feel free to cut-and-paste the comments above into Regulations.gov and add or adjust the text to personalize it. Please see this instructional video for guidance. (Regulations.gov has changed its look since this video was made.)