Reinforcing Fundamental Responsibilities of NOSB Members at a Time of Great Corporate Influence

The following are transcripts of oral testimony presented by OrganicEye leadership before the National Organic Standards Board on Tuesday, October 20, 2020. The NOSB typically holds two in-person meetings each year; however, because of the pandemic, 2020 meetings have been conducted virtually. After listening to public testimony and receiving formal written comments, the board will continue the meeting, and deliberate on agenda items, October 28-30. The meeting is open (virtually) to the public. For more information visit: https://www.ams.usda.gov/event/national-organic-standards-board-nosb-meeting-cedar-rapids-iowa

Mark A. Kastel
Director
OrganicEye [an investigative arm of Beyond Pesticides]

Testifying Regarding USDA’s National Organic Program Ramming Through a Massive Rewrite of the Federal Organic Standards with Inadequate Input from the NOSB and Public

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

My name is Mark Kastel. I act as director of OrganicEye, an investigative arm of Beyond Pesticides.

I’m here today to present a bit of an updated reality check.

In terms of the pending rulemaking on organic enforcement issues, I would encourage other organizations, and the NOSB, to join with OrganicEye in opening up a community and industry-wide debate on the merits of this omnibus rule. Something which has not happened to date.

I will remind NOSB members who might be new, and for many who had not been involved with the board process prior to their appointment, that the intent of Congress was to form an independent and expert stakeholder panel to act as a buffer between lobbyists and the rulemaking process. 

The board was established as part of the legislative debate in the 1980s, in part, to placate the concerns of some pioneering organic farmers who were concerned that we would lose control over what we had lovingly created to be an alternative to the corporate-controlled production of food with its inferior safety and nutritional profile.

In the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, Congress specified that the Secretary was required to consult with the NOSB, not just on the approval of synthetic and non-organic compounds, but on the implementation of the act itself.

For many of us who are senior members of the organic community, this will be the largest rewrite of the regulations during our professional tenure since the adoption of the initial standards. 

Only select elements of this new rulemaking have been discussed by the NOSB, and many only in general terms.

I’d like to have you think about …. “unintended consequences.”

For 11 years, we have publicly warned the USDA about widespread fraud in the importation of organic feed and food ingredients. It was not until a collaborative effort between myself and others in the organic community—and a black eye, courtesy of the Washington Post—that they decided to take action.

And that was after years of cheerleading by the NOP, and the industry’s leading lobby group, the Organic Trade Association, assuring the public of the integrity of organic production worldwide.

Under the existing rules, without the need for any new statutory help, the USDA orchestrated the revocation or, in most cases, voluntary surrender of certificates for 75% of Black Sea Region operations certified by the NOP. 

The race to adopt these rules, in part with ownership proudly proclaimed by the OTA, might very well have unintended consequences.

The esteemed agricultural economist, John Ikerd, will tell you that large corporate agribusiness and certifiers, such as Lactalis/Horizon, CROPP/Organic Valley, General Mills, CCOF, Oregon Tilth, QAI, and other prominent OTA members, love regulations because all too often they squeeze out their smaller competition.

These firms all have an extensive staff for compliance. The incremental cost to meet new regulations will not materially impact their bottom lines. But it could very well put others out of business. And competition is healthy for farmers, businesses, and consumers alike.

Before the former NOP director unilaterally took away the power of the NOSB to set their own agenda and work plans, and then, after the fact, codified that in a 180° rewrite of the Policy and Procedure Manual as orchestrated by leading OTA members, this board had the power to receive input from the organic community and recognize issues that needed wide discussion.

Thus far, discussions regarding the pending draft rule have generally taken place in individual silos amongst certifiers, business interests, and farmers. There needs to be a healthy amount of cross-pollination before these new regulations are ready to bloom.

We hope you will once again represent all factions of organics by stepping up to firmly request that in 2021 the NOSB take a key role in orchestrating a community-wide debate to ensure that the many meritorious aspects of the pending rules are retained while others that are either missing or might create onerous regulatory requirements receive adequate attention.

Note: Because presenters have only three minutes to present testimony (compared to when the NOSB process started decades ago and gave five minutes plus an additional five minutes with the proxy), text in red was edited-out to meet the time limit.

Jay Feldman 
Executive Director
Beyond Pesticides [member, OrganicEye management team]

Testifying regarding the Approval of “Biodegradable” Plastic Mulch with the Potential to Leave Synthetic Chemical Residues in the Soil and on Maintaining the Integrity of Rulemaking in the NOSB Process

Hi I’m Jay Feldman, Executive Director of Beyond Pesticides and former NOSB member. Thank you for your service and thank you for considering our submitted comments.

The Crops Subcommittee’s biodegradable mulch discussion document raises questions of NOSB process that are critical to the integrity of the USDA organic label. The fact that a change in annotation is being considered belies foundational principles of the law. 

As a strong advocate for the growth of the organic market, building public trust in the label is critical to effect a transition away from practices and inputs that cause a cascade of environmental and public health effects. Organic can help mitigate and begin to reverse the existential threats of the climate crisis and biodiversity decline that we are facing as a country and globe.

Is the role of organic to take on these challenges, or is organic just a niche market and a profit center for producers and processors?

Those of us who strenuously promote the market as a solution to looming crises must be able to point to a full embrace of the principles and values embedded in the law.

The biodegradable mulch discussion document raises underlying principles critical to NOSB decision making:

1. Organic law establishes a systems approach to protecting and enhancing the environment. 
It does not ask you to determine relative risk. 

2. The law sets restrictions that effect continuous improvement in organic management.
It does not disincentivize investment in natural materials and practices.

3. Organic law establishes criteria and categories of use for evaluating an allowed substance’s adverse effects, compatibility with organic systems, and essentiality.
It does not envision inputs/substances not required in soil systems.

4. Organic law identifies soil as the medium for nutrient cycling, supplying the macro and micronutrients through support of the microbiota. 
The law’s required systems plan does not envision a dependency on synthetic substances. 

5. Organic law requires complete information and precaution.
It does not allow for uncertainty, incomplete information on effects, and arbitrary margins of safety.

So, no. Don’t reconsider the biodegradable mulch annotation until the technology meets the standards in the law.

There are important matters of concern that need immediate attention, including the review of inert ingredients that are no longer supported by EPA, for which the NOSB has already passed a workable recommendation. 

The NOP’s recent enforcement proposal, while containing many important elements, has been proposed without complete NOSB consultation. The critical principle here is that the NOSB controls the public dialog process, ensuring that the NOSB carries out its statutory authority to advise the Secretary of Agriculture on organic law implementation. Protect your authority. Let the Secretary know.

When it comes to public trust in the organic label, we must be able to point to the legal process that we’ve developed which engages the public in stakeholder oversight and input in building the organic sector.

Thank you.

Terry Shistar, PhD
Scientific Advisor/board member
Beyond Pesticides [member, OrganicEye management team]

Testifying on Maintaining the Innate Relationship between Authentic Organic Production and Environmental Stewardship

My name is Terry Shistar, and I’m on the Board of Directors of Beyond Pesticides. 

1. Everywhere we look, we see signs of ecological collapse—wildfires, the insect apocalypse, crashing populations of marine organisms, organisms large and small entangled in plastic, more and more species at risk, rising global temperatures, horrific storms, and pandemics. As our organization focuses on one of the most blatant examples of environmental abuse—the dispersal of toxic chemicals across the landscape—we see that organic can be a big part of the solution, but only if it doesn’t stray from its core values and practices.

From its beginning, organic production has been supported as a holistic approach to protecting health and the environment, with a deep conviction that food production could operate in sync with nature while remaining mindful of interrelationships with the natural world. Organic is not just an alternative for people seeking better food or a more profitable way of farming, but a path to preventing total ecological collapse. We are not interested in what is less harmful. We urgently want to prevent ecological disaster.

2.  According to the regulations, organic production responds to site-specific conditions by integrating cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Meeting these goals, essential to a sustainable future, requires strong adherence to organic standards. 

3. Do Not Allow Virgin Paper from Wood in Organic Crop Production Aids. The Crops Subcommittee proposes to allow planting aids—including paper pots, seed tape, and plant collars—made from virgin paper. Virgin paper—especially virgin paper from wood pulp—results in much greater environmental impacts than recycled paper and does not foster cycling of resources. 

4. Get Plastic Out of Organic. Scientists are increasingly concerned about the impacts of microplastics—plastic fragments less than 5 mm in size. Microplastics cause harmful effects through physical impacts of entanglement and ingestion. They also carry toxic chemicals on their surface. Synthetic mulches should not replace natural mulches like hay, straw, and wood chips. The annotation of bioplastic film should not loosen restrictions. 

5. Protect Marine Life. We are concerned about the impacts of overharvesting and destructive harvesting of seaweeds and fish byproducts used as inputs in organic crop production. The requirements proposed by the Materials Subcommittee should be adopted by the NOSB, along with strong enforcement provisions. The Crops Subcommittee proposal on fish products is too weak because it is unenforceable and allows the commercial use of bycatch. Only fish byproducts from postconsumer waste should be allowed as soil inputs.

Thank you.