Save Our Organic
Protect Public Trust in the Organic Food Label — Help Keep the Alternative to Toxic Food Production Alive and Growing
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|Age of Organics
|Keeping Organic Strong
|Eating With a Conscience
Beyond Pesticides is asking you to help defend organic standards against USDA changes that will weaken public trust in the organic food label. Organic practices follow tough standards that do not compromise the health of people and the planet. Let’s grow the organic food label as a symbol that honors this tradition.
Protect the Label, Suing USDA
Victory! Federal Court Finds USDA Process for Allowing Pesticide-Contaminated Compost Improper and Stops Use. The case focused principally on whether USDA, in failing to conduct a formal public review, was operating "at its whim." The court found that is exactly what USDA did and ordered the agency to stop allowing the use of contaminated compost by August 22, 2016. For further information, see our press release here. You can also find background information on the case below:
Groups Sue USDA for Failure to Seek Public Comment on Organic Compost Rule: The Center for Environmental Health, Beyond Pesticides, and the Center for Food Safety (CFS) filed a federal lawsuit challenging the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Organic Program’s (NOP) failure to follow the law in making a substantial rule change to the USDA organic standard. At issue is the contaminated compost guidance released by USDA, which weakens the long-standing prohibition of synthetic pesticide contaminants.
- See lawsuit here
Groups Challenge Major USDA Change to Organic Rule: On April 8, 2015 organic stakeholders have filed a lawsuit in federal court, (Case No. 15-cv-01590-HSG) maintaining that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) violated the federal rulemaking process when it changed established procedures for reviewing the potential hazards and need for allowed synthetic and prohibited natural substances used in producing organic food. On Thursday, September 8, a federal judge in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California rejected USDA's motion to dismiss the federal lawsuit.
Protect NOSB's Independent Authorities from USDA Interference
On June 2014, 20 organic farm and consumer groupsfiled a petition with U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to protect the authority and permanence of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) (see press release). The petitioners objected to changes to the NOSB charter, renewed on May 8, 2014, that undermine the mandatory and continuing duties of the Board as established by Congress under theOrganic Foods Production Act(OFPA) of 1990.
The NOSB, intended to safeguard the integrity of the organic food label, was created by Congress with independent authorities that operate outside the discretion of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Petitioners maintained that in renewing the charter under the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA), USDA mistakenly re-categorized the NOSB as a time-limited Advisory Board subject to USDA’s discretion and a narrowing of responsibilities.
Let elected officials and companies know that they need to stand with you to protect the integrity of the organic label, the law, and the standards-setting process. Let them know that the voice and rights of the organic consumer, farmer, and all who have created this important and valuable system must be defended. See Keeping Organic Strong for current issues.
The next meeting of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) will be an opportunity, through comments to the Federal Register at www.regulations.gov and at the meeting, to voice your support for a rigorous open process that holds USDA and its organic standards accountable to input and direction from those who produce and purchase organic food. We update our Keeping Organic Strong page with the latest information for you to comment.
The Law and the Foundation of the Organic Food Label
The public process, embodied in the Organic Foods Production Act, gives you and your representatives on the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) an important public opportunity to influence decisions that determine whether synthetic ingredients are allowed to be used in organic food production. Outside inputs in organic production are secondary to natural systems that nurture nature, build soil health, and protect biodiversity as critical to organic productivity.
It was clear when the organic law was adopted in 1990, and it is clearer today, that materials or substances used in organic production should be natural, and, if any synthetic materials are used, they must be subject to the highest standards of health and environmental review –evaluating all aspects of potential harm of the materials from their production to their disposal. This is what organic consumers expect, and this is what the sustainability of our planet requires. In fact, the effort to strive to replace synthetics with natural ingredients was so strong when the law was written that it includes a “sunset” provision requiring two-thirds of the NOSB to vote to re-list allowed synthetics every five years –just to make sure that these synthetics are really essential and new practices or products have not become available to replace the allowed synthetic material. This means that diverse interest groups represented on the NOSB would have to concur that continued use of a synthetic material meets the legal standards. The process is based on the understanding that without concurrence from key groups, from growers and processors to consumers and environmentalists, the organic label may lose the public’s trust. This process has also led to what is often referred to in organic circles as “continuous improvement” –incentives in the law and standards that encourage ingenuity and creativity in finding new and better ways to produce organic food with natural practices and inputs.
When the law was passed and throughout its implementation since 1995, the NOSB and public participation have been critical to defining allowed practices and products. The policies and procedures that have been utilized have themselves been subject to public input and oversight to ensure that the decisions of the NOSB protect the public trust and the organic label supports the growth of an organic market. This public process has distinguished organic food production and its underlying standards from chemical-intensive agricultural practices, which are driven by agrichemical interests, without a robust independent assessment of the need for toxic chemicals in growing food.
Key Elements of USDA’s Weakening of Organic Standard Setting
The organic label and standards that support it are being threatened by USDA action that undermines several key elements of the decision making process protecting consumer trust in the label.
- The rigorous decision making process for synthetic chemicals allowed in organic - The original sunset process, which embodies the model of many state laws (that declare a provision invalid unless it has been extended by the same process used for its original approval), requires the Board to affirm the allowance of a synthetic substance used in organic production every five years. To allow continued use, the Board must vote by the same decisive two-thirds majority that approved the material through the original petition process. This ensures a rigorous review to evaluate new scientific information and assess the need for the synthetic material in light of new available practices and natural products. In its September 2013 Federal Register notice, USDA issued a directive reversing, and weakening severely, the sunset process established in 2005 –now allowing a synthetic material to remain in use unless two-thirds of the Board votes to take it out of use. The law and consumers identify synthetic materials as the exception to the organic rule, while this USDA directive will make it easier to keep these materials in use once they are allowed –by making it easier to dismiss new science or the availability of natural products. With organic, we need as rigorous a review of all synthetic materials as possible. The Board policy to allow the adoption of chemical restrictions (or annotations) during the sunset review process was also overturned by USDA in the September 2013 Federal Register. The Board in 2010 found that, “Since the statute subjects the sunset process to the same review standards as the original National List process, it follows that the same tools for restricting the use of those materials should be available to the Board [when determining whether to allow continued use of the synthetic material on a five-year cycle]. In an attempt to best protect against disruption in the organic market, annotations rather than complete prohibitions are called for in the face of available data.” A procedure was established to ensure that USDA conducted rulemaking on new chemical use restrictions adopted by the Board without interrupting access to the material. (USDA, 9-27-12)
- Public participation and transparency- Despite a statutory requirement for USDA to consult with the NOSB in implementing the organic law, the decisions on restricting synthetics and the sunset process were made without consulting the NOSB or public notice and comment, thus without transparency.
- Advice to the Secretary of Agriculture - By controlling items that it allows to be placed on the NOSB workplan and its public meetings, USDA stifles the development of Board advice to the Secretary on matters of concern to the organic community –issues directly relevant to the implementation of the organic law, such as the NOSB’s effort to provide suggestions on ways to protect organic farmers victimized by genetic drift from genetically engineered crops.
- NOSB policies and procedures - In a wide-ranging attack on NOSB authority, USDA abolished the NOSB Policy Development Subcommittee and took over control of NOSB policies and procedures. USDA continues a recent trend of announcing decisions without identifying criteria.
The role of the NOSB and public is critical to the organic brand and program. As a democratic Board that relies on farmer experience, public expectations, and science, the NOSB process plays an important role in shaping organic policy. For example, the Board has taken great strides to move the organic brand forward and maintain its integrity, including recommending that USDA set a moratorium on nanotechnology, prohibit soil-less hydroponics, keep synthetics out of infant formula, require organic hops in organic beer, take antibiotics out of organic apple and pear production, advance organic beekeeping, allow greater limitations on synthetics deemed unnecessary, take hazardous secret toxic inert ingredients out of allowed materials, and advance organic systems management practices.
Jean Richardson, emeritus professor of environmental studies and environmental law at the University of Vermont, an NOSB member in one of the consumer representative positions, told the Burlington Free Press, “We’re there to provide checks and balances. . .We’re the voice of the people.”
The facts are clear. Organic does offer us a cleaner environment, a safer and more nutritious food supply, less dependency on fossil fuels and water, a safer work environment, and increased carbon sequestration in slowing global climate change. However, this USDA takeover of the standard setting process could, if successful, reverse decades of work to build a credible, respected, and accountable set of standardsand organic food label that have gained growing public trust.
For more details on the issues, read The Age of Organics and please check out our Keeping Organic Strong page as we update it with issues that will be before the NOSB at the upcoming spring meeting. Since the fall 2013 meeting was canceled, the same issues, plus new ones, will be on the spring agenda.