Updated White Paper Profiles Lobbyist-Affiliated Appointees to National Organic Standards Board
La Farge, Wis. — Continuing a trend well established by prior Republican and Democratic administrations, two of the four newest appointees to the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) have a current or past relationship with the industry’s major lobby group, the Organic Trade Association (OTA). The new board members attend their first meeting, virtually, April 26-28.
The NOSB was created by Congress, through the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, to act as a buffer against agribusiness lobbyists in recognition of the fact that the importance of organic foods from the perspective of consumers, family farmers, and environmentalists was not shared by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Big Food has consolidated ownership of most of the largest and best-known organic brands. At the same time, many have criticized USDA for “stacking” the board, which is charged with guiding the regulatory oversight of organic farming and food production, with members from, or friendly to, corporate interests.
OrganicEye, a Wisconsin-based public interest group that is best known for their work as an organic industry watchdog, has issued an industry briefing paper profiling the reach of the industry’s most powerful lobby group, the Organic Trade Association, into the NOSB, which was created to establish the direction for the USDA’s National Organic Program.
That analysis of the board shows that 80% percent of the 15-member body are intimately affiliated, as members and/or in some other professional capacity, with the OTA. OrganicEye acknowledges that the current class of appointees illustrates an incremental improvement over last year when 75% of new board members were OTA affiliates.
The board was established to ensure that the voices of organic farmers and consumers drove the direction of USDA’s organic program when there was grave concern about handing over the budding organic farming movement to conventionally-focused USDA bureaucrats and the corrupting influence of corporate agribusiness.
“Past administrations, including Secretary Thomas Vilsack’s first stint during the Obama administration, have favored appointing members to the NOSB who were affiliated with the Organic Trade Association. But the shift is now almost complete, by virtue of the Trump administration’s appointees with five-year terms,” said Mark A. Kastel, Executive Director of OrganicEye. In addition to the shift to corporate-friendly NOSB members, the Obama administration’s USDA stripped the congressionally-empowered panel of its ability to set its own agenda and work plan. “Recent history has made a mockery of the original intention of the board to act as an independent body receptive to the interests and concerns of all organic stakeholders,” he continued.
“I’ve attended too many NOSB meetings and watched industry players pay lip service to the integrity of organics while voting to include materials in organic food, even carcinogenic materials, like carrageenan and nitrate-rich conventional celery powder for processed meats,” said Jim Gerritsen, OrganicEye’s board chair and an organic farming elder from Maine and president of Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association.
In a move that some industry observers view as a further attempt to consolidate power, the OTA is currently partnering with some members of Congress to introduce legislation, the Continuous Improvement and Accountability in Organic Standards Act (CIAO).
“When there was a healthier balance of power on the board, and they flexed their muscles by, for example, banning antibiotic use on tree fruit in organic production, members of the OTA called the move a ‘travesty’ and suggested that the NOSB was ‘out of control,’” said Kastel. “Now that the lobbyists are in the driver’s seat, we have concerns about the unintended consequences of their proposed legislation.”
Instead of the overreliance on lobbyists to help write laws (which is all too common in Washington), OrganicEye is strongly suggesting to members of Congress, USDA Secretary Thomas Vilsack, and the members of the NOSB, to create balance by amplifying the voices of the nonprofit public interest groups that have, for decades, helped launch, nurture, and monitor the growth of organics.
“The OTA has spent years, and invested untold corporate dues, in honing the persona that it is a charitable group working in the interest of the public when, in fact, it is a ruthless industry lobby group that has crossed swords with the nonprofit groups on virtually every controversial issue before the NOSB,” Kastel lamented.
New appointees to the NOSB include:
Allison Johnson, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. She previously worked for California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), the nation’s largest certifier and prominent OTA member. Both CCOF and the OTA provided letters of endorsement for her nomination.
Elizabeth “Liz” Graznak, who owns an 82-acre organic vegetable farm and CSA near Jamestown Missouri.
Dr. Dilip Nandwani, a professor and researcher of organic agriculture at Tennessee State University in Franklin, TN.
Javier Zamora, who owns a 110-acre vegetable/fruit farm in California. He is a member of the OTA and certified by high profile OTA member CCOF. Mr. Zamora has served in CCOF leadership and CCOF provided a letter of endorsement for his nomination. Mr. Zamora was awarded the OTA Rising Star Award in 2018 and has been a speaker at events held by the OTA and The Organic Center (the research arm of the OTA). He was elected to the OTA Board of Directors in 2021 but has subsequently resigned.
OrganicEye’s Mr. Kastel said the organization would assume that all NOSB members will carry out their duties objectively to serve the overall public and will not criticize any individuals unless their established voting records demonstrate a basis for concern.
As it has done previously, OrganicEye filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for the application packages of all nominees to the board, including some eminently qualified, but less politically connected, candidates that were passed over.
“I’m cautiously optimistic that the noise made by OrganicEye members, and others in the organic community, might be having an impact. And the current appointments might lead to some surprises,” said Kastel. “Just as some past Supreme Court Justices, appointed by ideologue-presidents, proved themselves to be independent jurists, some NOSB members recruited by the OTA have ended up being much more independent and committed to true organic integrity than might have been anticipated. For instance, Mr. Zamora’s farm is now certified by the Real Organic Program, and he has close relationships with other very creditable public interest groups.”
OrganicEye also notes that, after they protested the appointment of a former OTA chief legal counsel and head lobbyist to a position in Secretary Vilsack’s office coordinating “organic and emerging markets,” she left that position in less than seven months. “The Secretary now has the opportunity to build personal credibility in the organic community by appointing a more thoughtful and balanced candidate,” added Kastel.
While OrganicEye continues the fight against weakening the NOSB through their consumer education and other efforts, others are strictly focusing attention on marketplace activism in an effort to save organics.
Some of the most prominent, and still independently owned, brands in the organic industry have made their opinions clear concerning the activities of the Organic Trade Association by, very publicly, resigning their memberships. These businesses include Nature’s Path, the largest producer of organic breakfast cereals and granola; iconic Dr. Bronner’s soaps and organic food products; and superfoods pioneer Nutiva.
A few years before his semi-retirement in 2018, and eventual resignation in 2019, from the public interest group he helped found, The Cornucopia Institute, Will Fantle (now an OrganicEye board member) broke with his tradition of attending biannual NOSB meetings.
“The game is rigged,” Mr. Fantle lamented.
“The USDA’s trick is that they give us two or three exemplary appointees on the board at any one time and, on some votes, there are a few of their more independent colleagues who will follow their lead. But it’s generally never enough to be effective in terms of promulgating policy that protects and defends the organic farming movement.”
Pioneering organic farmers who lobbied Congress to pass the Organic Foods Production Act won approval for a provision that pushes the board towards consensus by requiring that all “decisive” votes by the board be passed with a two-thirds supermajority. Mr. Fantle continued, “The original supporters of the legislation would never have imagined the board becoming as corrupted as it has by corporate influence.”
In addition to the board being dominated by members who are affiliated with the most powerful lobby group in the industry, during the Obama/Vilsack administration of the USDA’s organic program, the voting process for synthetic and non-organic materials that are legally required to “sunset” every five years was unilaterally reversed. Now, instead of requiring a two thirds vote to relist a material, a two thirds vote is required to remove materials — including a couple which remain on the list after having been recognized as carcinogens.
“On controversial issues, that’s an insurmountable requirement with the board stacked with individuals from the corporate sector,” added Mr. Fantle.