OrganicEye Board President, and pioneering Maine organic farmer, Jim Gerritsen making one of his numerous appearances testifying at a previous NOSB meeting.

[Spoiler alert: read to the bottom of this report for the continuing organic regulatory theater.]

After listening to public testimony for two days last week, the National Organic Standards Board deliberated for a second day in Sacramento (Wednesday October 26).

Early in the meeting, the board heard from two staff members from the Organic Farming Research Foundation presenting their report outlining farmer’s interests and needs in terms of solving problems and fostering organic innovation.

One poignant report from one of the farmers on the NOSB related that growers in Nebraska who tried roller crimping crops (instead of using herbicides in no till production) experienced an 86% reduction in yield based on drought conditions this year. 

OrganicEye’s take: That’s why applied research is so important.

It took prodding by the NOSB, but the Materials Subcommittee reported that their letter to the National Organic Program was responded to by confirming that “gene editing,” just like other forms of genetic engineering, is in fact an “excluded method” in certified organic production.

The Materials, Crops, and Livestock Subcommittees breezed through the Sunset renewal of many materials on the National List. As always, almost all were retained. Many of the presenters referenced public comments, mostly in favor of retention.

OrganicEye’s take: The board used to reference who the comments were coming from (and often a summary of the substance). Are comments coming from industry interests, academia, or an authoritative public interest group? Weighing all comments as if they are equivalent is a disservice to the board members who were not part of the previous subcommittee deliberations, as well as to the public.

The vote on whether to retain biodegradable plastic mulch on the National list is a study in the corruption of the NOSB process and how it has been influenced by corporate interests.

Farmers want to get away from using plastic and having to send it to the landfill. A laborsaving alternative would be using biodegradable mulch manufactured with some percentage of plant-based material replacing petroleum derivatives.

Even though there are no qualifying products on the market, the board previously listed a requirement for use as being 100% bio-based. The current board has been working on lowering that to 80%, hoping something will become available to organic growers. Evidently, there’s nothing currently on the market with the bio content of over 60%.

There is no reason to have this material on the list. The most important reason to remove it is that there’s no scientific evidence that this material doesn’t leave micro plastics and other chemical residues in the soil when it breaks down.

Out of 15 members, nine voted to remove the listing, erring on the side of caution. A number of members aptly suggested that if a product actually becomes available at some point in the future, the manufacturer can petition for its use at that time. If and when that happens, the safety of the product could then be scrutinized.

OrganicEye’s take: This is a prime example of how the entire NOSB process has become corrupted by agribusiness influence. As a result of the vote, if a company comes up with an 80% bio-based product, farmers can legally begin using it even though no safety testing has occurred. That means the plants could uptake the plastic residue or chemical breakdown products into their tissues and those substances could enter the organic food chain. Do you want to eat plastic or synthetic chemicals? No—that’s why you invest in organic food.

You might be wondering why the motion failed when nine members voted to remove the listing for biodegradable mulch and only six members voted to retain it.

That’s because the rules governing Sunset were changed. Originally, every five years a material automatically came off the list (it would sunset) and could only be resurrected if two thirds or more of the board voted to do so (just as the law requires for materials initially being petitioned to add to the list).

But in a corrupt collaboration between a former NOP director, Miles McEvoy, and a former NOSB chair, Tom Chapman (then employed by Clif Bar), they turned Sunset on its head. Now nothing ever automatically comes off the list and removal requires a two thirds super majority. Otherwise, all synthetic materials stay on forever. Sunset? We don’t think so.

How did this happen? It’s because the lobbyists at the Organic Trade Association, and other powerful interests, were not happy with an independent NOSB and they succeeded in reining in their power.

Where is Mr. Chapman today? He’s cashed in, based on his performance, and is now the Chief Executive Officer of the OTA. 

And Mr. McEvoy? He waltzed through the proverbial revolving door in Washington, leaving public service to become an industry consultant who has worked for a few of the OTA’s largest member-donors (certifiers CCOF and Oregon Tilth) and has even recently had a contract with the OTA itself.

So who voted for risking our health and the reputation of organics by leaving biodegradable biobased plastic mulch on the list despite the possibility of it contaminating organic soil with microplastics and synthetics?

Note: A dramatic moment in the meeting came as Board Chair Nate Powell-Palm hesitated for some time, in awkward silence, before casting the final vote. It was obvious that he knew his vote was decisive in making this controversial decision.

Logan Petrey (farmer-member) with Grimmway Farms, the largest corporate producer of organic vegetables in the United States

Rick Greenwood (conservation-member)

Kyla Smith (certifier-member) with Pennsylvania Certified Organic, a longtime close collaborator-member with the OTA

Kim Huseman (farmer-member) with Pilgrim’s Pride, one of the largest agribusinesses in the country producing, primarily, conventional livestock

Liz Graznek (farmer-member)

Nate Powell-Palm (farmer-member) an Organic Trade Association award winner, former OTA Farmer of the Year

Note: The original legislation passed by Congress, the Organic Foods Production Act, required agricultural producers on the board to be someone who “Owned or Operated” an organic farm. You can guess which lobby group went to congress to change the law to permit employees of corporate agribusinesses, like Ms. Petrey and Ms. Huseman, to represent the interests of rank-and-file farmers throughout the country.

Please also note that prior analysis by OrganicEye found the vast majority of current NOSB members, or their employers, have a direct relationship with the OTA.

Why should organics be any different than everything else that goes on in Washington? Because we said so when the organic farming community lobbied for the passage of OFPA in 1990.

The NOSB was intentionally designed as a diverse stakeholder group meant to function as a buffer between corporate lobbyists and organic rulemaking.

The Organic Trade Association is organized to lobby the USDA and Congress on behalf of business interests. They have worked hard to create the illusion that they are a public interest group, but that is not the case. They have virtually no individual consumers as members, if any, and very few farmers who have not been nominated by and/or are contractually affiliated with major corporate agribusinesses. In the past, they have granted memberships to some nonprofits and/or their board members, at no charge, without informing them or asking permission to do so.