USDA National Organic Standards Board meeting, Atlanta, Georgia — April 2023
Public Comments (virtual via Zoom)
OrganicEye’s critique of the appointments of NOSB members is focused on the USDA’s betrayal of the intent of Congress to create a highly-diversified body of industry stakeholders coming to consensus on important policy and materials issues. Contrary to that charter, 85 percent of the current board members have a strong affiliation with the industry’s leading lobby group, the Organic Trade Association.
Board members points of reference were clearly evidenced in public testimony, where their leading questions, commentary, and in some cases highly-disrespectful rhetoric was on display.
The board chair, Nate Powell-Palm, broke with tradition by managing the meeting with anything but a light hand. His softball questions for some, leading questions for others, and focus on “growth,” while ignoring numerous public expressions of concern about the integrity of the National Organic Program, were palpable.
His constant comments and questions, not calculated but in all likelihood far more than any other board member, changed his role to more of a “respondent” than a typical member of the board, let alone the chair.
In response to one question expressing concerns that livestock factories and hydroponic production were tarnishing the reputation of the organic label, Mr. Powell-Palm suggested that the commenter was really interested in “protectionism” (protecting small farms in Vermont at the expense of CAFOs in Texas), rather than organic integrity, and referred to the concerns about, allegedly illegal, organic hydroponics as a “bogeyman.”
Mr. Powell-Palm also referred to hydroponics as a “wedge issue” and repeatedly asked commenters questions unrelated to their testimony, including “How do we explode demand for organics?”
“Growth for growth’s sake is the philosophy of the cancer cell.” (EB White)
In questioning Sam Welch, a respected certifier, Mr. Powell-Palm mentioned “tools in the toolbox” and then asked Mr. Welsh something akin to, “How pure does organic food need to be?”
The chairman and board members consistently elevate the credibility and voices of certifiers and lobbying organizations whose revenue streams are enhanced by their lobbying on behalf of their “clients.” OrganicEye has always contended that certifiers should be neutral on deliberations before the NOSB, as they are the referees interpreting the rules and need to be viewed as independent.
Throughout the meeting, a number of industry-affiliated commenters and board members, including the OTA’s vice president of regulatory affairs, Gwendolyn Wyard, kept using a fallback in relating to materials to be reviewed, including synthetics involved in ion exchange, as having been FDA approved. This ignores the fact that organic consumers don’t trust the regulatory oversight of the conventional food industry, which is why Congress created the NOSB to assess risks more stringently (applying the precautionary principle).
Board members gushed over farmers who attended the session, as has historically been the case, but these farmers were overwhelmingly bringing up concerns about organic integrity that were discounted time and time again. When OrganicEye supplied statistics about hundreds of family farms being forced out of business due to the growth of “organic” milk production from giant CAFOs in the Southwest, no board members expressed concern, although one other commenter, Linley Dixon of the Real Organic Program, referenced our presentation.
Harold Austen, a former board member who held one of the handler seats representing food processors, continued his advocacy for approving synthetic and non-organic materials. The common refrain, repeated time and time again by commentors and board members alike, was that the industry needs more “tools in the toolbox” (a euphemism for more non-organic methods, including the use of synthetics, so additional industrial-scale conventional growers and processors can succeed in producing more processed organic food). OrganicEye contends that many of the proposed changes would further erode the working definition of organics.
When queried about control of fire blight after the board removed antibiotics as a treatment a few years ago, which OTA members suggested would result in shortages of organic apples and pears (which never occurred), Mr. Austen stated that consumers were “demanding” popular conventional cultivars that were particularly susceptible to fire blight and so they needed more synthetic approaches for control.
He works for, and was representing the sentiments of, giant, primarily conventional, industrial fruit growers in the Pacific Northwest that are commonly organically farming by “substitution” — substituting a non-organic approved chemical used in conventional agriculture for one that gets the blessing of the corporate-dominated NOSB. Instead, it could be explained to consumers that if you really want an authentic organic apple, the list of varieties might be two thirds as long as the conventional list, with quality taking precedence over marketing cachet.
Despite testimony from a number of veteran organic community stakeholders suggesting that it was important to take comments in person as well as on Zoom, there was a real push by the chair and a few other board members to permanently institutionalize the virtual testimony. One reason they gave was the cost and compressed agenda during the meeting. Another was that they felt that in-person testimony might carry more weight and disadvantage those providing comments online.
However, the scheduling of this meeting was unprecedented in terms of its leisurely pace. In the past, meetings started as early as 8-8:30 a.m. and, on days with public testimony, sometimes ran into the evening, punctuated by short or “rolling” breaks. Board members occasionally ate meals at their desks during the meeting, as the strong work ethic was evident. At one time, meetings lasted 3 and a half days, and when the workload was great, three meetings were held annually rather than the current two.
The length of the meetings, the scope of the agenda, and public participation have all been systematically pared down, beginning when Miles McEvoy ran the NOP during the Obama/Vilsack administration.
Breaking with precedent, the Atlanta meeting ran from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Tuesday and Wednesday and 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Thursday. Since the schedule was relatively light, some lunches ran as long as one hour and 45 minutes. There is a certain degree of fixed cost to bring board members and staff into a meeting and the incremental cost of it lasting slightly longer to accommodate a hybrid format of virtual and in person public testimony should be considered.
The USDA has committed to hiring staff with relevant technical background to support the volunteer board members. However, that staff will be recruited, hired, and supervised by the National Organic Program. OrganicEye feels this presents a conflict of interest, since Congress created the NOSB to constitute an independent body to advise the Secretary in implementing the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 and maintaining the National List of approved substances.
Although much of the public testimony questioned the legality of growing organic fruits and vegetables indoors in a liquid fertilizer solution, when the statute and regulations clearly require careful soil stewardship to qualify for organic certification, numerous board members, including Gerard D’Amore, who has extensive hydroponic industry experience, discounted concerns expressed by the public.
Organic Is Climate Smart
Before voting to endorse a resolution, there was a moderate amount of debate over whether all organic production could really be considered “climate smart.” Hydroponics, a production system that consumes copious amounts of energy and plastics, was referenced. Much of that production is concentrated in the desert Southwest, Mexico, or imported from countries like Canada and Holland. The opposing argument was that the embedded energy makes that anything but “climate smart.”
The giant livestock CAFOs were also referenced as a disconnect. CAFOs shipping milk all over the country, produced from feed, in many cases, shipped from the other side of the world, would commonly not be considered ecologically sustainable. But in the end, board members lined up to, in essence, greenwash much industrial organic production under the “climate smart” banner.
Since there is a juggernaut at the USDA of allocating money to “climate smart” initiatives, numerous board members, including Nate Lewis and Amy Busch, declared that they wanted to “get on the bus” and “get in the queue.” No time to lose.
National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) Presentation
An expert from the USDA’s NASS gave an interesting presentation based on their survey of organic farmers around the country. The survey found:
- Land in organic production was down. There were fewer existing organic farms transitioning land to organics and fewer new farms in transition, but the acreage in transition was actually up a bit.
- Eighteen percent of organic farms with revenue over a half million dollars made up 86 percent of the sales.
Ignoring the testimony of public interest scientists and some certifiers, the board sided with the industry in requesting that the resins involved in the filtration process commonly used in producing fruit juices and other processed foods not be added to the National List or subjected to further scrutiny.
Kyla Smith, lead board member on the material, passionately argued to exempt the resins from scrutiny even though they have contact with, and the potential for contaminating, the organic product. Ms. Smith sits in a certifier seat. She works for Pennsylvania Certified Organic (PCO) and is an active OTA member.
Once again it was argued that the organic industry depends on the FDA-approved resins for ion exchange listed in that agency’s database. There doesn’t seem to be much historical memory on the board, as previous debates discounted such reliance on the FDA and favored the NOSB doing their own due diligence, as was intended by Congress.
In the end, the board bought the arguments made by the OTA in public testimony, along with those that their former employee, Nate Lewis, made on the board, and passed the motion to forgo scrutinizing the materials (with the exception of one no vote, one abstention, and one absence).
Despite research that indicated this synthetic food ingredient has an impact on the human microbiota, it was relisted.
Lecithin (De-Oiled) and Hexane
When it came to relisting lecithin, it was surprising that the use of hexane in its extraction from the biomass was not of concern to the board.
Hexane is a byproduct of gasoline refinement and used as a solvent in the extraction process. Hexane-extraction in cooking oil, which is highly cost-effective and common in conventional production, is banned in organics, as is all extraction using other synthetic, volatile solvents.
Even though there is some literature that suggests residues from hexane could remain in food products, the board didn’t investigate further and approved the relisting.