UPDATE: Day 2
The operative term for testimony on Day Two, as usual, is “conflict of interest” (COI). As the saying goes, follow the money.
First, we have certifiers, paid for by their “clients,” lobbying for the use of certain materials, many of them controversial. I have argued for years that the certifiers are our “police force.” They should not be influencing decision-makers on behalf of their paying clients. They should be impartially enforcing the regulations. Advocating for the use of biodegradable plastic mulch (endangering the soil and plants with contamination from microplastics) is antithetical to the meaning and spirit of organics.
My colleagues at Beyond Pesticides have long argued for using organic mulch (made from plant material). But the argument, time and time again, has been for increasing production and yields—and that’s easier with plastic.
The controversy continued with testimony from industry interests once again favoring the use of antibiotics on tree fruit. It’s not that they can’t grow organic fruit without using these drugs. It’s that the cost of production is higher. The testimony from growers, predominantly from the Pacific Northwest, is coming from a market sector that’s laughing all the way to the bank. Conventional growers increasing their production costs, even marginally, are able to sell their apples for demonstrably more money as organic. And they have an advantage over real, diversified organic orchardists. They can surround their modest plantings of organics with hundreds of acres of conventional trees sprayed with toxic pesticides banned in organics and create a dead zone that is easier to manage organically in terms of pest-control. But they still want more. More profit and more “tools in the toolbox.” As Dr. Michael Hansen, with Consumers Union, reminded the NOSB, these drugs are banned in organic production in Canada, Europe, and Japan. But don’t worry—industrial apple growers won’t export any of these drug-tainted fruits. They will keep them for domestic consumption and ship clean fruit overseas (as they did before our domestic ban on antibiotics in tree fruit). Apples are the number one organic export crop, and this is big business for would-be growers.
When we successfully lobbied to ban antibiotics on tree fruit, the rule which they would now like to overturn, the threat from both the industry and the scientist on the NOSB at the time was that we would have no organic apples and pears as a result. Years later, no one has gone without. In fact, I just enjoyed a beautiful red pear with my oatmeal for breakfast this morning. Organic, of course, and antibiotic-free. Let’s hope the NOSB keeps it that way.
Growing organic tree fruit requires choosing the right resistant cultivars, choosing resistant rootstock, and less dense plantings. Yes, there is a higher cost of production—which consumers are willing to pay a little more for because the fruit will truly be organic. The last time we did research on antibiotics and tree fruit, the drugs could be detected in the fruit itself. That’s a dealbreaker in my book.
Today’s comments also included a fertilizer expert, lobbying for soluble, concentrated ammonia, dissing the use of cover crops in California because they’re “slower” than using fast-acting, concentrated ammonia-based liquid fertilizers. These large industrial growers forget that one of the reasons organic costs more is because orchards have to do more pruning (requiring more labor) and depending on slower and “less consistent” biological activity in the soil might not be as expedient. Sorry, but true organic agriculture is a natural process and less able to be controlled by agronomy consultants reading out of a textbook. They are practicing “organic by substitution.”
And finally, one more consultant was really pushing an end to the criticism of hydroponics. He was touting it as the new thing. The next best thing to sliced bread. He referred to hydroponic operations (which are mostly large, well-capitalized, and industrial-scale greenhouses) as “nontraditional growers.” He said they have “bigger checkbooks” and are the future. And when he closed, he thanked the antiquated (my word) pioneering soil-based organic farmers who “built the runway of organics.”
I’ll be damned if we worked for so many decades to build the reputation of organics just to hand it over now to corporados with bigger checkbooks.
A public transcript will be available. But in the meantime, here are a few take-aways from Day 1:
- Lots of input from the fertilizer industry that would like to use concentrated ammonia as a liquid fertilizer (derived from manures generated on conventional “factory farms”). This is what I call “organic by substitution.” Rather than practicing regenerative agriculture, larger industrial-scale producers, and probably many small ones, are opting to feed the plants via concentrated fertilizer instead of higher dependence on building soil nutrients. This alternative is quicker and cheaper, but its impact on the soil microbiota is unknown and likely deleterious.
- Consultants, including OMRI leadership (Organic Materials Review Institute – supposedly an independent reviewer), forcefully lobbied for “biodegradable” plastic mulch made with a combination of soy-based oil and petroleum. The problem is that we don’t yet know what kind of constituents remain in the soil. Want to eat food grown in synthetic residue? I don’t. Hopefully the NOSB will err on the side of caution.
- Same with paper pots being pushed for transplanting. Sounds like a great idea, but there are synthetic ingredients in the paper and we don’t know what those do to the soil and whether the plants can uptake them. Again, until we have better data, we should be practicing regulations guided by “the precautionary principle.”
- And then, just when you thought it was safe to bite into an organic apple, representatives of the industrial-scale apple grower lobby appeared in force to lobby to reintroduce antibiotics as a protectant against fire blight. Pink Lady apples are particularly vulnerable. I’ve always said that there are some geographic areas not conducive to organic animal agriculture (too short a grazing season in the desert, for example). Maybe there are some varieties that are just too susceptible to fire blight. Growing something more resistant, like Braeburns, might give us truly organic apples. We fought hard to ban antibiotics a few years ago and we will go to the mat to fight them again.
As usual, Dr. Terry Shistar, Beyond Pesticides long time board member and scientific expert, did an intrepid job of analysis as a counterpoint to those testifying on materials benefiting commercial interests. Her comprehensive comments to the NOSB can be found here.
Below, please find the testimony I presented responding to the overall consensus that there is a shortage of qualified inspectors and that we are not compensating them adequately (and maybe not accomplishing much besides a lot of money changing hands).
Thank you, Mr. Chairman,
My name is Mark Kastel. I’m director of OrganicEye, which operates as a project of Beyond Pesticides. Greetings from La Farge on the West Coast of Wisconsin.
For those of us who were involved in the discussion, back in the 1980s, that culminated in the passage of the Organic Foods Production Act—and the Byzantine private-public certification scheme we operate under—it’s been a grand experiment and we are, to certain extent, victims of our own success.
What started out with mostly low-cost, nonprofit, farmer-led, independent certifiers has now morphed into multimillion-dollar certifiers certifying multibillion-dollar corporations. We all knew each other back then. Jim Riddle was my first inspector long before the USDA was involved.
With agribusiness starting out hostile towards organics, they now own most of the major brands. And with a USDA that was equally hostile, we now have a firm revolving door in place, and are experiencing “regulatory capture.”
Nowhere is this more evident than the busywork that goes into annual inspections and certification. We just had an interesting discussion at the NOC pre-meeting about how to address the shortage of qualified inspectors. One question was …. Should we raise the certification cost to farmers?
The infrastructure facilitating this busywork now, literally, consumes tens of millions of dollars each year. Most farmers and independent organic businesses are in compliance because they are honest. It’s a de facto voluntary system.
But it’s just too darn easy to cheat. All the milk looks white and all the dent corn looks yellow. The cheating takes place in the paperwork. Sadly, there’s lots of people adept in creative writing in our industry.
What’s been the return on investment for the hundreds of millions spent over the years on annual inspections? Almost every report of large-scale fraudulent activity has come from industry watchdogs like me, industry informants, and the media.
After 30 years, I would suggest that a broad-based task force be seated to investigate alternatives to the current model.
First, the threshold for exemption, for small mom-and-pop producers, has been frozen at $5000 since 1990. Based on inflation that would be over $10,100 in 2021. I would suggest that if we make that adjustment we would see a material increase in the number of organic farmers at farmers markets and in a position to scale-up.
Secondly, the focus of inspections and audits should be risk-based.
The IRS does not audit each of our tax returns every year. There is an algorithm that determines, based on submitted documentation, where the focus should be. Right now, they are auditing a woefully low percentage of returns, but they scare 100% of us.
It’s crazy to inspect the same scrupulously honest and accurate farmers year after year after year.
By spreading the resources thin, we receive way too many reports of “drive-by certification,” just a few hours without even doing the proper due diligence and/or using grossly unqualified inspectors (and that’s a real disservice to the many eminently qualified ones I personally know).
If we didn’t audit everyone every single year, we could have highly trained inspectors doing periodically rigorous audits and plenty of unannounced visits. Combine that with modern technological surveillance and machine learning and we could really leverage the same kind of investment that is being made today.
….. And that might actually catch the real fraudsters, in real time, protecting the integrity of the organic label, with way, way less burden on the most honest and ethical industry participants.